Environmental group’s report grades river health in Colorado, draws ire from water officials | MyWindsorNow.com

Environmental group’s report grades river health in Colorado, draws ire from water officials

Tyler Silvy
tsilvy@greeleytribune.com

A new report from an environmental advocacy group assigns letter grades to Colorado rivers, and the South Platte, where Greeley draws its water, is barely passing.

A new report from an environmental advocacy group assigns letter grades to Colorado rivers, and the South Platte and Colorado rivers, where Greeley draws its water, are barely passing.

It's a provocative report, and it's meant to be, Conservation Colorado water advocate Kristin Green said during a phone interview Thursday.

"We want to bring attention to some of the opportunities we have to improve our water quality," Green said. "In all of these, there's a call to action."

Green's team graded one river in each of Colorado's eight river basins, assigning an "A" grade only to the Yampa River, which flows through Steamboat Springs.

The Colorado River earned a "D," and the South Platte River earned a "C."

Reasons for the grades ranged from water diversion — which Greeley and at least a dozen other Front Range communities do with the Colorado River, diverting water across the continental divide to quench residents' thirst — as well as water quality issues arising from farm or yard runoff, legacy mining pollution and sediment from wildfires.

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Local water officials don't agree with the grades, or the approach, saying these types of reports are consistently negative and unbalanced.

"It's all subjective," said Brian Werner, spokesman for Northern Water Conservancy District, which manages the Big Thompson water project. "Find another organization, and they may look at it differently."

Werner said it's good that reports like this get people thinking about water quality and conservation, but he said these types of reports often leave out discussion of the positive steps water officials have taken over the years.

The report assigned individual grades the rivers to make up their overall grades. Water quality in the South Platte, which feeds the majority of the state's population, was rated "D."

It's an interesting grade, given Greeley, which gets the majority of its water from the South Platte River Basin, just earned national recognition for having the best tasting water in the United States.

Green credited Greeley's water treatment plants for that honor, but Greeley Water Resources Director Eric Reckentine had questions.

"Colorado is not an extremely industrialized state," Reckentine said. "So what are we comparing against?"

Reckentine acknowledged the South Platte River Basin has issues, including farm runoff. It's why Greeley is in the early stages of a pilot program working with farmers to reduce that runoff.

Other parts of the report focused on the diversion of water, as well as dams and reservoirs, impacting the natural state of Colorado's rivers and river basins. That focus knocked the Colorado River because of the amount of water Front Range communities pump out.

Gary Wockner, director of Save the Colorado, said his organization plans a lawsuit related to the Windy Gap Firming Project, a project that will draw more water from the Colorado River and put it in a reservoir along the Front Range for more than a dozen communities — including Greeley — to use.

"The Conservation Colorado report certainly highlights that the Colorado River is in bad shape due to dams and diversions," Wockner said via email. "Greeley, in fact, is a big part of that destruction due to its past diversions and its support for the Windy Gap Firming Project that would further dam and drain the Colorado River."

Wockner and advocates at Conservation Colorado prefer rivers to flow in their natural state.

Werner had plenty to say on these rivers' natural state. When it comes to the Colorado River, Werner said Trout Unlimited supports diversion projects that will actually improve fish habitat in the river.

And the South Platte, Werner said, didn't flow year-round before people got to Colorado.

"Now, because of diversions, it flows year-round," Werner said. "If there's no water in there, there can't be any fish."

"They pick out this little slice; they don't look at the big picture," Werner said.

For Werner, the big picture is the mission to provide water for another 5 million people in the coming decades, and to do so while keeping conservation top of mind.

Reckentine agreed.

"It's all part of the consideration," Reckentine said. "We have a very intricate conservation plan, and demand reduction is a critical component of our future water planning."

Tyler Silvy covers government and politics for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at tsilvy@greeleytribune.com. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.

River grades

In a new report, environmental advocacy organization Conservation Colorado assigned letter grades to one river in each of Colorado’s eight river basins. The grades were based on water quality, flow and other factors. The grades are below:

Arkansas River: C

Colorado River: D

Dolores River: D-

North Fork of the Gunnison River: B-

North Platte River: B+

Rio Grande River: B

South Platte River: C

Yampa River: A

Grade key:

A “excellent” — In excellent condition, and therefore must be cared for and preserved.

B “good” — Fully functioning, but threatened. The river must be closely monitored and cared for to prevent any downgrades.

C “needs work” — In mediocre condition and on the precipice of either recovery or failure. Needs attention to prevent further downgrades.

D “bad” — Severely damaged from diversion, damming, or climate change and requiring immediate conservation action to prevent the total loss of its natural state.

F “failing” — Has been severely altered from its natural state. In dire need of action and/or changes to management practices.

To view the entire report, click here.

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