On a bright October day, members of the Colorado Basin Roundtable stood on the banks of the Colorado River watching water slide smoothly over the Bill and Wendy Riffles near Kremmling. Willows glowed gold on the banks, and new sprouts poked up through the cobble at the water's edge.

Most riffles don't have names, but most riffles aren't constructed as part of a multimillion-dollar plan to remake a damaged river. The Bill and Wendy Riffles, named after the resident ranchers, were designed to raise the level of the river so that irrigation pumps, left high and dry by a depleted river, could function. Trout habitat and riparian vegetation have also benefitted.

Upstream, plans are afoot to reshape Windy Gap reservoir, which currently blocks the free movement of fish, sediment and water. The construction of a new channel around the reservoir is planned to reconnect those reaches of the river and breathe new life into the ecosystem.

These projects in Grand County are part of a broad effort to compensate for flow reductions from decades of diversions from headwaters streams across the Continental Divide to the Front Range. A pair of recently approved projects to increase those diversions provided the leverage for Grand County to demand the resources to address problems created by historic depletions, as well as the new projects.

Early on, Grand County commissioned a detailed Stream Management Plan to define environmental flow needs, which guided its negotiations and project prioritization. Restoration projects have since drawn funding from numerous sources. Local irrigators have played a leading role in developing projects, as have conservation organizations such as Trout Unlimited.

The Grand County example has demonstrated that water management does not have to be a zero-sum game. The approach has inspired related efforts across Colorado.

Stream management plans exist or are underway in numerous locations across the Western Slope, including the Crystal River, the Roaring Fork River, the North Fork of the Gunnison, the Upper Gunnison Basin, and the San Miguel River. New planning efforts have been proposed for the Yampa, the Eagle, Ouray County, the Upper San Juan River, and the middle section of the Colorado. The Colorado Basin Roundtable has initiated a framework project to provide tools and guidance for such efforts. (The author of this article is coordinating the framework project.)

As these initiatives have spread, it has become clear that environmental and agricultural water needs don't always align as neatly as they have in Grand County. The guidance for a statewide Stream Management Planning grant program focuses on assessing environmental and recreational flow needs, which are less understood than needs for other uses. However, any plan to address environmental water needs will likely require cooperation from other water users. These water users need a reason to come to the table.

Growing recognition of the importance of addressing the interests of all water users is reflected in the names of several projects. The Colorado Basin Roundtable chose the term "integrated water management plan" rather than "stream management plan" for its framework project, and the Upper Gunnison project is called a "Watershed Management Planning" project.

Inclusive labeling is not enough to bring and keep diverse stakeholders at the table, however. To participate, agricultural water users and others need to trust that their interests are respected, and feel a sense of common cause with planning partners.

Trust levels are influenced by who leads the project. On the middle section of the Colorado River, local conservation districts have decided to take the lead on gathering information on agricultural water needs. The Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which kicked off the planning effort, has welcomed their involvement.

Cultivating a sense of common cause, the Upper Gunnison Watershed Management Planning Group asserts that its mission is to protect existing water uses and watershed health in the face of increased water demands and supply reductions. The Crystal River Plan includes a detailed accounting of agricultural water shortages along with information on the ecological state of the river.

These are complicated processes, with many opportunities for conflict and failure. However, the potential payoffs of healthier streams and water security, as well as enhanced mutual understanding among water users, could make these projects well worth the effort.

Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin.You can learn more at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.

Recommended for you