Decree gives park water right

Aerial shot of the Gunnison River running in the Black Canyon of the Gunnsion National Park, east of Montrose.

The last day of 2008 also brought the end of Colorado’s longest-running water-rights contest.

On Dec. 31, state water court Judge Stephen Patrick in Montrose signed a decree finalizing a water right for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The decision recognizes a year-round base flow of 300 cubic feet per second along with seasonal peak and shoulder flows, echoing the natural rise and fall of the river, depending on water availability.

“This landmark ruling acknowledges that the Gunnison River offers recreational and natural resource benefits that deserve protection,” said Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project.

The park’s water right goes back to the 1933 establishment of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. But that water right was never quantified, and in 2003 the state Department of Natural Resources signed a controversial agreement with the U.S. Department of Interior that would have abrogated the park’s water, in effect making it available for other appropriation, including Front Range development.

That agreement was challenged by a coalition of conservation groups, and in 2006 a federal court upheld the challenge and set aside the 2003 agreement.

Last June, the conservation groups along with state and federal agencies, ranchers and water officials hammered out an agreement that provides for guaranteed minimal flows through the park.

“It took lots of effort, but the negotiation resulted in a win-win — a water right that protects the park and accommodates other water uses,” said Bart Miller, attorney for Western Resource Advocates, representing five of the conservation groups.

The 300 cfs minimum was based on previous Park Service research, Peternell said.

“Trout Unlimited would have liked to see larger base flows or at least variable base flows,” Peternell said. “But the Park Service did some science 20 years ago that showed 300 cfs to be the bare minimum required to maintain the health of the park and the river ecosystem.”

The final decision ends 6 1/2 years of contention, Peternell said.

“The bottom line is we now have a water right that is recognized by both federal and state water law to protect the natural flow in the park,” he said. “That has to be good news for the resource.”


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