Future may be clear for Dominguez waters

A little more than a year after Congress established the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, state water officials and federal agencies are trying to reach agreement on how best to protect the waters of Big and Little Dominguez Creeks within the NCA boundaries.

The BLM has proposed an unusal plan for resolving the issue, under which the state may file for instream water rights for the two streams that run through a wilderness area in the NCA. The concept is one the Colorado Water Conservation Board should accept when it takes up the question in May.

At the heart of the proposed solution is an agreement written into the federal legislation that created the NCA: If the state files for adequate instream water rights for the two wilderness creeks, the Interior Department won’t assert a federal water right.

The Daily Sentinel has long maintained that it serves Colorado interests better if the state files for instream flow rights through state water courts, rather than having federal officials simply lay claim to the rights. With that in mind, we support the agreement written into the Dominguez-Escalante legislation.

Furthermore, the water language in the bill was developed through a cooperative effort before the legislation was introduced. Contrast that with Denver Congresswoman Diana DeGette, whose bill to create more than 30 wilderness areas around the state was heard in a U.S. House committee Thursday. The water language in her bill is opposed by many water entities in the state.

The difficulty comes in determining how much water is appropriate “for wilderness management purposes.” Not much water flows through either Big or Little Dominguez Creek most of the year — less than 4 cubic feet per second even in Big Dominguez.

But at other times — during spring runoff, summer rains or the much larger storms that occur every 10 years or so — the flow can be much larger. It can be around 75 cubic feet per second during spring runoff and as much as 10 times that during large floods.

The BLM has asked the state to seek a variable instream water right that recognizes streamflow can change dramatically.

That’s not how Colorado instream flow rights have traditionally been appropriated in the past. A set minimum amount has been the typical filing. But a variable rights have been filed for a handful of other streams in the state..

Private water rights are also an issue. Even though the headwaters of both Big and Little Dominguez Creeks are both high up on the Uncompahgre Plateau in the Uncompahgre National Forest, there is private land within the national forest that depends on water from the two creeks. The BLM proposal recognizes that, and acknowledges rights will be senior to the state’s instream flow filings, and there will be some modest amount of water for additional future development of those rights.

The exact volume of water that should be claimed for each part of the year may need some tweaking. But the concept the BLM has submitted appears a sensible way to protect the waters of the two streams. It can ensure enough water “to support wilderness management purposes” without turning management of the streams over to the federal government.

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