Routt County ready to sign on to Trout Unlimited's Our Colorado River initiative

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— The Routt County Board of Commissioners signaled Tuesday that it will endorse Trout Unlimited’s collaborative Our Colorado River project through passage of a resolution. Our Colorado River aims to promote healthier streams and rivers in the Colorado River Basin by identifying and enabling stream improvement projects where the interests of the agriculture and recreation industries are in alignment.

“Our primary message is one of cooperation,” Van Gytenbeek said. “Our focus is on agriculture and on recreation and tourism. Together, those ... are a very powerful engine on the Western Slope.

The commissioners asked Gytenbeek to forward them a resolution recently passed by the Summit County commissioners in support of Our Colorado River, so they can do the same.

Gytenbeek said there are about 9,000 farms and ranches on Colorado’s Western Slope irrigating 750,000 acres that create $1 billion of economic benefit. The recreation industry that depends on water in the Colorado system represents $9 billion in economic impact when ski resorts are included together with floating, fishing and wildlife watching, he said.

As a result, any project that succeeds in keeping more water in streams by increasing the efficiency of irrigation infrastructure is of great benefit to both industries, Gytenbeek said.

“I think these two uses are sustainable uses, and together they are the biggest economic driver on the Western Slope,” he said.

He added that the program has nothing to do with securing river access for Trout Unlimited members.

Commissioner Doug Monger, who is vice president of the board of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, applauded Trout Unlimited’s new approach to protecting rivers and streams.

“I really appreciate that Trout Unlimited has taken the reins and is moving forward,” Monger said. “It’s different from what (Trout Unlimited) has done in past, (taking) legal stances. There’s an opportunity for us to work together on projects instead of funding Denver and downtown Boulder attorneys.”

Trout Unlimited can help agriculture, Gytenbeek said, by leveraging grants from a variety of government and conservation organizations, sometimes with an infusion of its own cash, and supplying technical expertise to design and carry out river projects that benefit agriculture and recreation.

Typically, he said, that involves improving dilapidated irrigation structures but not trying to change the ways the water is applied to fields and pastures.

“We try to find ways to fix what’s on the ground right now, realize amazing efficiencies from that alone,” he said.

He cited a recently completed project on the main stem of the Gunnison where the Relief Ditch Irrigation Co. was having to take large amounts of water out of the river to get sufficient push to send water to which its members were entitled across a relatively flat irrigation ditch.

The excess water was being returned to the river further downstream, but the stretch of the Gunnison just downstream from the irrigation head gate was suffering. And heavy equipment was entering the river every year to rebuild cobble rock dams needed to send the water through the head gate.

Trout Unlimited and its partners built a new, more efficient irrigation head gate and now the ditch company can meet its needs without disrupting the river as much as it did in the past. And an engineered tongue of the current is creating an accessible and safe passage for recreational floaters.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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