Press "Enter" to skip to content

Trout Unlimited targets empty riverbeds

Brief by Central Staff

Wildlife – February 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Rivers ought to have water in them, but Colorado’s water laws often produce dry streambeds that hurt both the economy and the environment. Thus some changes are necessary, according to a report issued in January by Trout Unlimited.

The 16-page report, A Dry Legacy: The Challenge for Colorado’s Rivers, argues that our rivers, “and the public values they support, are at risk from the combination of growing demands for water and a legal system that was not designed to balance water uses with the needs of rivers themselves.”

That system relies on courts to award water rights, which generally require that water be diverted from its natural course. “Colorado water courts cannot consider whether a water right application is in the public interest or has unacceptable environmental effects. The courts cannot deny a right because it would dry up a great fishing hole or degrade an endangered species’ habitat.”

A Dry Legacy points to 10 streams as examples of how Colorado water law can reduce stream flows to levels that will not support fish, or dry the river entirely. Among the streams listed are the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, Cache la Poudre near Fort Collins, Snowmass Creek in Pitkin County, South Boulder Creek, San Miguel River, La Plata, Bear Creek west of Denver, and the North Fork of the Gunnison around Paonia.

Another is the Conejos River below Platoro Reservoir in Conejos County, where biologists recommend a minimum flow of 30 cfs (cubic feet per second, or cusecs; a cfs produces 646,300 gallons per day). However, the winter release is only 7 cfs, and “these low flows leave little of the deeper pool habitat that larger, adult trout need to survive and thrive.”

The San Luis Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited couldn’t put more water in the stream, but “worked to make the best of this situation through habitat improvements to create deeper holding waters for trout” on two miles of stream below the reservoir.

Also among the 10 featured streams is the South Arkansas (Little River) west of Salida, which has a small hydro-electric plant on its banks, and another nearby on a tributary, Foose’s Creek. The plants, owned by Xcel Energy, divert water from the streams to power generators. At times of low flow, such diversions can take all the water from the stream.

Or could until recently. One condition of renewing the plants’ federal power plant licenses in 1997 was a four-phase plan to maintain minimum streamflows. “So far, the first phase flows have had only limited benefits. Although a bare minimum flow has been restored in two locations that were once virtually dry, flow conditions on the South Arkansas remain far below National Forest standards and Foose’s Creek, a key tributary, remains essentially dry from August through May over a nearly three-mile stretch.”

To improve habitat on the Little River, Trout Unlimited recommends “better enforcement and stronger licensing requirements” by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Forest Service.

More generally, TU recommends stronger enforcement of the constitutional ban on wasting water, making it easier for federal agencies to protect streamflows on public lands, and giving the Colorado Water Conservation Board more money to buy senior water rights for in-stream flows.

The full report is available free from Trout Unlimited, Colorado Water Project, 1966 13th Street Suite LL60, Boulder CO 80302; 303-440-2937. It can be downloaded in Adobe PDF format from — but unless you’ve got a high-speed connection, be patient, because it takes up 7 megabytes.