Colorado Water Project

Many rivers and streams in Colorado are heavily depleted and lack the flows necessary to sustain healthy coldwater fisheries. Since its inception in 1998, Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project has worked to address this problem. The Water Project has defeated water diversion and storage projects that would diminish river flows, has helped to pass several pieces of legislation expanding the state instream flow program, and has created dialogue among water providers regarding ways to develop water supplies without damaging Colorado’s rivers and fisheries. Trout Unlimited is the only group in Colorado dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring stream flows and rivers.


Given Colorado’s population growth and weak laws and policies protecting rivers and fish, top priorities for the Colorado Water Project are to ensure that current legal protections for our rivers are not weakened or eliminated and to require new water development to proceed only if it will conserve, protect or restore the rivers that would otherwise be adversely affected.

  • Temperature Standards: In 2007 the Colorado Water Project and Colorado Trout Unlimited succeeded in gaining temperature standards for Colorado rivers. The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission approved new standards for water temperature at its January hearing, adopting standards that will protect Colorado fisheries for decades to come.
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison: In 2006, the Water Project won a key legal battle to prevent the federal government from giving away much of its instream water right for the Black Canyon National Park to fuel more Front Range development.
  • AB Lateral: After a 20 year fight, in 2005 TU finally defeated the proposed AB Lateral Project, which would have taken more than 1000 cfs from the Gunnison River above the Black Canyon for hydropower development.
  • Bypass Flows: Since 1995, CTU and the Colorado Water Project have successfully led the fight to defend the current law that allows federal agencies to require minimum flows below water projects on federal lands; while the issue potentially affects more than 8,000 diversions on federal lands, the focal point is chronically-dewatered tributaries of Colorado’s only designated wild and scenic river, the Cache la Poudre.
  • Upper CO: In 2006, the Water Project secured better flows in the fabled Upper Colorado River after water diversions to the Front Range temporarily reduced flows to dangerously low levels; CTU and the Colorado Water Project are now working with the transbasin diverters and state and federal water managers to secure better year round flows and to ensure that new water diversions from the Fraser, Colorado and Blue rivers do not harm the rivers or their trout.
  • Recreational In-Channel Diversion Water Rights: Colorado law allows local governments to obtain legally recognized water rights for in-the-river recreational purposes, such as kayak courses; when traditional water users and the state challenged these limited rights in the Colorado courts and legislature, the Colorado Water Project joined with local communities and recreational interests to defend them.
  • Dry Legacy: In 2002 and 2003, the Water Project released reports demonstrating the impacts of dewatering on 10 rivers across the state; in response to this report and the outreach effort accompanying it, CTU and the Colorado Water Project secured several improvements in state water law, including a provision that allows the CWCB to acquire water rights that restore streams (and not just maintain minimum flows) and other provisions that make it easier to leave water in rivers during periods of drought.
  • Advocating for Expansion of the State’s Instream Flow Program: In Colorado, private parties cannot lease water to improve instream flows. The Colorado Water Project is beginning to work with elected officials and water users to discuss the possibility of legislation that would create a private leasing program for Colorado.

While much of the focus of the Colorado Water Project involves defending the state’s rivers from new water withdrawals and expanding the tools and incentives to conserve the state’s rivers, TU also focuses on on-the-ground protection and restoration efforts. These projects broaden the coalition of interests that support instream flows and act as an incubator for building stronger communities with more interest in river protection.

  • CWCB Appropriations: The Water Project works with local TU chapters and others to recommend new instream flow water rights to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, currently the only entity in the state authorized to hold in-river water rights to preserve the environment. We also work with the CWCB to protect the water rights that state agency has already acquired.
  • Water Rights Acquisitions: Colorado Water Project staff works with TU chapters and private landowners to identify water rights holders willing to use their water rights in ways that allow additional stream flows when fish need it most. We also work on agreements under which senior water rights are donated to the CWCB instream flow program and can provide legal assistance and technical expertise for specific habitat and flow restoration projects.
  • Future Focus Areas: Using new legal tools and the state’s heightened recognition of the importance of instream flows, TU hopes to launch a major watershed restoration project by 2010, working primarily with private landowners to voluntarily improve habitats and flow conditions

In a state where the competing demands for limited water resources are enormous and continually growing, building political support for instream flows is critical. The public, elected officials and agencies need to understand how important healthy rivers and fisheries are to Colorado’s economy and quality of life. We are optimistic that our work will provide a roadmap to healthier rivers with abundant flows, and healthier communities that are vested in the long-term protection of their watersheds.