Keeping Colorado’s Crystal River wet

Crystal River, Gunnison County, Colorado. Carol Highsmith, 2015, Courtesy Library of Congress

Sarah Tory had an interesting piece Friday about an effort to keep water in Colorado’s Crystal River, a tributary of the Roaring Fork (Carbondale area, or Aspen for those of a certain geographical bent). Tory’s piece does a good job of explaining the institutional complexities of an agreement that spans potentially both opportunities for exploiting shared values but also risks of conflicting interests among a rancher, the state water rights regime, county government, and an NGO (the Colorado Water Trust).

It’s an interesting case study because it doesn’t involve fallowing land or some other sort of water use reduction on the Cold Mountain Ranch, but rather a re-timing of the ranch’s seasonal water use to put some more water in the Crystal in August and September.

The new deal is the culmination of a multiyear effort to help boost streamflows in the Crystal River, which runs from the Elk Mountains above Marble to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River at Carbondale.

During the drought of 2012, demand for water outpaced supply and the Crystal went dry, prompting the Water Trust to look for new sources of water for the river’s benefit.

Although the Colorado Water Conservation Board has an environmental instream flow right on the Crystal, the water right dates from 1975, far lower in priority than the major agricultural water rights on the Crystal – and thus is of little to no use when the river most needs water.

The folks involved in the project seem to have found a way to overcome some complex “use it or lose it” water rights problems associated with Colorado’s “doctrine of prior appropriation”. It’s an interesting example of the multi-faceted structure of these complex deals, seems hopeful, offers some great institutional learning, and makes me wonder about how examples like this can be scaled up.

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