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Seeing the elephant at the watershed forum

Article by Sue Conroe

Water – June 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Quality, quantity, good news, education, and the future categorized discussion at the first Upper Arkansas Watershed Forum held April 7 and 8.

The plan, with no apologies from forum coordinator Jeffrey Keidel, was to find any and all diverse “players” interested in the Arkansas River watershed, and put them together under one roof for two days and see what co-operation, insights, and barrier-breaking could be spawned.

Consequently, plenty of green-and-white trucks with government tags inundated the Trails West complex just west of Buena Vista. The registration list of more than 150 participants and presenters was formidable: Colorado Department of Health, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, Soil Conservation, Division of Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, Lake, Chaffee and Fremont County commissioners, Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, Trout Unlimited, Arkansas River Outfitters Association, Colorado State Parks, municipalities, EPA, high school teachers, mining companies, Colorado Springs Water Department, U.S.Geologic Survey, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Forest Service and…the list goes on.

Who put up the money? The Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Division of Minerals & Geology, the EPA and the Sangre de Cristo Resource Conservation & Development Council, Inc. (This sounds like a new verse in the Arlo Guthrie song “Alice’s Restaurant.”)

The conference began with a parable skit about the blind men and the elephant in the land of stereotypes — who else, those same farmer/rancher types, recreation providers, municipalities, environmentalists and mining sorts. The moral of the story — and of the conference — was that even these xenophobic individuals could listen to one another, share perspectives and work together toward a common interest.

So what is the quality of the river? Well, it’s certainly being monitored — to a point that the audience questioned whether there is actually redundancy of effort by all the entities studying the Arkansas: USGS, DOW, State Health Department, private consulting firms, and Colorado State University graduate students. Most are analyzing water samples at points around Leadville and then intermittently down to Parkdale and finally a check on Pueblo Reservoir. It’s metals like zinc, cadmium, iron, copper and manganese they’re measuring. The DOW, of course, has already determined what levels are toxic to fish.

One effort to clean up water flowing into the Arkansas is ASARCO Mining Company’s water-treatment plant at the base of the YAK Tunnel in California Gulch just outside Leadville. The plant improves at least the zinc and cadmium levels in mine drainage waters before they flow into the river.

However, other drainages just downstream continue to exude metals at toxic levels, essentially countering the benefits upstream.

John Woodling, Colorado Division of Wildlife, summarized that there are not many fish older than three years in the Upper Arkansas, and since 1978, they’ve seen a reduction in size of trout. But he was quick to add that other variables, in addition to metals and mine drainages, affect the health of fish — flow changes, food, water hardness and alkalinity. When asked if the fish are okay to eat, he said yes.

Is there enough water to go around, that is, for everybody — agriculture, recreation, fisheries and fishing, √¶sthetic interests, and municipalities?

Speaking of cities, Colorado Springs aims to get its share. Unfortunately the city has a stake in Arkansas River water. Its Water Department laments that General Palmer was not wise in his choice for location of this city, with no major water sources to supply the growth that would occur. Yet, with three or four alternatives (a proposed dam at Elephant Rock north of Buena Vista as one), Colorado Springs is embarking to survey communities along the Upper Arkansas for opinions about economic and sociological impacts. Who knows what that implies, but it may be the opportunity for all opinions to be registered.

Another conference topic about the future of the Arkansas bears mention: the discussion about wild and scenic or national recreation area designation.

Some individuals would like to see the Arkansas designated officially as a “wild and scenic” river, with the idea that this would prohibit any large water projects, especially Elephant Rock Dam.

The Bureau of Land Management has instead chosen to draft a recommendation that would designate the upper Arkansas a “national recreation area.” This was chosen, rather than “wild and scenic,” because the BLM fears the probable federal restrictions and compromises that come with wild-and-scenic designations. These restrictions could control or limit large water projects which have no “pre-existing right” to be built.

THE MOST PROFOUND REVELATION is that the control really lies inside the affected counties. Whatever label the BLM puts on the river, the actual authority to govern what happens to the Arkansas in its course through Chaffee County lies in the Chaffee County commissioners.

According to Jeff Olinger, a seasoned professional planner, an Arkansas watershed resident, and conference attendee, the county’s 1041 regulations “provide the absolute decison-making and governing power to Chaffee County for local decisions on projects with potential impacts to citizens in the county.”

This truly seems to be the nugget we have in our pocket. Relying on state and federal regulator power seems a bit like fool’s gold.

Jeff Keidel, co-ordinator of this forum, is a former Buena Vista school teacher and currently works with the Sangre de Cristo Resource Conservation & Development Council. He did a great job planning and conducting this conference. No date was set for a second forum for Blind Men Experiencing The Elephant, but there was certainly plenty of interest.

Sue Conroe grew up in Salida and went off to get a journalism degree. Eventually she came to her senses, and now directs the Heart of the Rockies Chamber of Commerce.