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Coalition: Can State Water Plan Sustain Colorado Recreation Economy?

PHOTO: Colorado has an enviable outdoor recreation economy worth about $12 billion annually, but conservationists and outdoor recreation business leaders worry the state's new water plan may reduce river levels and flow. Photo credit: Jeremy Bailey/American Whitewater.
PHOTO: Colorado has an enviable outdoor recreation economy worth about $12 billion annually, but conservationists and outdoor recreation business leaders worry the state's new water plan may reduce river levels and flow. Photo credit: Jeremy Bailey/American Whitewater.
September 12, 2014

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. - Outdoor business leaders and conservationists are joining forces to urge Colorado to prioritize river-based recreation in the state's upcoming water plan.

As the Colorado Water Conservation Board meets Friday to discuss the first statewide water plan, the conservation and business coalition will press the state to rely on data collected around the Colorado River Basin to ensure enough water remains in rivers to sustain the region's $12 billion recreation economy.

Nathan Fey, director of Colorado River stewardship programs at American Whitewater, said he thinks the draft plan fails to make some crucial connections.

"We're not seeing the state water plan make that effort and really invest in improving our understanding of river health and recreational health," he said.

Fey said he finds that missing connection odd, since the science on which his coalition bases its concerns isn't anything new.

"There are nearly four decades of science that have been developed around how to define stream flows for recreation," he said, "and to understand the relationship between flow and recreation quality."

The state's draft water plan currently includes major trans-mountain diversions, and a movement of water across the Rocky Mountains for the state's thirsty Front Range cities such as Denver and Boulder. Fey predicted that moving water on a speculative basis would jeopardize the health of many of the state's most beloved rivers without considering greater conservation measures as an option.

"We think that the water plan should prioritize conservation and other concepts like reuse and water sharing," he said. "That is much more palatable than these new, large-scale projects that are divisive and really destroy our river systems."

The same need to prioritize river health, Fey said, will be on the agenda for the regionwide Colorado River Basin Study, a major federal document that will impact western rivers for decades to come.

"What really needs to happen next, because it's not just Colorado," he said, "is our neighboring states in the basin make a concerted effort to identify how much water we need to keep in our rivers to sustain a recreation economy."

According to Fey, outdoor recreation access and quality, along with overall environmental health, are among the top concerns of Colorado residents - and one of the key advantages for Front Range-area businesses in attracting new employees.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board meetings continue today at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs.

Tommy Hough/Chris Thomas, Public News Service - CO