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Trout Unlimited and the Colorado Water Project

June 15, 2011
Author: Admin

Trout Unlimited doing the hard work to protect fishing and natural resources through Colorado Water Project

Working to give conservation a voice in often competing interests for water, TU has notched a number of successes in Colorado and the West

Water law in the Western United States, including Colorado, is a complex amalgam of rules, rights and standards amassed over 100+ years and involving numerous states and the federal government. There are often highly competitive interests seeking to secure water rights throughout the state and the region. Most notable are larger cities and developers, who wish to secure water and/or build storage facilities and dams in support of growth, particularly in areas that have experienced enormous population gains over the last 20 to 30 years.

While water is obviously very important to the booming cities along Colorado’s Front Range, as well as for dry-land agricultural interests across the Eastern Plains, the securing of water rights and related proposals for water storage facilities threatens stream flows and poses a risk to the wild places in the state including the habitats of many fish species. With improper management of the state’s water resources many of the prime fishing areas could be at risk.

Fortunately, organizations such as Trout Unlimited (TU) have teamed with stakeholders here in Colorado and throughout the West to fight for water rights and to protect stream flows that preserve fish habitats and other river-based recreation opportunities. TU is a member of the Western Water Project, a group comprised of fishing, wildlife and conservation partners in six Western states, and a prime mover behind the Colorado Water Project.

At Trout’s Fly Fishing of Denver, the West’s premier fly fishing shop and educational resource center, we’re not lawyers or water law experts, but we support any efforts to protect our state and regional streams for world-class fishing now and into the future. We thought we’d share some of the challenges and successes that these initiatives are delivering to fishing fans, and to the public at large.

Here are some of those efforts:

  • Many rivers and streams in Colorado are heavily depleted, lacking the flows necessary to sustain healthy coldwater fisheries. Since its inception in 1998, Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project has worked to address this problem. The Water Project has defeated water diversion and storage projects that would diminish river flows, has helped to pass several pieces of legislation expanding the state instream flow program, and has created dialogue among water providers regarding ways to develop water supplies without damaging Colorado’s rivers and fisheries. Trout Unlimited is the only group in Colorado dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring stream flows and rivers.

  • In 2005, in Colorado’s state water courts, TU defeated a proposal known as the AB Lateral Hydropower Project. This project would have diverted enormous quantities of water from the Gunnison River to a new hydropower plant to be built in the Uncompahgre River basin. The project would have decimated both rivers, inundating the Uncompahgre and draining the Gunnison just above the Black Canyon National Park and its gold medal trout fishery. TU was able to demonstrate to the French energy company underwriting the project that even though its local partners owned water rights for the project, due to the relative junior standing of those rights, water would not be available every year to run the project turbines, thus substantially decreasing the value of the hydropower.

  • Temperature Standards: In 2007 the Colorado Water Project and Colorado Trout Unlimited succeeded in gaining temperature standards for Colorado rivers. The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission approved new standards for water temperature at its January hearing, adopting standards that will protect Colorado fisheries for decades to come.

  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison: In 2006, the Water Project won a key legal battle to prevent the federal government from giving away much of its instream water right for the Black Canyon National Park to fuel more Front Range development.

  • Dry Gulch/San Juan River: In June 2007, the Water Project argued before the Supreme Court on a proposed reservoir that would divert large volumes of water from the San Juan River. TU argues that the reservoir is far larger than needed for the Pagosa Springs area and that the excessive diversions will harm the fishery.

  • Bypass Flows: Since 1995, CTU and the Colorado Water Project have successfully led the fight to defend the current law that allows federal agencies to require minimum flows below water projects on federal lands; while the issue potentially affects more than 8,000 diversions on federal lands, the focal point is chronically-dewatered tributaries of Colorado’s only designated wild and scenic river, the Cache la Poudre.

  • Upper CO: In 2006, the Water Project secured better flows in the fabled Upper Colorado River after water diversions to the Front Range temporarily reduced flows to dangerously low levels; CTU and the Colorado Water Project are now working with the transbasin diverters and state and federal water managers to secure better year round flows and to ensure that new water diversions from the Fraser, Colorado and Blue rivers do not harm the rivers or their trout.

  • Recreational In-Channel Diversion Water Rights: Colorado law allows local governments to obtain legally recognized water rights for in-the-river recreational purposes, such as kayak courses; when traditional water users and the state challenged these limited rights in the Colorado courts and legislature, the Colorado Water Project joined with local communities and recreational interests to defend them.

  • Dry Legacy: In 2002 and 2003, the Water Project released reports demonstrating the impacts of dewatering on 10 rivers across the state; in response to this report and the outreach effort accompanying it, CTU and the Colorado Water Project secured several improvements in state water law, including a provision that allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to acquire water rights that restore streams (and not just maintain minimum flows) and other provisions that make it easier to leave water in rivers during periods of drought.

  • Advocating for Expansion of the State’s Instream Flow Program: In Colorado, private parties cannot lease water to improve instream flows. The Colorado Water Project is beginning to work with elected officials and water users to discuss the possibility of legislation that would create a private leasing program for Colorado.

  • Water Rights Acquisitions: Colorado Water Project staff works with TU chapters and private landowners to identify water rights holders willing to use their water rights in ways that allow additional stream flows when fish need it most. We also work on agreements under which senior water rights are donated to the CWCB instream flow program and can provide legal assistance and technical expertise for specific habitat and flow restoration projects.

This is only a sampling of the work done by Trout Unlimited in protecting Colorado rivers and stream flows, and much of the same work is being undertaken by the Western Water Project in the five other Western states. Appealing to such entities as water conservation boards, proposing legislation in the various state legislatures, and going to court when necessary, TU and other interests are doing the hard work to protect the wonderful natural resources of rivers and streams for all of us and future generations. For more information on these efforts visit Trout Unlimited’s national website at and the Colorado chapter’s at Also see

For all of your fly fishing needs, from flies and equipment, to lessons and a full range of fly fishing education, as well as fishing reports and ideas for guides and fly fishing advertures, call Trout’s Fly Fishing at 877-464-0034.

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