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Crystal River meeting draws crowd, no action

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Wild & Scenic issue

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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Every chair was filled and people lined the walls at the sides and back of the meeting room in the Church at Redstone Tuesday afternoon, where government officials and their constituents addressed a proposal to seek official Wild and Scenic designation for the Crystal River, which flows outside the church.

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At the church, officials from Pitkin and Gunnison counties, as well as the Town of Marble, took testimony from a couple dozen people, most of them residents along the 39-mile stretch of the Crystal that is the subject of the designation effort.

According to the text of the proposed Act of Congress, which is the route to getting designation, the Crystal would be designated Wild & Scenic from its headwaters above the sparsely populated seasonal ghost town of Crystal, all the way north to the diversion structure for the Sweet Jessup Canal, which irrigates ranches at the north end of the river near Carbondale.

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The meeting was opened by Pitkin County Commission Chair Rachel Richards who, along with her four fellow commissioners, was joined at the table by Gunnison County Commissioners Phil Chamberland, Jonathan Houck and Paula Swenson, the board chair; and by Marble town council members Mike Yellico and Tim Hunter.

Attorney Bill Jochems of Redstone, along with former Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris and local entrepreneur and activist Chuck Ogilby, told the assembled crowd that the goal of the proposed designation is a singular one — to prevent construction of dams on the Crystal.

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Don’t dam it

Jochems pointed out that there once were two such dams proposed, a 280-foot-high dam below Redstone and another below the historic townsite of Placita, further upstream.

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They were first dreamed up by water development interests in the 1950s but abandoned two years ago due largely to local opposition.

Jochems said that, had they been built, they would have flooded Redstone, drowned the nearby Redstone Castle and created two reservoirs with more water in them than the Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River east of Basalt.

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The Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, passed by Congress in 1968, was approved, Jochems said, in reaction to a dam-building frenzy all over the West, particularly the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam that drowned a famously scenic landscape and created Lake Powell in Utah.

The 1968 act, Jochems acknowledged, not only prevented rivers from being dammed up, but also contained provisions for condemnation of private property and other controversial actions by federal authorities.

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“We don’t want any of that,” Jochems said, emphasizing that the proposed designation would have only one purpose — to keep the Crystal River free of dams and diversion structures intended to take water from this region over to the thirsty cities and subdivisions of Colorado’s Front Range region.

He said the designation would not affect water rights held by private citizens or local towns, or the use of private property along the river, as long as that use was not in conflict with the designation.

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“We’ve done everything we can to protect the status quo of this stream, and nothing more,” Jochems declared. “They can’t build a dam any more, or send water out of this valley — that’s all it means.”

His statements were backed up by Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, whose agency has concluded that the Crystal is eligible for Wild & Scenic designation.

The next step in the process, Fitzwilliams said, is for his agency to conduct a “feasibility” or “suitability” study, which would include a formal Environmental Impact Statement and which would lead to a recommendation to Congress to either move ahead with designation or drop the idea.

Wild & Scenic opponents

A number of opponents to the designation proposal spoke at the Redstone meeting, criticizing Jochems and his team for not doing enough to notify adjacent landowners about the plans and expressing concerns that federal oversight would mean loss of landowners’ ability to do as they like with their land, among other fears.

“I don’t want a dam, but I don’t want to give up my rights,” declared riverside landowner Jeffe Hall. She and her husband, attorney Larry Hall, have been lobbying the Marble town council against the designation idea for some time.

Supporters of the proposed designation insisted that local land-use control would remain with local authorities, and that private property rights and water rights were meant to remain as they are now.


Others at the meeting, however, supported the proposal.

“I am adamantly in support of wild and scenic designation for the Crystal River,” said local environmental activist Dee Malone.

Citing indications that Front Range interests are gearing up to obtain ever increasing volumes of water through diversions from Western Slope streams and rivers, Malone said, “If we want the Crystal River to run dry, we will avoid getting wild and scenic designation.”

Some questioned the need for designation, expressing belief that other routes, such as anti-dam resolutions passed by the county commissioners, might suffice to keep the Crystal free of dams and diversions.

But government officials in the room countered that such decisions are “above our pay grade,” as Gunnison County’s Paula Swenson put it. The only reliable route for such an outcome, the audience was told, is through the USFS and the Act of Congress.

Redstone resident Peter Martin, a supporter of designation for the Crystal, at one point told the opponents, “I think this committee has addressed your major concerns” and questioned why opponents kept up with their opposition.

Pitkin County’s Rachel Richards told the audience that there will be much more discussion about this topic, at meetings of the Redstone Caucus and the Crystal River Caucus, as well as by the Town of Marble.

The meeting at Redstone closed with a remark from Pitkin County Commissioner Steve Child, who recalled that when he was 16 and growing up in the Snowmass Creek valley, a water diversion proposal was made to divert flow from West Sopris, East Sopris and Capital creeks for delivery to the Front Range.

It was fought, and the plan died, Child said, adding, “That’s the thing I’m afraid of, somebody filing for water rights on the upper Crystal and proposing a dam … it can be done.”

After a follow-up meeting that night at the Marble Town Hall, where town council members and Gunnison County Commissioners debated the same topic with town residents — many of whom also had been at the Redstone meeting — the consensus was that more information is needed before either the town or the county can decide whether to oppose or support the bid for designation.

Published in The Sopris Sun on June 16, 2016.