Department Of Interior

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Office of the Secretary
Contact: Hugh Vickery
For Immediate Release:November 19, 2003
Norton Commends Colorado Water Conservation Board
For Approval of Innovative Agreement on Gunnison River

Interior Secretary Gale Norton today commended the Colorado Water Conservation Board for voting to move forward with an innovative cooperative agreement between the Interior Department and the state of Colorado that will resolve the tangled water issues on the Gunnison River while providing water flows needed by Black Canyon National Park.

"The board's decision is a crucial step in resolving a decades-old dispute, providing water for both the park and for upstream communities," Norton said. "More important, it serves as a model for how we can resolve contentious and unproductive water disputes throughout the West through cooperation and partnership rather than acrimony and litigation with states."

The agreement provides a minimum of 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water and periodic spring rises necessary to scour the canyon and remove buildup of sediment and vegetation. This conforms to a plan worked out by the National Park Service, which manages the park, the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the federal reclamation project on the river, and the state of Colorado.

On average under the agreement, more than 500,000 acre-feet of water will flow through the canyon annually, or enough water to meet the needs of more than a half million families for one year. In extremely wet years, more than 1 million acre feet will pass through the canyon.
Meanwhile, the agreement will let the Bureau of Reclamation know how to manage its water facilities each year, while local communities and citizens will be assured their water rights are secure.

"While water issues vary and one size does not fit all, we hope that this will be the first of many agreements across the West to resolve long-standing water rights disputes involving federal lands," Norton said. "We want to bring states that are directly affected by the federal government's claim of water rights into the process."

Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Craig Manson told the board at a hearing today that each spring the Bureau of Reclamation will hold a meeting with the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Colorado, water users, environmental interests, and the public to discuss the upcoming water year and how to develop a hydrograph for the peak flows to be released in the park.

"Through this process, the Park Service, the state, environmental organizations and the public will have a say in how the instream flow right is administered," Manson said.

Over the past three decades, the Gunnison, like many Western rivers, has been the subject of a dispute centered on how much water the federal government has a right to as "reserve" water. States have opposed these federal claims, since large federal rights can disrupt state systems for allocating water. Courts have ruled that the federal right to water exists but have seldom clearly identified how much water the federal government owns in places like Black Canyon.
The normal approach to resolving these disputes is for states and the federal government to hire experts and lawyers to battle against each other in board. This litigation can cost millions of dollars--with taxpayers funding both sides.

Rather than focusing on the federal "reserve," the department decided to seek a solution under state water law, Manson said. "Instead of leaving it up to the lawyers and the court system, our vision involves communication, consultation, and cooperation with the state, affected water users and landowners," Manson told the board. "It involves the federal government not asking how much is available but asking how much we truly need."


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