Protecting Our Headwaters for the Future

On the first day of the 2023 Fourth Quarterly Board Meeting, River District Directors heard a report from Senior Water Resources Engineer & Project Manager Raquel Flinker and Water Resources Engineer Rebecca Briesmoore on the work of a broad stakeholder group to bring an ‘Outstanding Waters’ designation to multiple headwater streams across the West Slope.

For context, the Clean Water Act of 1972 empowers individual states and tribes to establish safeguards for water quality in their regions. In Colorado, the Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) oversees Regulation 31, which defines basic standards and methodologies for surface water. This regulation includes an antidegradation rule to ensure that water quality is not degraded, while protecting existing uses. Colorado’s antidegradation designations are divided into three tiers: ‘Use-Protected Waters,’ ‘Reviewable Waters,’ and ‘Outstanding Waters’ (OW).

‘Use-Protected Waters’ maintain existing uses and water quality standards. ‘Reviewable Waters’ receive the same protections as Use-Protected Waters but add a prohibition on significant degradation. ‘Outstanding Waters,’ the highest rating, prohibits new or increased pollution. Only temporary or minor decreases in water quality are permitted in these waterways.

Importantly, Outstanding Waters designations do not impact existing water uses requiring a Water Quality Control Division (WQCD) permit, such as wastewater treatment discharges or stormwater permits Water use from non-point sources, such as grazing and agricultural, are not regulated by the WQCD and are not impacted.

Furthermore, Outstanding Waters designations cannot impact water rights, as Colorado law prohibits the Commission from using OW designations in a way that impairs water rights.[1] Any new projects requiring permits, however,  would have additional conditions to ensure water quality is not degraded

Currently, Colorado boasts 88 stream segments and waterways with an Outstanding Waters designation, covering 7,600 miles of waterways. For a waterway to qualify for OW designation, it must meet specific criteria, including exceptional water quality, recreational or ecological significance, and a need for protection beyond state water quality standards. The stretch of water must also meet water quality standards for 12 other key parameters and prove its value for recreation and ecology.

The Process

Stakeholder engagement and local support are essential for Outstanding Waters designation. Here in Colorado, the Colorado River Basin Outstanding Waters Coalition is currently evaluating potential stream segment candidates in high-elevation tributaries, engaging with various organizations, communities, and agencies, including the Colorado River District. Local support and outreach are crucial for the designation process.

High-elevation tributaries being considered on Colorado’s West Slope include stretches in both the upper and lower reaches of the Colorado River Basin. In the upper watershed, the Coalition is looking at Big Alkali Creek and its tributaries north of Eagle, along with West Brush Creek, East Brush Creek, and their tributaries along the Eagle River watershed. In the Roaring Fork River basin, Woody Creek, Hunter Creek, South Thompson Creek, Middle Thompson Creek, and Avalanche Creek are all potential candidates. On the lower end of the Colorado, East Fork Parachute Creek and its tributaries are under consideration. And within the Yampa River basin, 13 stretches are seeking designation within various watersheds. Regular monitoring of water quality parameters and ecological significance for all of these OW candidates will be required for the designation process.

The Water Quality Control Commission reviews Outstanding Waters designations on a triennial schedule, including an Issues Scoping hearing, Issues Formulation Hearing, and Rule Making Hearing. The OW candidates will be presented to the WQCC at the Issues Formulation Hearing in November 2023, with a final decision expected at the Rule Making Hearing in June 2024.

[1] As outlined in Regulation 31 and Colorado Revised Statutes (C.R.S.) §25-8-104.