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Southwestern Colorado streams win new protections

Close-up shot of a fish under water.
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As climate change brings longer and more severe drought to the American Southwest, a community-led coalition is celebrating new protections for more than 520 miles of 25 Colorado streams.

Duncan Rose, conservation co-chair for Dolores River Anglers, said if pristine Colorado streams are polluted or degraded, the results would be disastrous for native trout species which need clean water to survive, and also for entire communities and industries.

"Obviously, everybody suffers," Rose asserted. "Whether it's from drinking, whether it's from agricultural, whether it's recreational use. But also all of the web of life that's associated with the stream, of which trout are simply a canary in the mine, so to speak."

The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission recently finalized the state's designation of the streams in southwestern Colorado as Outstanding Waters under the Clean Water Act. The designation protects existing high-quality waters from future degradation including pollution from development, mining, oil and gas, and other uses.

Rose noted the move is also a win for local businesses because it reinforces the need for water managers to protect resources critical for the outdoor recreation industry, the region's fastest-growing economic driver.

"Whether it's hunting or biking or trail running, backpacking, camping," Rose outlined. "It's imperative that we keep this quality foremost in the minds of the people who manage this."

The protected streams largely run through public lands, and Rose pointed out the designation does not prohibit multiple uses, such as mining. But he added any operator triggering damage to a stream's water quality would now be obligated to keep those waters clean.

"If mining were to occur, there would have to be best-practice engineering protection designs put in place that would prevent any degradation to the water quality of that stream," Rose explained.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.