Why you should care about the state of the river

No matter your background, water plays a vital role in your day-to-day life. Like other necessities, it can be easy to take for granted, but a lack of it will quickly impact every facet of life. Businesses, for instance, can’t operate without reliable running water, lawns/fields go brown as municipal and agricultural users alike cut back on irrigation to prioritize critical needs, industrial operations weigh costs of doing business, and regional ecological health suffers as stream flows drop below levels sustainable for aquatic organisms.

In Rio Blanco County, the primary source of water is, well, the Rio Blanco, Spanish for “White River.” Historically, the White River has been “un-managed” compared to many other streams and rivers in the state.

Though irrigators, industrial users and municipalities are still expected to abide by mandated water allocations, residents in the Northwest Colorado region have so far enjoyed water use that is loosely monitored, if at all. Due to state legislation, declining precipitation/stream flows and Colorado’s obligation to deliver a certain amount of water to lower-basin western states, that state of affairs is set to change.

“The White River is part of a bigger system,” said Liz Chandler, coordinator of the Planning Advisory Committee for the White River Integrated Water Initiative (WRIWI). The locally-driven effort, which involves community stakeholders aims to establish a framework to guide future water use decisions and maintain some level of local control over water. Chandler explained the importance of the process amid mounting pressure on the Colorado River, its tributaries and by extension 40 million Americans who rely on its water as a result of declining snowpack/runoff and record low water levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

“Those big river issues may come back upstream into the White River,” said Chandler, “and so the more people [that] can be involved in this water initiative, the more control the White River basin is going to have of its own water,” said Chandler. 

WRIWI Project Coordinator Kari Brennan said even though water has always been a hot topic, understanding or at least being aware of the issue and how it impacts your life is more important than ever, regardless of how much water you use or the way you use it. “The future is unknown, and yet with that given, we need to be prepared,” said Brennan, adding “whether you are involved in agriculture, or just use it municipally in your home, recreational, any of that, it’s good to know what’s going on, and also have a voice. This is the opportunity to have a say in what the White River Basin does with our water.”

The White River Integrated Water Initiative is now in its second phase, and comes as a result of the 2016 Colorado Water Plan, which among other things, set a goal to have 80% of the state’s rivers, streams and critical watersheds under “management plans” by 2030. 

 “So the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts looked at that and said this is an opportunity that we need to jump on,” Brennan said, noting the Districts also wanted to keep the process local, and thus spearheaded the initiative by establishing a planning advisory committee to lead the process. They also facilitated a series of public input meetings for different sections or “reaches” of the river (upper, middle, lower and Piceance) to determine priorities for the initiative. 

Weighing public engagement and various stakeholder interests, the PAC developed a mission statement and goals for the initiative, moving the process into its current phase. The mission statement defines WRIWI as “community-based initiative to identify actions promoting a healthy river that ensures a vibrant agricultural community and maintains healthy fisheries while protecting water rights, quantity, and quality with respect for the local customs, cultures, and property rights.” 

The four goals of the initiative.

Protect and preserve existing water rights and other beneficial water uses.

Protect and enhance water quantity and quality through promoting best management practices for a) forest health b) riparian health c) rangeland health d) favorable conditions of streamflow.

Identify opportunities for creation of infrastructure to support efficient consumptive and non consumptive uses.

Support the development and maintenance of efficient and necessary long term storage solutions that will improve, enhance and ensure irrigation, river health, water quantity, water quality and native/recreational fisheries.

As of this week, PAC members were still discussing some of the specific language in the goals and mission statement for final approval. 

Another outcome of the process so far has been to identify local projects to achieve the plan’s goals. To do this, PAC members have been conducting assessments along the river in two categories: diversion and riparian health. 

Potential diversion-related projects might add, improve or upgrade existing water diversion structures commonly used by agricultural and industrial users. A prime example would be the installation of a weir, a water measuring device. Riparian health projects, on the other hand, would aim to address such issues as erosion, vegetation and other metrics of stream health.

These assessments are provided to landowners, which they can use to pursue grants and/or cost sharing proposals to fund the projects.

Ideally, any projects identified would not only help improve the health of the watershed, but could also put landowners a step ahead of new state-level water measurement rules coming down the pipeline.

WRIWI coordinators Kari Brennan and Liz Chandler said that by documenting conditions along the river, the assessments also establish a detailed overview of the White River Basin for future reference. “Five years down the road, 10 years down the road, we can see is the trend improving, is the trend stable, is it degrading, because we’ll have evidence, and we’ve got a really good snapshot of the river right now,” Chandler explained. 

Moving forward, additional meetings for all four of the delineated reaches of the White River basin will allow for more public input into the process. The PAC will then work to consolidate public input to identify a scope of work for phase three of the process.

To learn more about the White River Integrated Water Initiative, go to https://wrcd-dccd.colorado.gov/projects/white-river-integrated-water-initiative 

You can also reach out to reach Project Coordinator Kari Brennan at kari.districts@gmail.com and PAC Coordinator Liz Chandler at liz.districts@akvwallergmail-com

By LUCAS TURNER | lucas@ht1885.com

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