Photo credit (above): Kent Vertrees

For more than 30 years, WRA has been working hard to develop better legal tools to keep water in our rivers. In the face of an increasingly arid climate, WRA is finding smart, forward-thinking solutions to water scarcity in the West, including ways to protect our multi-billion-dollar river-related recreation economy.

River recreation as a legal definition is frequently considered and often limited to whitewater boating. But river recreation in the West means much more than that. Children wade in shallow pools alongside their parents. Friends gather from around the country for their annual flyfishing trip. Couples picnic along the banks, watching wildlife. Tourists gather on riverside restaurant patios for a special meal with their loved ones, next to the sound of moving water. Cyclists ride on trails created to follow the river and share in all the activity.

As streamflow becomes increasingly unreliable — we find more or less water than expected at any given time in any given river reach — we are rapidly seeing the harmful impacts on billion-dollar recreational industries across our region. The health, well-being, and livelihoods of millions of people in the West depend on reliable flows of water year after year.

In Colorado, for example, we are working with partners to develop the tools needed to protect all types of river recreation for communities across the state.

The Benefits of River Recreation in Colorado

Outdoor recreation on Colorado’s waterways generates $18.8 billion in economic output per year. In addition to the economic benefit that protecting river recreation provides, another benefit comes in the form of healthier rivers. Higher flows help to ensure that natural processes such as sediment and nutrient distribution continue to take place. Riparian and stream habitats, and all the wildlife they support, also benefit from increased flows resulting from protecting river recreation.

Whitewater Rafting in Colorado

Whitewater parks can transform towns by bringing in revenue from across the country. For example, the Clear Creek whitewater park in Golden is estimated to have brought in millions of dollars over the past 20 years to the Golden community. Many of Colorado’s whitewater parks are located in remote mountain towns. Colorado’s rural areas have traditionally depended on water use as part of an extractive economy, but that’s changing, including for many communities with coal plants about to close. Whitewater parks and recreation will be a key to diversifying the economies of remote towns that have historically relied on extraction as their economic base.

More than Whitewater Rafting in Colorado

Wading, angling, picnicking, and cycling on a river path are important and popular forms of recreation across Colorado. Like whitewater boating, they depend on a flowing river. The local recreation spots that communities have been relying upon for many decades for fishing and wading provide great benefit to surrounding areas, often without the need for a constructed whitewater park. It’s important to provide Colorado communities with additional legal tools to help maintain flows in their local recreation spots. If they aren’t given these tools, our communities could see the many economic and other benefits brought by river recreation literally dry up.

However, for most of its history, Colorado failed to recognize any right for communities to legally protect the water that is essential to such recreational uses. As a result, as climate change makes water in Colorado increasingly scarcer and water is diverted from our streams in ever greater amounts, Colorado towns that have relied upon river recreation to benefit their local economies and communities risk seeing these benefits disappear along with their rivers.

What is a Recreational In-Channel Diversion?

Because Colorado is a semi-arid state, a majority of water needs are met through the diversion of water from Colorado’s rivers to an out-of-stream use. Colorado water law allows water users to claim a legally protected right to take water from Colorado’s rivers for almost any purpose that provides some sort of benefit to the water user, including manufacturing, domestic, industrial, and irrigation uses. However, it was not until the turn of the 21st century that Colorado water law recognized recreation as a beneficial use, and even then, recreational water rights in Colorado come with a laundry list of requirements and limitations.

In 2001, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation that allowed for the appropriation of a new class of water rights for non-motorized boating at constructed whitewater parks, known as Recreational In-Channel Diversions (RICDs). This RICD legislation has proven highly successful, resulting in the development of boating parks that have brought significant economic and other benefits to diverse communities across Colorado, including Breckenridge, Golden, Gunnison, Salida, Steamboat, and Vail. Visit any of these communities in the summer, and you’ll find local residents and visitors gathered around the river, boating, wading, or sitting in a nearby restaurant just enjoying the sights and sounds of a free-flowing river.

However, while the 2001 RICD legislation has proven highly successful, it has also proven limited. The RICD legislation provides for recreational water right protection only to communities with the resources to construct man-made whitewater parks capable of controlling water through artificially constructed whitewater structures — an expensive endeavor that’s out of reach for many of Colorado’s communities. Many of these places are home to important and wide-ranging river recreation opportunities, but they may not want or need to build an artificial whitewater park.

In addition to the cost and time that a community must spend in construction to obtain an RICD, there is the cost and time spent legally obtaining the right. The current procedure for obtaining an RICD right requires both administrative and water court proceedings, which can be both time-consuming and costly. As an example, it has been estimated that the Gore Canyon whitewater park cost Grand County, Colorado, more than $2 million to build and adjudicate.

Finally, RICD water rights impose limitations on the type and timing of recreational activities supported by the water right. Namely,

  • RICD rights holders must divert their water through an artificial “control structure”;
  • A “reasonable recreational experience” is narrowly defined to only include nonmotorized boating; and
  • a RICD may only be exercised between April 1 and Labor Day each year.

As a result of these limitations on RICD water rights and the expense in constructing and obtaining such a right, the appeal of RICD rights to smaller communities is limited. There have been no new RICD applications since 2014.

What is a Recreational In-channel Values Reach?

The limitations on RICD water rights led many to search for a new tool to help promote and protect water recreation in Colorado. After conducting extensive outreach with Colorado communities, water utilities, water districts, and water managers, several groups including Western Resource Advocates, American Whitewater, Conservation Colorado, and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, are in the process of developing legislation that would allow Colorado communities to designate a stream reach relied upon for local recreational activities as a Recreational In-channel Values Reach, or “RIVR”.

A Recreational In-channel Values Reach (RIVR) is not a water right, but rather an innovative approach that would allow a community to designate a specific reach of stream that has been demonstrated to provide recreational benefits as a RIVR. Designation of a river reach as a RIVR allows the Colorado State Engineer’s Office to deliver water leased by the community to the designated RIVR reach. Because any water delivered to the reach would be “new” water added to the stream, such a delivery of water would not affect existing water users. The legislation would thus provide communities with a tool to put water in the stream to benefit local recreational opportunities and local economies, in a manner that does not interfere with traditional water users.

Unlike an RICD, designation of a RIVR would not require construction of an expensive whitewater park to protect recreational flows but instead would protect existing recreational opportunities already provided by the river. Because a RIVR would not be a water right, designation of a RIVR would occur through an administrative procedure rather than a costly water court proceeding. And the types of recreation protected by RIVR would not be limited to whitewater boating but would include other types of river-related recreation activities, such as angling or wading, that are so important to Colorado’s communities and economy.

In short, the RIVR legislation would not change Colorado’s existing RICD legislation but would add an additional tool for communities interested in promoting local recreational opportunities but uninterested or unable in constructing and obtaining a water rights decree for a whitewater park.

Building on Colorado’s Water Plan

Colorado’s Water Plan, signed by Governor Hickenlooper in 2015, was drafted to set goals and provide information to ensure we have enough water to meet future needs. The Plan has three primary values: a productive economy; efficient and effective water infrastructure; and a strong environment. Incorporated into Colorado’s Water Plan is the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Inter-basin Compact Committee’s No-and-Low Regrets Action Plan to implement environmental and recreational projects and methods. The Action Plan identified that to support a strong environment that includes a healthy watershed and robust recreation industry, we must explore opportunities to protect instream flows for recreational uses without the requirement of a control structure.

Colorado’s Water Plan identified the important role water serves in supporting a productive economy and a strong environment. Legislation providing for the creation of Recreational In-channel Values Reaches would do both. It’s time to take action now.