Decree of difficulty

It has taken an inordinate amount of time to work out a water right for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park — 75 years if you start counting from 1933, the year the area was designated a national monument by President Herbert Hoover.

However, the water decree signed Dec. 31 by a district judge in Montrose represents a reasoned — and reasonable — solution to the lengthy dispute over how much water should legally belong to the national park.

First of all, the decree sets 300 cubic feet per second as the minimum amount of water that must flow through the Black Canyon. That’s the same minimum amount that would have been required through an earlier agreement between the state of Colorado and the U.S. Department of Interior, under which the state would have held the water right through the Black Canyon.

But a federal judge subsequently held that the Interior Department couldn’t abrogate its authority for a Black Canyon water right to the state. So a new round of negotiations began that included conservation groups, water organizations and ranchers, as well as state and federal agencies. And a new agreement was reached last June that led to the decree signed last month.

Still, 300 cubic feet per second isn’t much water for the Gunnison. If that was all the water that ever flowed through the canyon, the river corridor would soon become a nearly lifeless, boulder-strewn channel.

More important than the 300 cfs minimum stream flow is the fact that the agreement includes provisions to mimic natural stream flows from the days before three major dams were built just upstream from the Black Canyon. It authorizes annual peak flows — based on the amount of snowpack in the mountains each year — that are designed to imitate natural spring runoff and flooding. Also, so-called “shoulder” flows later in the summer aim to mimic natural flows.

Equally critical, the agreement deals with the water requirements of irrigators on the Upper Gunnison and water needed for hydroelectric generation. It recognizes flood concerns in the city of Delta, recreation needs and the intricacies of Colorado water law.

We’re pleased to see Judge Stephen Patrick has signed the decree and turned the agreement reached last June into law.


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