Proposed legislation would solidify decades-old river promise
Photo by: 
Chris Rourke
The Shady Island River Park project, seen here during a visit by Gunnison County Planning Commission and Community Development staff, could stand to benefit financially, should the Bureau of Reclamation honor its agreement to restore or compensate for fishing easements.
The Shady Island River Park project, seen here during a visit by Gunnison County Planning Commission and Community Development staff, could stand to benefit financially, should the Bureau of Reclamation honor its agreement to restore or compensate for fishing easements.

A promise made more than a half century ago to restore public fishing access in the Upper Gunnison Basin appears to remain unfulfilled. Now, local leaders are counting on federal legislation to memorialize that promise and bring it to fruition.

The pledge by the federal Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) involves 26 miles of river easements in exchange for the flooding of Blue Mesa Reservoir in the mid-1960s. To date, it is estimated about half of those easements have been acquired, leaving Gunnison County leaders seeking the remaining miles.

Two recent federal legislative proposals would formally designate boundaries for Curecanti National Recreation Area, which emcompasses Blue Mesa. However only one of them — a bill introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet — specifically calls for action on the unfulfilled commitment. 

The second — a “discussion draft” of a bill proposed by Congressman Scott Tipton — includes no mention of the river easements. At least not yet.

 

Mitigation for inundation

The Colorado River Storage Project Act (CRSPA) of 1956 authorized the construction of four water storage projects in the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. 

The Wayne N. Aspinall Unit — consisting of the Blue Mesa, Crystal and Morrow Point dams — was a product of the act, with construction taking place in the mid 1960s. CRSPA included language in Section 8 of the act which authorized mitigation of wildlife impacts due to the construction of the reservoirs. 

With the construction of the Aspinall Unit, an estimated 6,000 acres of big-game winter range, 40 miles of the Gunnison River and 26 miles of Gunnison River tributaries were lost to what is known as inundation — or the flooding of the area. 

“(Several agencies) recommended against it,” said Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District attorney John McClow of the Aspinall Unit. “In spite of it, Congress went ahead and authorized it because a report indicated it was sufficiently feasible financially.”

The commitment for acquiring easements was never formally documented, McClow said, but a paper trail of memos between the Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies — both federal and state — indicates it was indeed sought. 

“There’s repeated reference made in correspondence, so clearly there was a promise made by someone in the federal government,” said McClow. “I, and the Bureau of Reclamation, have been unable to track down any formal grant, promise or commitment.”

A 1986 letter from Colorado Division of Wildlife Director James Ruch to BOR Regional Director Clifford Barrett indicates the debate continued over the course of decades following Aspinall’s construction. Ruch noted that a lack of funding had created a backlog of mitigation projects and a plan should be developed to provide a steady reduction of the BOR’s commitments. 

Still, little was done to chip away at the backlog.

 

Local interest

With the advent of new recreation projects such as the Shady Island River Park north of Gunnison, County Commissioners have pushed to memorialize the remaining easement miles — and be compensated for projects which fulfill the BOR’s obligation.

Shady Island would return some of those miles to public fishing access. 

In recent years, Commissioner John Messner began to inquire about the number of unfulfilled miles, as well as the county receiving monetary compensation for the planned Shady Island project. He said he was told by a BOR spokesman that the agency believed it had already fulfilled its pledge.

McClow noted other easements downstream of Blue Mesa which the BOR has granted.

“It only counts if it happened upstream of Blue Mesa Reservoir, and it only counts if it replaces fishing access, because that was the whole idea,” McClow opined. “There may have been mitigation for the project as a whole, but the whole idea was Blue Mesa Reservoir mitigation. It isn’t logical to say something in Crawford is mitigation for prime fishing habitat lost in the Gunnison River.”

Messner agreed.

“All the documentation at this point indicates clearly that the mitigation responsibility to the citizens of Gunnison County is not nearly complete, and the Bureau of Reclamation is interested in walking away from its responsibility,” said Messner, who reached out to Sen. Michael Bennet’s office. 

While the BOR claims there is no property to be purchased with “Class 1” waters, Messner pointed out that fulfillment has been partially completed through acquisition of easements along smaller stream segments. 

The BOR has developed five classifications of streams — from Class 5 widths of nine feet, to 72-foot widths for a Class 1 waterway. Stream portions smaller than Class 1 have been purchased in an attempt to fulfill a portion of the commitment. 

To date, it’s believed slightly more than 14 miles of easements have been obtained toward the 26-mile objective, according to a 2003 summary obtained from McClow. He said he was unaware of any easements which had been secured since 2003.

 

Federal legislation at odds

Last January, Sen. Bennet introduced legislation combining four previously introduced recreation and conservation bills into one, known as the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy — or CORE — Act.

The Curecanti National Recreation Area Boundary Act is one of the four bills rolled into CORE. In addition to a formal boundary designation, the Curecanti bill aims to expand public fishing access lost with the creation of the Aspinall Unit.

By comparison, another bill — the Colorado Recreation Act, expected to be introduced by Congressman Scott Tipton in coming weeks — does not include the requirement for fishing easements. 

Tipton spokesman Matt Atwood said his office has asked the BOR for technical assistance on the issue. Atwood said the BOR indicated that it did not think there were 26 miles of Class 1 fishing easements to be issued in the Upper Gunnison Basin, so it was left out of the bill.

“We are continuing to have conversations with BOR and other stakeholders to determine the history of this commitment and how BOR may be able to fulfill it,” Atwood said. 

Yet, on Sept. 3 County Commissioners sent a letter to Tipton expressing disappointment in his draft.

“Contrary to the BOR’s claims, the Federal government has not met its mitigation obligation, and a number of areas remain throughout Gunnison County — such as around Gunnison County’s Shady Island project — that the BOR could, and indeed should acquire as part of its responsibilities under the law,” the letter states. “Candidly, we are taken aback by your apparent decision to side with federal agency bureaucrats against your own constituents, particularly the sportsmen and women who were and continue to be denied trophy fishing access.”

Tipton has conducted closed meetings throughout the district in an attempt to get input regarding his bill and other issues. Most recently, he scheduled a meeting open to the public on Oct. 1 in Ouray.

 

(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at chris.rourke@gunnisontimes.com.)