New Flow Regime for Black Canyon National Park Imminent

Date:   June 6, 2008
Contact:   Libby Fayad, NPCA, 202.454.3306
Bart Miller, Western Resource Advocates, 303.444.1188, ext. 219

New Flow Regime for Black Canyon National Park Imminent

Montrose, Colo. – After more than 30 years, one of Colorado’s most contentious water rights battles—concerning flows for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park—is nearly over.

Today, parties to the water court case presented an update to the water court including a proposed settlement of the federal reserved water right. The proposed settlement results from over nine months of intense negotiation. After final approval by all parties and the court over the next few months, the settlement will result in a new flow regime in the Gunnison River through the national park.

As a result of the settlement, flows for the park will include year-round base flow of 300 cubic feet per second, as well as an annual peak and shoulder flows tied to the natural inflow each year.

"This agreement recognizes the importance of Black Canyon of the Gonnison National Park and the need to preserve its spectacular resources for the benefit of our children and grandchildren," said Libby Fayad, attorney and representative for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The flow regime will protect the water-dependant resources of the Black Canyon and help restore the ecological balance in the river system disrupted by three federal dams immediately upstream of the park. The flows will create a healthier environment for a world class trout fishery, support invertebrates (bugs) that form the basis of the river’s food chain, cleanse sediment deposits that have cause whirling disease in trout, clear woody debris, maintain the river channel, and greatly improve the aesthetics of a flowing river that provides enjoyment for hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world each year.

"The new flow regime will greatly benefit the ecology and visitor experience at the Park, protecting it as a national treasure," said Wendy McDermott, Executive Director of the High Country Citizens’ Alliance.

The settlement process addressed concerns about river management from a broad array of stakeholders. Besides the National Park Service, interests at the negotiation table included irrigators in the Gunnison basin, hydroelectric power producers, flat water recreationalists, boaters, endangered fish species, towns concerned about flood control, anglers, and environmental groups.

"It took lots of effort, but the negotiation resulted in a water right that everyone can live with," said Bart Miller, attorney for Western Resource Advocates.

The negotiation began soon after conservation groups successfully challenged a 2003 agreement between the State of Colorado and federal agencies that would have given away large elements of the federal water right. In late 2006, a federal court judge rejected the 2003 agreement as violating several provisions of federal law.

"The outcome here is due, in large part, to the important role of environmental groups who were watchdogs over protecting this national resource," said Steve Smith, representative from The Wilderness Society.

The water rights claim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park stretches back to 1933 when the area was first set aside as a national monument. In 1978, the water court recognized the Black Canyon’s water right—with a priority date of 1933—was needed to fulfill federal purposes; the court directed the federal government to come back to water court to quantify the right. The quantification proceedings began in 2001.

"It has been a good example of what groups can do when they join together," said Drew Peternell, Director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project.

The conservation groups involved in the federal case and the water rights negotiations include Environmental Defense Fund, High Country Citizens’ Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, The Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited, Western Colorado Congress, and the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council.

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