Colorado’s river recreation economy boomed in the first 10 years of recreational in-channel diversion water rights, which state lawmakers created in 2001 to protect water used for recreation. In the decade that followed, 20 communities claimed rights that kept rapids roiling in whitewater parks that became community centerpieces.
But those water rights, known as RICDs (and pronounced RISS-ids), had a very quiet second decade. Not one community has secured protection for recreational water flows since 2010. That changed last week as a state water court approved a conditional water right allowing Glenwood Springs to build three new whitewater parks on the Colorado River.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
Glenwood Springs originally filed for the RICD protection in 2013. It took nine years to secure the conditional water right in the upper stretches of the river that serves some 40 million downstream users.
Nine years of wrangling in water court is likely a deterrent for communities seeking to promote river recreation as an economic engine, said Josh Kuhn, who advocates for water protection for Conservation Colorado. The challenges Glenwood Springs faced supports a growing push to reform the RICD process.
“We need to modify the way we protect recreational flows. A lot has changed since the early 2000s with lows flows and increased demand and it’s really important we protect recreational flows in our rivers so communities can have more tools for diversifying their recreational economy,” Kuhn said.
The Glenwood Springs conditional water right protects three different flow rates between April and September for three parks at No Name, Horseshoe Bend and Two Rivers Park. (For the flow geeks: 1,250 cubic feet per second – or cfs – from Apr. 1 through June 7 and July 24 through Sept. 30, and 2,500 cfs between June 8 and July 23. When the snow is deep upstream, Glenwood Springs can protect five continuous days of flows over 4,000 cfs between June 30 and July 6, which could support, say, a whitewater kayaking contest at one of the city’s parks over the July Fourth holiday.)
The Colorado River Outfitters Association counted 55,228 rafters floating through Glenwood Canyon on commercial rafts in 2020, creating an economic impact of $19.1 million. That makes rafting in Glenwood Canyon the second biggest contributor to Colorado’s $148.7 million rafting economy, behind the Arkansas River, which ranks as the most rafted river in the country.
Statewide, 6.7 million anglers, paddlers, hikers and campers spend $10.8 billion a year in Colorado’s nine river basins. That creates an $18.8 billion economic impact, according to a 2020 study commissioned by Business for Water Stewardship, which advocates for water policies that allow people, economies and ecosystems to flourish.
Glenwood Springs joins the 20 other communities with RICD’s protecting water in whitewater parks. By landing the RICD, Glenwood Springs also is able to protect flows at its G-Wave in West Glenwood, which opened in 2008. There are nine other communities in Colorado with whitewater parks that do not have RICDs.
“Some of our ability to remain steadfast in this process is based on the fact that our Colorado River and Roaring Fork River are hugely important to our tourism and regional economy,” said Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes. “We will always have it in us to preserve and protect recreational in-stream flows for our rivers.”
Glenwood Springs navigated a daunting process for its RICD. There are a lot of Colorado communities that dip buckets into the river before it leaves the state and the city entered into agreements with 17 of them, negotiating with upstream and downstream communities, water districts and irrigators.
The city agreed not to use the recreational water rights to oppose upstream projects that include diversions proposed by Denver Water as well as Colorado Springs and Aurora to move Colorado River water to the Front Range. Now it has to build those parks. Glenwood Springs will soon study designs and funding for the in-river features. In six years, the city must show the water court is progressing with its park plans to maintain the conditional recreational water right. Pitkin County, for example, in 2010 secured a RICD for a whitewater park on the Roaring Fork River in Basalt. After building three structures in the river downstream of its confluence with the Fryingpan River, the county in 2020 secured an “absolute decree” of that water right.
Recreation advocates hope that someday communities can win protection for recreational flows without the long legal process or, possibly, without actually building anything in the river.
“I think it would be great for additional communities to apply for RICDs and be in it for the long haul like Glenwood Springs, but I also think it would be great to think about other ways to protect recreation in our rivers,” said Bart Miller, the director of Western Resource Advocates’ Healthy River Program, which worked with American Whitewater and Glenwood Springs to secure the recreational water right. “I think it makes sense to find ways to make this a little simpler. Wouldn’t it be great to have an easier way to protect recreational uses of our rivers and for communities to have a less expensive and faster way to secure their recreational future?”
That was the plan last year, as river conservation group American Whitewater proposed adjustments to the state’s RICD regulations that could make it easier for communities to protect recreational flows. Water guardians across the state were not receptive to a new layer of water rights that could complicate an already complex process for claiming water in Colorado.
After hearing from powerful water utilities on the Front Range and Western Slope, American Whitewater adjusted its plan and floated a reform plan this year.
The group proposed creating a new Recreational In-Channel Value Reach — or RIVR — that is not a water right like a RICD, but would allow communities, water districts and tribes to designate stream segments for recreation. With a legal RIVR designation, a community could buy or lease water for recreation without building an artificial structure in the riverbed, which is required when a community has a RICD. The idea behind RIVR is that communities could protect recreational flows by qualifying natural river features as diversion structures, without spending millions on planning, engineering, developing and maintaining artificial structures.
The RIVR plan didn’t find any traction this legislative session but river advocates plan to float the proposal again next year.
Kuhn said river recreation advocates are working with water providers and the agricultural community to establish more efficient water management systems where recreation is at the table with all of the state’s water users.
“We want a solution that is not overly complex, but something so communities that are not as resourced as Glenwood can protect recreational flows without injuring any other water user,” Kuhn said. “We have work to do but we think recreation should be on equal footing with those other water users.”