After more than a decade, the River Protection Workgroup, tasked with drafting a regionwide approach to land and river management in Southwest Colorado, has disbanded because members could not reach a compromise.
“Water in the West is complicated and there are many, many interests,” said Marsha Porter-Norton, a facilitator for the group. “I think people left in a civil way ... and agreed to disagree.”
The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act was the River Protection Workgroup’s greatest success. The act was signed into law in 2014, designating 37,400 acres as wilderness area and 70,600 acres as a Special Management Area north of Durango.
The River Protection Workgroup was formed 10 years ago to draft legislation to present to Congress that would balance protecting the natural values of waterways in the region while allowing water development to continue.
In 2007, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management released a draft forest management plan for Southwest Colorado. In it, a study identified several rivers and streams that qualified for a Wild and Scenic River designation.
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created in 1968 by Congress to “preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”
The Forest Service, by law, must identify which rivers are “suitable” for such a listing, a non-binding administrative label that carries some protections but serves as more of the agency’s recommendation.
An official Wild and Scenic Rivers designation would have to be passed through Congress through drafted legislation, usually pushed by a consensus of local, interested stakeholders.
The study spanned a five-river system and its tributaries, which included the Animas River above Bakers Bridge, Hermosa Creek, the Los Pinos River and Vallecito Creek, the East and West forks of the San Juan River and the Piedra River.
Durango-based environmental group San Juan Citizens Alliance proposed forming a workgroup to look at what sort of management plan may work for the region.
Representatives from various interest groups partnered to form the River Protection Workgroup, including SJCA, the Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited and the Southwestern Water Conservation District – the entity tasked with developing water resources in the Southwest basin.
Over the past decade, the group held up to 24 meetings in each river basin to get a sense of how nearby residents and water users would like to see the land and water managed.
The group’s most notable success was in 2014, when after six years of negotiations, the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act was signed into law, designating 37,400 acres as wilderness area and 70,600 acres as a Special Management Area in the San Juan Mountains, north of Durango.
“That act represented one of the most innovative ways of looking at managing lands in a watershed and is looked at as a model of coming together,” Porter-Norton said. “Not only in Colorado, but in the country.”
But as negotiations came down to the wire, the group was unable to agree on a regionwide package.
The Southwestern Water Conservation District offered to place Hermosa Creek on the Wild and Scenic list, which would have been the second river in Colorado to carry such a designation, but only if the other rivers were dropped from consideration.
However, SJCA argued that Hermosa Creek is already highly protected through the 2014 act, and conservation efforts would be giving up a lot to have all those other segments taken out of the Wild and Scenic designation.
The final blow was the language in the draft legislation concerning new water projects. SWCD agreed to no new “major impoundments” on the Animas and Piedra within a quarter mile of the river corridor.
But conservation groups wanted more of a concrete definition of “major impoundment,” fearing there could be loopholes for large-scale construction projects, which could possibly affect the wild quality of the rivers.
Trout Unlimited was on board with the deal, but SJCA and the Wilderness Society were ultimately unsatisfied.
“One of the reasons to do this (workgroup) was to avoid litigation,” said Jimbo Buickerood of SJCA. “Because there was no concrete definition (of major impoundments), we didn’t see it as progress, and that there could be litigation in the future.”
Bruce Whitehead, executive director of SWCD, said it is the water district’s responsibility to ensure existing and future water needs, and that some of the environmental group’s demands would have conflicted with that mission. “It’s critical for us to maintain those balances,” Whitehead said. “(The group) just kept coming back around and talking about the same issues, and eventually it ran its course.”
On May 19, members of the River Protection Workgroup dissolved.
While the group wasn’t able to achieve its intended goal with a region-wide plan, it does have the Hermosa Creek act to mark as a success, as well as years of studies and public input, Porter-Norton said.
“It can be disappointing at times to not have produced a regional package, but they wanted something out there thoroughly vetted by the community,” Porter-Norton said. “They just didn’t get there.”
For now, attempts to pursue a Wild and Scenic designation or even a regional approach to land management in Southwest Colorado are stalled, Whitehead said.
“We’re optimistic,” Whitehead said. “But in the short term, there’s probably not much moving forward.”