Wealth and whitewater
New report details impact of local river industry

A group of soon-to-be rafters listens to a safety talk while two practice the proper technique for pulling a fallen comrade back into the boat at the 32nd Street put-in earlier this week. A recent report commissioned by the city found that whitewater recreation is a nearly $20 million industry in Durango every year./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Missy  Votel

There’s no question that whitewater is big business in Durango, but just how big has been anybody’s guess. A new study commissioned in March by the City of Durango attempts to get a handle on that million-dollar question, or $20 million to be more precise.

Local firm RPI Consulting recently released “Economic Impacts of Whitewater Recreation,” a report detailing the effect of rafting and kayaking on the local economy. Using data gleaned from various sources, including the 2005 Outdoor Recreation and Participation Study and the Colorado Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), as well as local whitewater recreation companies, the study concluded that river recreation pumps $19.4 million into the local economy every year. Furthermore, this flow shows no signs of tapering off, with the industry expected to bring in as much as $23 million by the year 2015.

“The report indicates how valuable a recreational resource the river is to Durango,” said Dave Wegner, of the local river conservation group, Animas Riverkeepers, formerly Friends of the Animas River. “We need to take into consideration what this means to the economic future of Durango and what draws people to the area.”

The city will be armed with the results of the report as it heads into a preliminary hearing with the Colorado Water Conservation Board on Mon., July 24, at Fort Lewis College. The purpose of the meeting is to consider the city’s recent application for recreational in-channel diversion rights, or RICDs.

“We have to show beneficial use – in a nutshell that’s the baseline for Colorado water law,” said Durango Director of Parks and Recreation Cathy Metz, who will be one of several presenters talking on behalf of the city.

Once testimony – both pro and con – is heard, the board will recommend to the Colorado Water Court whether or not to approve the application.

The city submitted the application on Feb. 28 for between 185 and 1,400 cfs of in-stream flow, depending on the season, for the proposed Smelter Boating Park on the Animas River. The park would include five control structures, or play features, over the course of about 1,200 feet. The upgrades to the park, which was the first of its kind in the nation when built in the late-’80s, would cost an estimated $500,000, with work slated for 2009.

Metz said whitewater recreation is a viable source of income for the city, with 10 commercial rafting and kayaking permits for the Animas River issued in 2005. The RICDs are just a way for the city to ensure that this revenue stream continues, as does the river that supports it.

“While the City of Durango is prepared to invest in these improvements, it is essential that the RICD water rights are secured prior to any construction,” she said. “The RICDs will protect the city’s investment in the Durango Boating Park and provide a reliable source of water for recreational use in the future.”

However, several groups and individuals have come out against all or part of the idea, including La Plata County, the Southwest Water Conservation District and Animas Valley Ditch Owners. Chief among the opposition’s concerns is that implementation of the in-stream water rights will deprive upstream users of future development water and fail to satisfy the Colorado River Compact, whereby water will flow, unused, out of state.

“Administration of the Durango RICD, as proposed, would impair the ability of Colorado to fully develop and place to consumptive beneficial use its compact entitlements,” wrote the conservation district in a pre-hearing statement to the state water board.

La Plata County also objects to the city’s application based upon concerns over the county’s upstream constituents and its future ability to develop water use for residents in the northern county.

Any future water rights applicants would be considered junior to the city and thus subject to availability, depending on flows.

The idea of RICDs is a somewhat new and controversial one in Colorado, with the state legislature approving them in 02002. Since then, several municipalities have acquired the rights, including Gunnison, Steamboat Springs and Golden, but not before rejection from the state water board and legal battles in state water court. Last spring, the Colorado Legislature passed another bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, meant to rein in the amount of water municipalities could request and further restricting parameters of the water rights. However, the city submitted its request before the new law, thus making it subject to the prior rules, Metz said. She also said the city is prepared for denial, viewing Monday’s hearing as more of one step in the process.

“Don’t be surprised if it’s denied,” she said. “Generally, the recommendation of the water conservation board is to deny such requests.”

From there, the city will move to Colorado Water Court, where its case will be heard at the La Plata County Courthouse by District Judge Gregory Lyman. The hearing is set for May of 2007. And although the state water board has already indicated a leaning toward denial in a pre-hearing statement, water court historically has had a different take, Metz noted.

“In the past, the water board has recommended against RICDs, but in every case, the judge has decided in favor of RICD applications. That gives us an idea of what we’ll be up against.” •

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