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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

The Healthy Rivers Fund

by Abigail Eagye

Usually, the goals of environmental groups and Jeep clubs seem at odds. But in Jamestown, Colo., the James Creek Watershed Initiative has worked hand in hand with 4x4 clubs to restore natural areas around nearby James and Left Hand creeks.

At first glance, their visions for the land completely differ. The four-wheelers are there to play, while the watershed initiative seeks to protect the town’s water supply from the consequences of that play—namely, excess sediment in the creeks.

Efforts to mitigate water quality problems stemming from the eroding Jeep trails could easily have driven the groups apart. But in order to secure a grant from Colorado’s Healthy Rivers Fund, everyone with a stake in the project had to be on board. Members of the watershed initiative realized they had to address the four-wheelers’ concerns—still having a playground—to achieve their own goals. And a joint effort to re-route the four-wheel trails away from the waterways was born.

Seed money to grow on

The Healthy Rivers Fund is supported entirely by a check-off option on the Colorado income tax return. Since 2003, its first year on the return, the fund has garnered nearly $632,000. Its grants generally range from $5,000 to $25,000, although it has allocated as much as $50,000 to a single project.

It doesn’t sound like much. But even the smallest grant serves as seed money for eliciting larger donations. The grants cannot support more than 50 percent of a project’s total cost, so local organizers must kick in the rest themselves or appeal to other donors, like the Environmental Protection Agency.

“On average, for each dollar the Healthy Rivers Fund spends, the local community comes up with another eight,” says Chris Sturm, stream restoration coordinator with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state agency that administers the fund. “And that has been the real success of the fund,” he says. “It’s leveraging larger pots of money from usually federal sources that require a local match.”

Also, by requiring that stakeholders work out their differences before doling out grants, the Healthy Rivers Fund not only finances projects, it helps them reach fruition faster and more economically than if a project required consultants and lawyers to make each side’s case.

In one instance, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to build a diversion project on the North Fork of the Gunnison was estimated to cost $135,000. Instead, stakeholders completed the project on their own for a mere $40,000, with some money from the Healthy Rivers Fund. The project solved a problem created each year when a ditch company bulldozed a makeshift dam, diverting the entire river to fill its ditches. The action would result in a dry stretch of riverbed impassable to fish. Instead of using the Corps’ larger-scale project, a local watershed group created a by-pass and installed a head gate to help the ditch company divert only the water it needed while giving the fish safe passage down the river.

“There’s not enough said about how effective a watershed group can be,” says Jeff Crane, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Watershed Assembly, a coalition of about 70 local watershed groups. “A $20,000 grant can go a lot further with a watershed group than a government entity.”

“It is great to have a citizen base that does not have to conform to all the red tape. They can really get something done,” adds Crane.

The fund’s past and its future

It was the Colorado Watershed Assembly that fought to put the Healthy Rivers Fund on the state tax return. The fund’s objective is to protect water quality by preserving whole watersheds. Projects have included organizing volunteer programs to monitor water quality; creating public access to popular rivers; improving and increasing fish habitat in areas affected by the Hayman fire; and examining water policy.

The Healthy Rivers Fund was originally called the Colorado Watershed Protection Fund, but when it nearly missed raising the $75,000 annual minimum to remain on the tax return, administrators changed the name. Everyone knows what rivers are and why we value them. But the concept of a watershed is less tangible to many.

Despite the new name, any project that benefits the overall health of a watershed is eligible for funds, since aquatic and terrestrial life are inextricably linked. “A lot of what’s going on in the water, good or bad, is a direct result of how the land’s being used,” says Sturm. “A small project in a degraded area can do wonders for connecting a lot of habitat.”

But the fund itself could use more dollars. In addition to nearly losing its spot on the tax return, some qualified applicants leave empty-handed. Sturm has received three times as many requests as he could support through the fund, but he’d like to see every qualified project receive a grant.

“The government can easily put money into this fund if they want to,” Crane says. “There’s a huge need out there.”

The CWCB cooperates with Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission to administer the fund and determine who gets the grants. The two work closely with the Colorado Watershed Assembly, which is where potential applicants should go to get the ball rolling.

Individuals who wish to donate can check the Healthy Rivers Fund box on their state tax return to give a $1 donation or write in a larger amount. Every extra dollar matters to keep the fund alive, a necessary prospect, says Sturm, if people want the Colorado they’ve come to love to be protected.

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