June 15, 2008

Look to Black Canyon As a Model

Imagine - environmentalists and water users, as well as state and federal governments, actually agreeing on a compromise over the water flowing through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. If accepted by a state water court judge, the 30-year squabble will end in an agreement that allows annual peak flows and shoulder flows - tied to natural runoff - plus a year-round base flow of 300 cubic feet per second. It's a good accord - too bad it took so much litigation to get the parties to sit down and hash it all out.

After seemingly ceaseless reports of wrangling over everything from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the fate of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, it's little wonder that news of this happy settlement in southwestern Colorado caught our attention.

Why can't this sort of news be the norm, rather than the exception? Why can't this level of cooperation be a model for the resolution of other disagreements over the use of our natural resources?

The answer is that it can, especially if we learn from the history of this conflict.

For eons, water gushed or trickled (more often gushed) through the Black Canyon as nature and the seasons dictated. These historical flows helped scour the imposing river gorge, removing debris, signaling fish when to spawn and even removing parasites that have more recently devastated fish populations with the dread whirling disease.

About a hundred years ago, Coloradans started chipping away at those flows by diverting Gunnison River water to towns and farms. By 1933, when the canyon was designated a national monument, large quantities of water were being taken from the river.

It was 1963, however, when the biggest change came to the Black Canyon. It was in that year that the federal government completed a series of three major reservoirs - including the state's largest, Blue Mesa - at the head of the gorge. The 2 million-year era of the great earth-cutting surges was effectively over.

But beginning with a water court judge's ruling in 1978, the pendulum began to swing back and forth between the desire for greater or lesser flows through the breathtaking chasm.

The administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton aligned themselves with conservationists who favored historical flows dating back to the 1933 water right, while President George W. Bush has pushed for lower flows and more widespread use of the water for farmers, power producers and towns.

At the end of this tug-of-war came a lawsuit and a court ruling in 2006 that set the stage for the settlement talks that concluded last week. It was, finally, as Interior Department solicitor David Bernhardt said in the Rocky, "a common-sense solution that achieves the various parties' respective goals, which is historic."

Historic indeed. And the lesson we spoke of earlier that can be drawn from this? Skip the bickering and get down to the talking.

Just think how much time, money and energy was frittered away over the course of 30 years or more before the various interests came to realize that giving a little here and taking a little there might be the best way to work out their differences.

As Colorado's profile grows ever larger in the nation's energy future, this lesson is a gift that should not be spurned. The wealth of natural resources beneath our state's ruddy soil - petroleum locked in shale, natural gas, uranium - is already beginning to provoke superheated controversies, fiercely debated legislation and threatened legal action. (Can you say "Roan plateau"?) Environmentalists, lawmakers and energy producers alike would do well to embrace the model offered last week out of Gunnison and Montrose counties .

Originally published by Rocky Mountain News.

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