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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

Gunnison's Developing Relationship With Its Newest Recreational Park

By Erin McIntyre

To most people driving on U.S. Highway 50 west of Gunnison, the stretch of water just west of town near the Twin Bridges is just another fast-moving section of the Gunnison River. Even a trained eye might have a hard time telling that beneath the water's surface are hundreds of boulders strategically placed to make a whitewater park.

On spring and summer afternoons, tourists might observe brightly colored kayaks bobbing in and out of the waves, and applaud Gunnison for its recreation-friendly community. What is not apparent to casual observers are the hours invested in legal wrangling and community dialogue that went into building the park and obtaining the water right necessary to give this park a priority over some of the other future water uses in the valley.

Outside of the courtroom and beyond the water board meetings, the results of this hard-fought battle beg the question: How does the Gunnison community feel about its new recreational hotspot?

Making Sense of It All
By the time the park was built, most of the community was in favor of the project, says George Sibley, a professor at Western State College and organizer of the annual Gunnison Water Workshop.

Sibley says many locals supported the whitewater park because they thought gaining a water right for the park assured that the water could not be diverted to the Front Range. In the past, water developers have eyed the Gunnison River basin for projects such as Union Park, a proposed 1.2 million acre-foot reservoir. Although Union Park's proponents lost a Colorado Supreme Court battle in 1998, when the court declared there was not enough water for the project, many locals still fear losing water to transmountain diversions.

‘Frankly, that was a major reason for getting local support for it,’ says Sibley. ‘It assures the water will have to be in the river at least for that far.’

But not everyone in Gunnison agrees. Rikki Santarelli, former Gunnison County attorney and commissioner, was on the commission when the county decided to build the park on its own land, and supported the effort. Now Santarelli feels that the park's water rights may actually hurt the valley in the long run by hindering residential and other development upstream.

He says if Front Range communities want water from the Gunnison Basin, a kayak park won't stop them because they have more political clout and money than the small mountain town. What the kayak park hinders, says Santarelli, is development in the Gunnison Valley that could benefit the community.

‘(The whitewater park) is kind of at the bottom of the valley,’ says Santarelli, who has some clients who are developers. ‘So, everybody who wants to make any change in the water right above that kayak park has to come up with a way to augment the stream.

Under Colorado law, junior water right holders are allowed to use water out of priority, but they must replace, or augment, what was used with the same quantity and suitable quality of water. An augmentation plan identifies how, where and when the water will be supplied. The law was the legislature's solution to over appropriation of the state's rivers.

Some feel that is not a reasonable expectation in this case. According to Santarelli, ‘The water district should do something so that upstream users don't have to augment the stream to meet that silly kayak course's (water right).

To put a few kayakers in a higher priority than houses or businesses or even tourist-related industries is ridiculous. Suppose somebody wanted to build a resort?’

Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District Director Karen Shirley said the district is trying to be flexible and is still learning how to balance the park's rights with its other constituents' needs.

‘I think they all understand this is kind of a work in progress,’ says Shirley. ‘The district is looking at some administrative policies to try to decrease augmentation requirements just for indoor use.’

Gunnison Basin water users are accustomed to the concept of augmentation. Generally this means providing an alternate source of water to fulfill senior rights, should senior water users put a ‘call’ for their water on the river.

Those filing for water rights after the park's 2002 priority date would be most affected.

New development has to deal with augmentation requirements from most of the basin already, says Shirley. One of the oldest rights belongs to the Gunnison Tunnel, with a 1904 priority date. The tunnel, located about six miles east of Montrose, was one of the first projects the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation undertook. Upstream, junior water users have been ‘called out’ of the river and had diversions curtailed to meet senior rights.

Even if augmentation is required, Shirley says there is no lack of development in the Gunnison Valley.

‘The developers aren't discouraged,’ she says. ‘It costs them more, but there is not a lack of development above the kayak course.’

The whitewater park's water right decree stipulates the water district will take the rest of the river basin into consideration when placing a call. Shirley says this allows for flexibility, and she anticipates the same flexibility will be required of the district in the future of the course, whatever it evolves into.

‘If, in 20 years people don't use (the park) as much, we can take that into consideration.
We don't know what the next economic or beneficial use of water will be and it's very hard to predict the future,’ says Shirley.

Boulders and Bulldozers
Just installing the waterpark in the first place was a bit of an engineering experiment. What lies beneath the water is a series of rock and concrete diversion structures installed by Gunnison County four years ago. They channel the river into surf holes, drops and pools that boaters and kayakers use to stage competitions or just while away a sunny afternoon.

‘I've been working with the park since 2002 and the best way I can describe it is a 'work in progress,' ’ says Bob Jones with the Todd Crane Center for Outdoor Leadership at Western State College.

In addition to the water rights battles, those working to construct the park have had to balance issues with the neighboring landowners, the airport, a water-treatment plant and the state transportation department. Proponents have also learned to go with the flow of a construction project involving rushing water, which can shift and change everything without warning.

‘The process (of creating the park) took a lot longer and was much more expensive than I think the district and the county anticipated,’ Shirley says. As of February 2006, the district had invested approximately $475,000 just in legal fees, mediation, and other costs associated with obtaining the park's water rights. This does not include the amount spent by Gunnison County to construct the park.

‘The biggest problem and obstacle we had getting the park approved was from homeowners adjacent to the river who were concerned that the features would cause a bigger icing problem in the spring runoff,’ says Mark Gibson, assistant professor of recreation at Western State College.

Gibson's program boasts the second-largest number of majors on campus, partially because the park helps recruit students, he says.

Constructing and maintaining a whitewater park is an imprecise science. Some say it will require more trial and error, and will continue to change over time.

The top structure in the park still isn't complete says Shirley. Recently, Gunnison County hired engineer and hydrologist Jeff Crane of Crane and Associates in Hotchkiss, to re-build parts of the upstream end of the park, and fine tune other park features.

‘It does take what I call 'adaptive management' to do anything in the river,’ says Crane.

‘(The park) wasn't designed quite enough to take into account the bend in the river,’ he says, adding that one side of the whitewater park is substantially deeper than the other now.

‘Hydrology is so far from being an exact science that you have to plan on making revisions. You don't want to force the water to do what it doesn't want to do,’ says Crane, who is also the president of the Colorado Watershed Assembly.

Repair to the park's original features has been problematic. Cold weather iced over the river in November, making work impossible. Crews have a narrow window of opportunity to do the work, between the time when the ice melts and peak runoff arrives.

Of primary importance in creating the pools and drops boaters want, is making sure historical diversions along the course still receive the water they are entitled. Part of Crane's work involves improving the diversion structure for the 75 Ditch, located near the upstream end of the park.

This time of year, his design looks more like a riffle in the river, not an engineered structure, he says. But ultimately, the structure will fulfill two purposes. Buried rocks in the river bottom will create enough of a backwater to divert a full decree of water into the ditch, and he hopes the boulders will also create a little water feature at the top end of the whitewater park.

‘Is there a wave here? Is there going to be a hole? We don't know yet because we haven't had high water yet,’ he says. ‘But I have no doubt it will work well as a ditch diversion and it will work well for the river in the long term.’

‘Designing water parks is not a hard science,’ says Gibson. ‘You put things in the river and you have to see how it acts.’

Regardless of what the final version of the park will be, Crane says collaboration will be necessary for this water park and any others that come along.

‘This is the future of water use in this state—developing projects that will benefit water users, recreation, storage, agriculture, everyone,’ says Crane. ‘We're pulling together because there's a very limited supply of water we have to work with."

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