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Dolores River Anglers seeks water quality protection for streams

Outstanding waters designation would protect water quality, water rights not impacted

The Dolores River Anglers Chapter of Trout Unlimited seeks to designate nine stream reaches in the Upper Dolores River watershed for Outstanding Waters status.

The designation offers protection for water quality only and does not include a water right or impact water rights, flows or downstream users.

The nine streams proposed for the Dolores Basin are all within the San Juan National Forest and do not flow across or adjacent to private property.

The candidate stream sections are in Bear Creek, Stoner Creek, Upper West Fork to Burro Bridge, Priest Gulch Creek, Wildcat Creek, Coal Creek, Slate Creek, East Fork Creek and Snow Spur Creek.

Outstanding water designation requests are reviewed and decided on by the Water Quality Control Commission of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The three-year process includes three public hearings. The first one was held in November, and will be followed this year by hearings in November and June 2022.

Duncan Rose, Dolores River Anglers conservation co-chair, said the purpose for seeking Outstanding Waters status is to increase habitat protection for the rapidly declining native and wild trout populations in the Upper Dolores River Basin, which have been impacted by long-term drought.

In 2016, according to DRA studies, 24 perennial streams – flowing year-round – contained native cutthroat populations in the Upper Dolores River watershed, he said.

Last fall, seven of the 24 perennial streams had become intermittent streams, which dry up periodically and leave no habitat for fish.

Dewatered streams at lower elevations in the Dolores watershed are not good candidates for outstanding waters and are not being considered for the status.

‘Strongholds’ for trout

Rose said after “careful analysis” over several years, Dolores River Anglers, in cooperation with Colorado Trout Unlimited and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, identified nine perennial streams for outstanding waters because “their native cutthroat populations and habitat have characteristics of long-term strongholds” for trout habitat.

“They were chosen because the streams appear capable of surviving increasing drought and other major natural disturbances over the long term,” he said.

East Fork Creek, a headwater tributary of the Dolores River, is being considered for designation as outstanding water.

Streams that are awarded outstanding waters designation are protected from actions that would deteriorate their high level of water quality, Rose said.

For example, new trails, roads or any National Forest projects that could degrade stream water quality would require mitigation strategies, or be moved farther from the streams.

Short term, temporary degradation is allowed for activities that result in long-term ecological benefit or clear public interest.

Outstanding waters status does not prohibit development, Rose said; it requires extra care and mitigation to protect the streams from degradation.

“It says, if you do something here, you can’t damage the quality of the water,” he said. “The point is that we have this rare resource that links to everything in the community, from trout habitat and domestic water supply, to farming and ranching and recreation. Looking to the future, we believe that now is the time to put some protections in for water quality, and outstanding waters designation is a tool do help with that.”

According to CDPHE, outstanding waters are awarded “to reaches of streams, rivers or other bodies of water with very high water quality and exceptional recreational or ecological significance that are deemed worthy of increased protections.”

For a stream or part of a stream to qualify, it must meet high thresholds of water quality criteria, with data gathered across a wide range of measures. Designation occurs through a three-year rule-making hearing process that includes three public hearings.

Existing uses protected

According to outstanding water regulations, legitimate land use and recreation activities that are in existence on San Juan National Forest land at the time of a designation should not be affected unless future use intensifies or changes to the point that water quality degrades from the time of designation.

Examples of existing activities include grazing, recreation, hiking, biking, cycling, camping, fishing, kayaking and timber harvesting.

In 2012, when Rio Lado Creek, Little Taylor, and Spring Creek were designated as outstanding waters, the state Water Quality Control Commission made the following statement:

“The commission understands that there are existing land uses, including grazing permits, in place in the watershed. The evidence demonstrates that these existing land uses are compatible with the outstanding waters designation, since the current high level of water quality has been attained with these uses in place.”

The commission added that outstanding waters designation “should not be the basis” for federal, state or local agencies to place “more onerous or costly conditions upon permits or approvals existing at the time of the designation, or upon any renewals thereof.”

Year-round water quality sampling on the nine nominated streams is ongoing, Rose said, as is community outreach. The proposal has been presented to the Montezuma and Dolores county commissioners.

In November, the Colorado Water Quality Control Board will hold a second public hearing to review the nominated streams, address questions and concerns, solve issues, and decide whether to drop certain streams from consideration.

Input and questions about the candidate streams are invited via email at dra145tu@gmail.com.

For more information on Colorado outstanding waters, visit https://cdphe.colorado.gov/wqcc


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