Grassroots river protection
New River Protection Workgroup looks to the public for solutions

SideStory: Getting a grip on water quality: Forum to address outdated regional plan

A fisherman tests the waters on the Animas earlier this week. A local River Protection Workgroup has formed, which will take a look at blancing things like recreation and natural values with development on the Upper San Juan Basin’s major drainages. The process kicks off with the Hermosa Creek Workgroup, which will meet next week./Photo David Halterman

by Missy Votel

As pressures mount on the West’s river basins, a local effort to navigate the tricky waters between protection and development has been launched.

The San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Southwestern Water Conservation District are heading up the River Protection Workgroup, a series of community meetings meant to help reconcile protection of the San Juan Basin’s more important drainages while allowing for continued water development.

“We were approached by the San Juan Citizens Alliance to see if we cold work on a grassroots effort,” said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwest Water Conservation District.

“The board agreed to sit down and talk with the intent to look at alternatives to providing protection while still allowing water development to take place.”

Over the course of the next five years, the workgroup will take a look at six local drainages: Hermosa Creek; San Juan River - East and West Forks; portions of the Upper Animas River; Piedra River - Middle and East Forks; the Pine River; and Vallecito Creek. The process will kick off with the Hermosa Creek Workgroup on April 8 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. For each drainage, 10 to 12 follow-up meetings will be held over the course of a year.

Organizers stress that anyone with an interest in any of the particular streams is encouraged to attend.

“We’re hoping to get a fairly broad-based sample of the community,” said Chuck Wanner, water issues coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “Anyone can come and have a seat at the table. Basically it comes down to people having enough willingness to participate.”

The workgroup will be mediated by local independent facilitator Marsha Porter Norton and follow a three-phased framework. In the first stage, background information on the stream will be discussed, followed by a second phase that will examine the stream’s social, economic, natural and cultural values as well as current stream protections. In the third and final stage, a range of potential options will be developed, ranging anywhere from a detailed action plan to no action at all.

“The idea is to look at all the values in a stream and see why it makes sense to preserve resources or use them as well,” Wanner said. “Based on the workgroup’s consensus, we’ll then make some plans for the drainages, which could range from doing nothing to going after Wild and Scenic status.”

Wanner noted that designation under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which requires congressional approval, is just one of the many tools available for protection. Others include the Colorado In-Stream Flow program, or special federal, state or local government protection. However, he noted that before any of these can be achieved, there must be general agreement among stakeholders. “We’re not trying to solve everyone’s problems,” he said. “But unless we get some sort of consensus, we’ll never be
able to get the state or federal legislatures to act on protection.”

Whitehead agreed that consensus is key. “The concern is that without folks in agreement, something like Wild and Scenic status may be hard to obtain,” he said.

In the latest draft of the San Juan National Forest’s management plan, several drainages were identified as having “outstandingly remarkable” Wild and Scenic attributes, with Hermosa Creek displaying the strongest qualities. Under the Wild and Scenic act, federal support for dams or other in-stream development that would adversely affect the river, are prohibited. Whitehead said such designation also comes with a federally reserved water right, which could affect consumptive and nonconsumptive uses, current and future. “That has been one of the concerns over the Wild and Scenic Act across the state,” he said. “That’s why we thought we’d discuss concerns now, before they mushroomed into a big fight.”

Whitehead stressed that the Hermosa Creek River Protection Workgroup is a separate effort from the discussion on mountain biking and the Hermosa Creek Wilderness Area proposed in the San Juan Public Lands Draft Management Plan. “We want to make sure people know this is a different process than the Forest Service plan,” he said. “Although the two may dovetail in the future, it really isn’t the forest plan we’re talking about.”

But this doesn’t mean the Forest Service, along with several other entities, haven’t been involved – and will continue to be – in the workgroup process. In late 2006, a River Protection Workgroup Steering Committee formed as an outgrowth of discussions between the SJCA and the Water Conservation District. When the need for a collaborative effort became apparent, other obvious stakeholders were brought into the public-planning process, including the San Juan Public Lands Center; Colorado Department of Natural Resources; Colorado Water Conservation Board; Southern Ute Tribe; representatives of U.S. Sens. Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard and U.S. Rep. John Salazar; The Nature Conservancy; and Wilderness Support Center.

However, Wanner noted this is by no means an all-inclusive list. “Part of the idea behind opening up the discussions was to have other stakeholders identify themselves,” he said. “The steering committee worked very hard to craft this as a transparent, democratic process that doesn’t shut anyone out.”

Whitehead agreed. “We’re not trying to guide the conversation,” he said. “We want to get people interested and discuss what uses are out there. Everyone is considered a stakeholder.”

Upon the conclusion of each workgroup, a report will be issued outlining any action plans that came from the process as well as potential partnerships. Details on upcoming meetings as well as maps, meeting minutes and agendas, and contacts can be found at:

Wanner noted that although the planning process has been set, the first series of meetings will serve to test the waters, so to speak. “We’re just going to run it up the flagpole and see how it flies,” he said.

Nevertheless, organizers expressed confidence. “Everyone is very optimistic at this point and believes this is the right process to use,” said Whitehead. “Hopefully, we can come up with some reasons for protecting natural values that still allow for future water development in this part of the state.” •