Whitewater parks caught in crosshairs | VailDaily.com

Whitewater parks caught in crosshairs

Cliff Thompson
Daily file photo The authority that allows water levels to remain at a certain height in Gore Creek whitewater park in Vail Village will be weakened if a proposed law is approved by the state Legislature.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Battle lines are being drawn over a new bill that seeks to change how recreation water rights are defined by state laws.Those water rights – approved by the Colorado Supreme Court just two years ago – are designed to boost river flows for kayaking and other water sports.Senate Bill 62, introduced by State Sen. Jack Taylor, a Steamboat Springs Republican who represents Eagle County, is winding its way through the Colorado Legislature. It’s a bill Taylor said will clarify the rules governing so-called “recreational in-stream diversions,” which, he says, don’t play by the same rules as other water rights.Both sides claim that, if adopted, the bill will change the very fabric of the 135-year-old priority water rights system that governs Colorado water law.Opponents charge it’s a challenge to the recreation industry in mountain communities, while supporters say the bill is needed to prevent recreational water rights from infringing on future water use.Vail’s whitewater park on Gore Creek uses the water right to boost flow through the park by 400 cubic feet per-second. High water is popular with kayakers, who float above twisting currents and standing waves.

“This bill would subordinate recreation water rights for future upstream development,” said Glenn Porzak, a water attorney who was instrumental in helping create the rights two years ago. “This is an effort to undercut those water rights and the very purpose for which you get a water right.”Recreational water rights were hotly contested when they were created in Golden, Vail and Breckenridge two years ago.As the population grows and the need for water increases, a balanced approach to controlling water will be needed, Porzak said.”We’ve got to preserve a certain amount for recreation and at the same time have enough so we can serve people who come here to recreate,” he said. “We sell and manage an image here.”

Same play bookThose holding recreational water rights aren’t bound by the same water rules governing other water users, Taylor said. “It begins to change the procedures of how the water system has worked. That’s the fear – changing water rights as we know them today,” Taylor said. “Someone at the state line could get a (recreational right) and affect everybody above them.”It boils down to a difference in how uses of river water are controlled and operated by Colorado’s complicated water law. Traditional water rights require water be diverted from a stream and put to “beneficial” use. Those diversions need to be controlled by head gates and other structures that can control the flow of the diversion. Who gets to divert depends on what priority water right they have, based on the date on which the water was claimed.In-stream diversions don’t have physical control structures, Taylor said. They use stream bank “bump-outs” to constrict the stream and river-bottom benches to create standing waves and increase the speed of flow . Without a headgate to control the flow, the recreational water rights don’t have control over their right, like traditional water rights have, Taylor said

Frozen streams?Future growth could also be controlled by cities holding recreational water rights, Taylor said. Some have criticized Taylor and others, like Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone, who supported the measure as a representative of Eagle County on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, for working at cross purposes with their recreation industry-dependent constituents.”I support recreation. I also support water for people to drink,” Stone said, adding “Is the filing of an in-stream right for recreation or is it for freezing the (uses of) the river?””I support the recreation industry,” Taylor added. “This isn’t a slap in the face to any part of that industry at all. We don’t need (recreational rights) to further complicate the water rights of Colorado.”

But attorney Porzak, in a letter to Taylor on behalf of Steamboat Springs, Vail, water users in Eagle County and ski areas in Eagle, Grand and Summit counties, highlighted his clients’ concerns about the bill.”The entities referenced in this letter all view your proposed new legislation as a direct attack against recreational in-channel diversions and in no uncertain terms would undermine those important recreation rights,” Porzak wrote. “It could also potentially impact other important recreation uses of water. In so doing, your bill would adversely affect the tourism industry of your district.””We made it very clear that this is not a bill we can tinker with and make changes,” Porzak added in an interview. “This is a no-compromise situation and we are out to kill it.”Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 450, or cthompson@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado

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