Durango Telegraph - Setting up the rules for recreation: Hearing set for Sept. 12
Setting up the rules for recreation: Hearing set for Sept. 12

New West and Old West appear to be at odds over the dedication of water to in-stream uses like whitewater boating. This conflict will take center stage in Durango on Sept. 12, when the Colorado Water Conservation Board hosts a rule-making hearing at the Iron Horse Inn.

Recreational in-channel diversions preserve water in streams for recreational uses like kayaking and rafting and are often tied to whitewater parks. Since they were created by 2001’s Senate Bill 216, a handful of municipalities have taken advantage of them, including Vail, Golden and Breckenridge. The diversions are administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, but some feel recreation does not get the same treatment as agriculture or municipal development.

“The Colorado Water Conservation Board has a history of wanting to have a lot of control over this particular type of water right,” explained Chuck Wanner, water issues coordinator with San Juan Citizens Alliance.

Wanner said that the board’s heavy-handedness with

recreational diversions is a reflection of a greater prejudice against the rights by traditional water users.

“The people of Colorado have spoken, and recreational in-channel diversions are legitimate under the law,” Wanner said. “However, there are a lot of people who believe they are not a legitimate use of the river. In spite of their importance to a recreation-based economy, there have been a lot of attempts to constrain them.”

Wanner argued that Colorado water law is constantly evolving, and it’s now time to take another leap. “Water law needs to change again,” he said. “Right now agricultural use is not expanding in the state. Recreational use is.”

The water conservation board argues that it is not heavy-handed with the diversions, but is simply trying to wade through a new program. Ted Kowalski, manager of the recreational in-channel diversion program for the water board, countered that the board has greater responsibilities when dealing with the in-stream rights.

“Because recreational in-channel diversions can require such a large amount of water, I think the board’s responsibilities are heightened in this circumstance,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance.”

Kowalski added that the law governing recreational in-stream diversions is still murky, a factor the board hopes to address in part with the Sept. 12 hearing. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the state of Colorado who’s arguing these water rights don’t exist,” he said. “There’s just always disagreement about what the minimum flow should be. The words themselves were not defined by the general assembly, and they provided very little guidance.”

Next Tuesday’s hearing takes place from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Iron Horse ballroom. Kowalski said that the period from 4 to 4:30 p.m. has been tentatively proposed for an open public comment period. For more information, log onto www.cwcb.state.co.us.

– Will Sands