San Miguel gets instream flow protection

The gray-green waters of the Dolores River mingle with the emerald green San Miguel River a few miles west of the Uravan townsite. A section of the San Miguel from above Nucla to this confluence has been protected by an instream flow right.

A stretch of the San Miguel River downstream of Nucla is the latest Colorado stream to gain permanent protection under a state instream flow right.

What make this ISF different from most of the others in the state is it affects a reach of river near its end, rather than a headwater flow right as is more common.

Instream flow rights are granted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and are nonconsumptive rights between specific points designed to protect the natural environments.

The Water Court for Division 4 ruled May 20 to protect a 20-mile reach of the San Miguel from near Nucla downstream to the river’s confluence with the Dolores River.

The flow protection, first proposed in 2011 at a meeting in Grand Junction, was sought by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Western Resource Advocates.

The Wilderness Society intervened in support of the water board’s application.

“The San Miguel River is one of the last relatively free-flowing rivers in Colorado, and this water right will help ensure that it stays that way for generations to come,” said Rob Harris, senior water attorney with Western Resource Advocates (WRA) and the lead counsel representing WRA and The Wilderness Society. “The Colorado Water Conservation Board recognized early on that this is an incredibly significant protection, and the board did a great job of working with a diverse community to negotiate an outcome that is truly in the best interests of both the surrounding area and the entire state.”

Harris said instream flow rights aren’t uncommon in Colorado, but most of them are on small, headwater streams and normally protect flows from one to 10 cubic feet per second.

The San Miguel ISF is for 325 cfs and amounts to one of the larger river protections in the history of the state. Only major rivers, such as the Colorado River, have more extensive ISF rights.

“That’s a lot of protection,” Harris said. “But there still is water to be developed on top of that. The ISF protects the river’s natural flows and still allows local communities to develop and use the water.”

Harris said the San Miguel right recognizes the importance of keeping water “in the stream” to benefit the natural environment.

“Healthy rivers also benefit recreation, local communities and the economy,” Harris said. “This really is a tremendous accomplishment, and we are incredibly proud to have played a part in the process.”


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