Supporting Stream Management Planning in Colorado

In 2016, the State of Colorado adopted the Colorado Water Plan which sets forth a water management roadmap to achieve a productive economy, vibrant and sustainable cities, productive agriculture, a strong environment, and a robust recreation industry. Specific to protecting and enhancing stream flows, the plan calls for 80 percent of locally prioritized rivers to be covered by Stream Management Plans by 2030. This goal builds upon years of conversation, research and some action to build a methodology to develop data-driven water management and physical project recommendations capable of protecting or enhancing environmental and recreational values on streams and rivers.

A well-developed Stream Management Plan uses biological, hydrological, geomorphological and other data to assess the flows or other physical conditions that are needed to support collaboratively identified environmental and/or recreational values. It uses this assessment to identify and prioritize management actions to maintain or improve flow regimes and other physical conditions at a reach scale.

In 2017, the State of Colorado allocated $5 million to a grant program to develop projects and plans that protect or restore watershed health and stream function. This funding has kick-started local interest across Colorado to develop Stream Management Plans.

A handful of communities have pioneered methodologies, including a collaborative coalition on the Crystal River through the Town of Carbondale, and the City of Ft. Collins’ assessment of the Poudre River. However, to meet the goal in Colorado’s Water Plan of covering 80 percent of locally prioritized streams with plans, much more needs to be done.

Taking advantage of rare boatable flows on the Dolores River in southwest Colorado in Spring 2017 © Nicole Seltzer/River Network

River-related recreation on Colorado’s western slope currently accounts for $6.4 billion in annual direct expenditures, and in the six counties that make up the headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries, tourism—including fishing and rafting—is the main economic driver. Many communities in the state have an economic interest in maintaining healthy rivers but few have developed strategies to comprehensively protect streamflows.

To address this gap, River Network, with support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Gates Family Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, has launched a two-year project to enlarge the pipeline of local coalitions that are interested, ready and capable of undertaking stream management plans.

The project focuses on three areas:

  • education to a broad constituency on what a stream management plan is, how and why communities undertake them and what lessons they’ve learned;
  • fostering cooperation among Colorado’s water management, NGO, academic, and research and science communities to help meet the capacity and knowledge needs of local coalitions as they initiate stream management planning;
  • and direct support to local coalitions as they scope, write and fundraise for their plan.

As more communities come together to examine river health and flow-related management strategies, and as plans are completed, we will share more examples and lessons here.

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