Local rivers are critical for all who visit or live in Eagle County, providing recreation opportunities, supporting a longstanding agricultural community and providing habitat for wildlife and aquatic life, from native trout to big horn sheep. However, these rivers are at risk. Over-allocation of water, a reduction of flows due to climate change, and increased demand add to the challenge of protecting rivers for our community and those downstream.

In 2023, the Colorado River Drought Task Force was established. Its purpose is to develop recommendations for legislation that provide additional tools for the Colorado Water Conservation Board and to collaborate with the Colorado River District, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, and other relevant stakeholders in the development of programs that address drought in the Colorado River Basin and interstate commitments related to the Colorado River and its tributaries through conservation of the waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries.

This task force, chaired by Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Handler, is wrapping up months of work, including program vetting and research to discussion and consensus building. The recommendations and potential solutions to the drought and river management are in their final stage, with a final report due to the state on Dec. 15.

These solutions need to ensure that Coloradans have enough water to grow local food, support healthy rivers and wildlife, ensure ample, clean drinking water and provide for the outdoor recreation that is a foundation of our economy. This task force has the opportunity and responsibility to put Colorado first and create proactive, responsive, flexible and locally managed solutions.

Local in-stream flow — or more simply put: water in the river — is crucial for our recreation-based economy, wildlife and aquatic life, and for the incredible vistas that our community values. These flows can have water rights associated with them, but they’re junior to many others and not always possible, as some streams may be over-allocated.

One solution to low stream flows that has been proposed by Orla Bannon, with Western Resource Advocates, would amend the instream flow temporary loan program statute. This would allow the owner of a decreed storage water right to loan water to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to preserve or improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree on stream reaches where there is no decreed instream flow water right.

While recognizing that Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Basin currently use far less than our allotment of water, we are still facing unprecedently low stream flows that strain local fisheries and the “Outstandingly Remarkable Values,” like our world-class recreation opportunities and unique flora and fauna.

Though efforts to reduce water use and increase efficiency (such as those spearheaded by local water providers, Eagle River Watershed Council and others) exist and will help our communities and our rivers, more work is needed. We anticipate that it is going to take industrial and municipal conservation at a much greater scale, along with state legislation that allows the water saved to stay in the stream. Flexibility, like an amendment to the instream flow temporary loan program proposed by Bannon, would go a long way to protect our rivers.

Rivers must sustain future generations, allowing for the economic opportunity, experiences and incredible natural value that we are fortunate to enjoy today. The Colorado River Drought Task Force will convene in Denver on Thursday, Dec. 7, to carry forward its final recommendations that will be sent to lawmakers. We have an opportunity to change antiquated management and mitigate undesirable future conditions on the Upper Colorado — it’s time to put an emphasis on protecting our rivers by ensuring we have the flexibility to keep water flowing.

For more information about the Colorado River Drought Task Force, visit CRDroughtTaskForce.com. Thank you to state representatives Dylan Roberts, Perry Will, Marc Caitlin and Speaker Julie McCluskie for sponsoring this legislation, and bringing solutions for the Colorado River into the conversation.

The column was originally published here: Vail Daily | The Current