Interior Secretary Gale Norton today applauded the state of Colorado for its filing today asking the Colorado Water Court to approve an innovative agreement to resolve difficult water issues on the Gunnison River while assuring water flows needed by Black Canyon National Park.
"This filing represents a positive change in the way we do business in resolving complicated Western water disputes and hopefully a model for the future," Norton said. "By working cooperatively in partnership with the state of Colorado, we have reached an agreement that will provide ample water for Black Canyon National Park and meet the needs of upstream communities."
The agreement, reached last April and approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in November, 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.
"As Colorado Water Conservation Board Chairman Eric Wilkinson said when the board approved the agreement last month, this is a significant day in the history of Colorado," Norton said. "We have proven that cooperation and collaboration can succeed where litigation and acrimony have failed - the federal government and states that are affected by the federal government's claim of water rights can reach agreements that work for all parties involved."
Under the agreement, 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.
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.
Rather than focusing on the federal "reserve," the agreement offers a solution under state water law.
"Normally these disputes get tangled up in prolonged court battles costing millions of taxpayer's dollars," Norton said. "While one size doesn't fit all, we hope this agreement will serve as a model that can be emulated elsewhere in the West."