Outstanding Waters
Hermosa Creek gains top designation

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A biker takes a break on a bridge over Hermosa Creek to study t... xxxxx./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Will Sands

Hermosa Creek recently moved a step closer to status as one of Colorado’s finest streams. The local creek and its entire drainage were designated as “” in a precedent-setting move June 12. The merit not only recognizes top water quality, it protects the stream from any future activities that could degrade that quality.

Hermosa Creek has attained notoriety for a variety of reasons. It is surrounded by the 145,000-acre Hermosa Creek Roadless Area, one of the state’s largest. The creek’s east fork harbors one of the purest populations of native cutthroat trout in the region. The legendary Hermosa Creek Trail bisects the roadless area and is a boon to cyclists, hikers, equestrians and motorcyclists. And now Hermosa Creek is the first stretch of water outside a wilderness area or national park to receive the Outstanding Waters designation.

“Most of the streams inside designated wilderness are Outstanding Waters,” noted Chuck Wanner, water issues coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “But there’s no place other than Hermosa Creek in Colorado where Outstanding Waters has been designated outside wilderness or the national park system.”

Outstanding Waters represents the highest level of protection for rivers and streams and is designated by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. The group examines a dozen criteria within the entire watershed ranging from aquatic life to metals load to recreational qualities. The group’s findings determine whether a stream is worthy of Outstanding Waters or a lesser level of protection.

“The highest standard for water quality in the state is Outstanding Waters,” explained Wanner. “The standard says that you cannot do anything in the watershed that will degrade the quality of the water.”

Hermosa Creek also presents an added twist on Outstanding Waters. Not only is the Hermosa drainage one of Durango’s most popular recreation corridors, it also sustains a variety of commercial interests. Eighteen separate special permit holders operate upstream from Hermosa Creek, and they include ranchers, outfitters and the largest, Durango Mountain Resort.

“Everything that’s there works,” Wanner said. “All of the traditional uses fit this scenario. They’ve been conducted carefully enough to not impact the quality of the water.”

And they will be permitted to continue to conduct careful business, according to Paul Frohardt, administrator of the Water Quality Control Commission. One of the key aspects of the recent designation is that it remain business-as-usual upstream of Hermosa Creek.

“The designation means that regular activities within that basin should not lead to a worsenin of the water quality,” Frohardt said. “The commission made it clear in their ruling that the existing activities are concurrent with the high quality of the water.”

Future activities in the Hermosa basin will face a higher standard, however. Additional public lands grazing, huge growth in recreation or large-scale logging will likely face an uphill battle because of the designation.

“Basically, you can’t go in there and mess it up,” Wanner explained. “The water is what ties a basin together. This Outstanding Waters means that as we manage that land, we’ll have to be conscious of how our actions affect water quality.”

Prior to last week’s designation, a variety of stakeholders gathered at the table over nearly two years. Interests including outfitters, San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Hermosa Ditch Co., Colorado Trout Unlimited, DMR and others all found consensus around the preservation of Hermosa Creek. For the ski area, Outstanding Waters is the latest in a series of strides toward enhancing the drainage.

In a 1991 land swap, DMR and the Forest Service exchanged resort holdings in the Hermosa Creek headwaters for land currently being developed east of the resort. That exchange kicked off the initial effort to preserve native cutthroat trout habitat in the Hermosa Park area. Then, late in 2003, DMR retired all of its water rights in Hermosa Creek, a whopping 1,351 acre-feet. That water will now flow through the stream for perpetuity. DMR CEO Gary Derck added that the resort’s support of Outstanding Waters is the latest step to enhance one of the San Juan Mountains greatest assets.

“From the initiation of the land swap to protect Hermosa Creek, to the donation of the senior water rights there, Durango Mountain Resort has been dedicated to maintaining the pristine quality and health of the Hermosa drainage,” Derck said. “We are extremely pleased to have been part of the first designated ‘Outstanding Waters’ outside of a wilderness area, and look forward to continuing to lead the environmental effort in north La Plata County.” •



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