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Talks of Wild & Scenic for the Crystal turn serious

Locations: News Published

June 14 meetings slated

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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A dedicated group of local activists are hoping once and for all to achieve a goal that has eluded them and others for nearly half a century — designation of a stretch of the Crystal River as a Wild & Scenic River under the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed by Congress.

If proponents Dorothea Farris, Bill Jochems and Chuck Ogilby are successful, the Crystal will become the second officially designated Wild & Scenic river in Colorado.

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The only Colorado river designated Wild & Scenic at present is the Cache La Poudre, a 126-mile stretch that rises from Poudre Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park and empties into the South Platte River near Greeley.

The success of the activists’ efforts may well be determined at a series of meetings on June 14, one in Redstone and the other in Marble, involving officials from Pitkin and Gunnison counties and from the Town of Marble.

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The first of these meetings, at 4 p.m., is at the Church At Redstone, and is formally intended as a joint meeting of the commissioners from the two counties.

The second, at Marble’s town hall, is scheduled as a meeting between only the Town of Marble and Gunnison County.

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The basic intent of the designation effort, according to Farris and others, is to prevent the placement of dams along a 39-mile stretch of river, known as the “main stem,” from Beaver Lake in Marble (located in Gunnison County) to the headgate of the Sweet Jessup irrigation ditch (in Pitkin County, a couple of miles north of the confluence of the Crystal and Avalanche Creek).

According to Farris, some Crystal River Valley residents have been working on getting Wild & Scenic designation for the river for decades — so long that there is confusion about whether the designation already has been granted.

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“Some people have come up to me and said, ‘I thought this was already done,’” Farris said in a recent interview with The Sopris Sun. “They were surprised when I told them it never happened.”

Aside from that confusion, Farris and others worry that there also is a lack of understanding about what the designation means, and that that there will be opposition to the designation from the Town of Marble and some landowners along the Crystal River.

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Some opposition already has cropped up, in fact.

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For example, Farris produced a letter from Wild & Scenic detractors Larry and Jeffe Hall, who identified themselves as “property owners in the area.” The Halls’ letter, sent to the town and obtained by Jochems, lays out a number of arguments against designation.

The Halls’ letter expresses fears of federal oversight of the land on either side of the Crystal, which some fear would prevent landowners from doing as they like with their property, among other concerns.

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When asked if the designation would mean federal officials would be taking over private property rights, Farris replied, “No, they’re not. They’re not taking over the river if you make it wild and scenic.”

The designation, she explained, would involve what is known as “the bed and bank” of the river, and is mainly meant to prevent the construction of dams.

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Farris and her team point to the fact that, staring in the 1950s, a state water conservation district won approval to build two dams, one just below Redstone and the other just below the old townsite of Placita, which would have resulted in reservoirs roughly the size of the existing Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River above Basalt.

Efforts to build those dams ran into resistance among the local population, and were abandoned a few years ago.

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Dam fears

But activists still fear that dams might be proposed in the future, possibly to feed diversion tunnels to slake the thirst of growing cities on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, as is already is happening through 26 tunnels that take water from rivers on the Western Slope.

At the same time, states to the west of Colorado depend on water from the Colorado River, which means the river’s resources are being tapped from both the east and the west, with the likelihood that future water-resource engineers will be calling for more dams and reservoirs on Western Slope rivers.

Proponents of designation pointed to the construction of the Ruedi Reservoir dam on the Fryingpan River, and the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River that created Lake Powell, as examples of earlier dam-building efforts that have flooded large amounts of terrain, including towns, where there was no local effort in opposition.

“So, this campaign to Save The Crystal seeks limited application of (the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act) to the Crystal. The only feature of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act sought for the Crystal is the prohibition of dams on the main stem of the upper 39 miles,” states an introductory memorandum that will be presented at the meetings in June.

Speaking with a reporter, Farris emphasized, “We want to protect the integrity of the river [and] the rights of agricultural users below the Sweet Jessup diversion,” noting that much of the opposition to the designation has sprouted out of what she termed unrealistic fears that local control of the river would be relinquished and private landowners would lose the ability to use their lands as they wish.

The Sopris Sun’s efforts to contact Marble Mayor Will Handville, to gauge the town’s thinking about the designation effort, were not successful.

The meetings in Redstone and Marble on June 14 are open to the public.

Published in The Sopris Sun on May 19, 2016.