‘A River’s Reckoning’ Highlights Unusual Partners, Remarkable Success for Colorado Headwaters

The headwaters of the Colorado River in Grand County, Colorado is not the state’s largest river, but its importance as a water source looms large. A litany of federal agencies, regional authorities, local governments, and individual land owners rely on the river to meet both human and wildlife needs. This quiet stretch of mountain stream boasts a national park, three on-channel federal reservoirs, gold medal fisheries, dozens of family ranches, and world-class whitewater. For almost 100 years its story has been one of man versus nature, city versus rancher, locals versus outsiders.

This history of conflict and litigation makes the story of the Irrigators of Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK) a notable departure from the norm. The new film, “A River’s Reckoning,” from American Rivers and Trout Unlimited tells how Paul Bruchez, a young 4th generation Colorado rancher and fly-fishing guide, brought his neighbors together to implement projects that both improved the fishery and the ranchers’ access to irrigation water. River Network supported production of this film because we believe it is a remarkable example of cooperation and success. It shows how regional stream management planning, which River Network supports in Colorado  through education and direct assistance, is a win-win for water users and the environment.

In the early 2000s, the difficult dance of managing multiple needs on the river came to a head. Federal agencies were preparing environmental reviews for two projects that would take more water from the river, destined for users on the other side of the mountains. Rather than continue what some thought was an unwinnable fight, local government officials started a multi-year process to identify the river’s needs. Grand County’s Stream Management Plan  identified flows necessary to keep the river healthy, evaluated the amount of water needed to support fish, and targeted stream segments to determine where restoration work was needed most.

This county-wide strategy for river health provided the leadership needed to spur area ranchers into action. They knew the river wasn’t adequately meeting either their needs or the needs of the fish, but collective action seemed far off. Local rancher Paul Bruchez, with the help of Trout Unlimited  and the local basin roundtable, united his neighbors as the Irrigators of Lands in the Vicinity of Kremmling (ILVK). Since 2014 the group has spearheaded a study of local river health, piloted habitat enhancement projects, and found river-friendly ways of improving their access to needed irrigation water.

All that was needed to make a bigger impact was adequate funding. Bruchez reached out to Trout Unlimited’s Mely Whiting, who thought that the newfound cooperation between ranchers, local government, and conservationists could be just the ticket. In 2016, Whiting and the ILVK ranchers received approval for a far-sighted grant request to the Natural Resources Conservation Service for $7.75 million, $2.5 million of which would help the ranchers restore 12 miles of the Colorado River. The project aims to improve cold-water fish populations and help ILVK ranchers better access the irrigation water they need for hay and cattle operations.

The county’s leadership in stream management planning has paid off. “Agricultural users are happy with what we’re doing,” former Grand County Manager Lurline Curran says. “They’re not only using the money to increase their ability to access water, but they’re doing environmental work at the same time.”

Trout Unlimited works with other organizations committed to promoting Stream Management Plans across Colorado. “A River’s Reckoning” is a film collaboration between Trout Unlimited and American Rivers, with additional funding support from River Network. All three organizations are promoting Stream Management Plans for Colorado river basins. See other blogs in this series here and here.

For further information on Stream Management Plans, contact River Network’s Nicole Seltzer, nseltzer@rivernetwork.org, TU’s Richard Van Gytenbeek, richard.gytenbeek@tu.org, or American Rivers’ Matt Rice mrice@americanrivers.org.