Public comment tonight

Conservationists want water policy to account for environment

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Conservationists meeting here Tuesday night said the Colorado Water Conservation Board needs to place greater emphasis on environmental and recreational needs in its ongoing assessment of the state's water supply.

Municipal, industrial and agricultural needs are being evaluated on a separate level from environmental and recreational needs," Kent Vertrees said. "The environment and recreation need to be on the same level."

Vertrees serves on the Yampa/White River Basin Roundtable, which is part of the broader Statewide Water Supply Initiative. The initiative is being undertaken by the conservation board to evaluate existing water supplies in Colorado, compare them with anticipated demand and consider possible means of meeting those needs.

The conservation board will meet with the Yampa/White roundtable at 2 p.m. today at the Holiday Inn in Craig. That meeting will culminate with public comment scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday's meeting in Steamboat was planned to inform river advocates and stakeholders. A dozen people, including ranchers, anglers and paddlers attended.

The population of Colorado is expected to grow by as many as 2.5 million people in the next 26 years. After several years of drought, the CWCB obtained $2.8 million in funding from the legislature to undertake the SWSI.

Drew Peternell, a water attorney working for Trout Unlimited, said his organization's first recommendation to the CWCB is that it seek to improve water conservation across the state. An example might be encouraging farmers and ranchers to line irrigation ditches to reduce the amount of river water that is lost when it seeps into the ground.

"Our main challenge in this state is making sure we have adequate flows to maintain fish populations," Peternell said.

Hayden area rancher Ron Murphy said he's worried that water conserved in Colorado would only end up being passed downstream to users in other states.

Vertrees said he would be pleased if conservation efforts merely served to forestall the day when a growing population consumes more water than the state has.

Murphy pointed out that lining irrigation ditches with concrete is an expense most farmers and ranchers cannot bear.

"State funded programs would drastically increase the possibility of that happening," Murphy said.

Mike Tetreault of the Nature Conservancy in Steamboat Springs said he's far less concerned with water consumption by agriculture than he is with the ways in which water development has altered the annual rhythms of a river such as the Yampa.

Scientists call the annual cycle of peaks, valleys and plateaus in a river's flow the "hydrograph." Tetreault said he worries that the cumulative effect of new dams and newly expanded dams drastically would reduce the annual peak flow, which is a critical part of the life cycle of streamside plants and fishes.

"Nobody in the state is thinking about peak flows," Tetreault said.

Efforts to protect instream flows in the state's major rivers ensure only a bare minimum of water year round and fails to take into account the cycles the river naturally would go through, Tetreault added.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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