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Water Quality in the San Juan, Gunnison, Dolores Basins

The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) holds a rule-making hearing to review and modify the use classifications and water quality standards for each major river basin once every five years. Colorado Trout Unlimited has participated in many of these hearing for over 20 years to protect the trout fisheries of Colorado by proposing and supporting more stringent water quality standards.

The last hearing took place in 2006, and CTU participated as an official party in a rule-making hearing for the San Juan, Gunnison, and lower Dolores river basins.  Consultant Dr. John Woodling (a retired DOW water quality expert) represented CTU throughout this year-long process. TU’s in-house scientist, Dr. Andrew Todd, also provided support through the process. Participating in water quality standard setting is not a public-friendly process; it requires very active participation at a very technical level – digging into the issues, assembling data, filing prehearing and rebuttal statements, coordinating with agency experts, and offering testimony before the Commission. Often, CTU is the only entity participating in these hearings that is requesting strict protective standards for Colorado’s water quality. The 2006 hearing featured some important victories for water quality protection:

  • CTU supported the proposal by our allies at the San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) to designated Hermosa Creek as an “Outstanding Water,” triggering stronger standards that prevent future degradation of the stream’s water quality. Hermosa Creek is a high-quality mountain stream fishery and its watershed includes multiple Colorado River cutthroat trout recovery populations. The watershed itself is one of the most promising sites in the state for future restoration of native trout on a watershed scale. The Commission approved the Outstanding Waters designation for this stream, helping to preserve its unique values. Kudos to Chuck Wanner with SJCA (and a member of CTU’s Five Rivers Chapter), who spearheaded this proposal!
  • The zinc standard was lowered in waters of both basins that contain sculpin populations and have relatively lower hardness levels. Sculpin are more sensitive to zinc than trout. Protection of sculpin increases the chances that all forms of aquatic life, including trout, will be protected from potential zinc toxicity. CTU had initially proposed this change during a 2005 commission rule-making hearing regarding changes to the basic standards applied to all waters statewide. The Commission did not accept the CTU proposal because sculpin are limited to waters on the west slope; state agency staff instead recommended tackling the changes in the specific west-slope basin hearings. The San Juan/Gunnison/Dolores hearing represents the first steps in putting these improved standards in place throughout the western slope.
  • The Commission rejected a request by Tri-State Power to change the use classification for part of the San Miguel River from a coldwater stream to a warmwater stream. This would have allowed them to discharge warm water from their power plant without regard for its impacts on coldwater species. CTU obtained photographic evidence of anglers catching rather large trout in this river segment. These photographs along with technical information included in CTU’s Pre-hearing Statement induced Tri-State to try and reach agreement with the WQCD in the form of a stipulation. This stipulation was approved and retains the cold water classification of the river, as a coldwater class 2 stream.

CTU participation in these hearings helps assure that aquatic resources, particularly trout, are protected throughout the State of Colorado. Thank you for helping make these efforts possible.