The Crystal River

The Crystal River begins in the Elk Mountains of Gunnison County in Colorado and flows 40 miles to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale.  The watershed provides critical habitat for cutthroat trout, Bald Eagles, Lewis’ Woodpeckers and rare plant species, and draws anglers, kayakers and sightseers from around the world. Because of the free-flowing river’s scenic, historic and recreational values, the U.S. Forest Service has found the upper Crystal River eligible for federal Wild and Scenic River designation.


The river also supports local agricultural and municipal uses. Agricultural production – primarily hay and cattle operations – is a cornerstone of the Crystal River valley culture and economy. Approximately 4,800 irrigated acres create sublime vistas that are appreciated by residents and visitors alike.  The river provides drinking water for three municipalities: the small towns of Marble and Redstone in the upper watershed and the Town of Carbondale in the lower watershed, home to more than 7,000 people.


Pressures of population growth and climate change along with the increasing interest in the recreational values of the river bring new focus on the need to protect the ecological health of the Crystal River.  The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) holds an instream flow right (100 cfs summer / 60 cfs winter) extending from Avalanche Creek to the Roaring Fork River. As a tool for meeting local ecosystem management objectives, the CWCB ISF right is often not met in August-October in moderate and severe drought conditions because of its junior priority under Colorado water law. Second, maintaining a flow of 100 cfs in the lower Crystal River during moderate or severe drought would require the dry-up of significant tracts of existing irrigated agricultural land, a prospect that is unacceptable to the agricultural community. This tension between existing instream flow protection goals and local values underscores the need to explore further options for freeing up water to support instream needs while protecting sustainable agricultural operations.


In the state’s first Water Plan (2015) Colorado water managers and policy makers have prioritized the need to balance consumptive and non -consumptive water needs in watersheds around the state. The Crystal River watershed provides an ideal geography to develop and test tools for addressing this challenge.


Crystal River Management Plan

In 2012, severe drought conditions exacerbated conditions in the Crystal River, driving flows to historic lows, and water temperatures uncomfortably above those required to support trout populations drove.   American Rivers added the Crystal River to America’s “Most Endangered Rivers” list.  In 2013, Public Counsel of the Rockies partnered with the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Lotic Hydrological to identify, prioritize and guide management actions that honor local agricultural production, preserve existing uses, and enhance the ecological integrity of the river.

Gaging measurements in 2012 indicate severe low flow conditions on the lower Crystal River.


Developed and implemented over two years, the Crystal River Management Plan utilized a science-based and stakeholder-centered approach to consider complex interactions between the physical components driving watershed structure; the biological components of riverine ecosystems; the social context of competing perspectives, needs, and values; and the existing legal and administrative frameworks governing water use in an effort to identify and evaluate management and structural alternatives to meet our goal. A series of stakeholder meetings held throughout the planning process served to clarify outstanding questions, summarize results from previous studies, refine planning goals and objectives, and review various management alternatives.


In 2015, as our planning effort neared completion, Public Counsel of the Rockies developed a collaborative stakeholder process for evaluating the feasibility of different water and land management proposals. Facilitated by Collaborative Decision Resources (CDR), the first meeting presented and discussed findings from the Crystal River assessment and modeling analysis, and identified stakeholders’ questions and concerns. The second meeting explored issues and concerns regarding potential future action scenarios with assistance from technical and legal experts. The final meeting, in response to stakeholders repeated request for a specific desired flow target, provided the rationale for and identification of a range of ecologically-based flow targets and an estimate of the system-wide conservation percentage needed to obtain them.


click here for full report

CRMP Implementation

The Crystal River Management Plan (CRMP) identified several management options for improving stream health while preserving existing water uses:

  1. Non-Diversion Agreements by irrigators to provide between 10-25cfs to the river between the Sweet Jessup Canal and Carbondale Ditch during drought years;
  2. ditch lining and short term water leasing by the Town of Carbondale on the Carbondale Ditch and Weaver and Leonhardy Ditch; and
  3. restoration of riparian and in-channel fish habitat in specific reaches.

Since early 2016, Public Counsel of the Rockies has been working to facilitate and support several partnerships and projects to advance the implementation of the CRMP recommendations.

  • Colorado Water Trust has developed a water market to pay willing water users to reduce diversions in drier years.
  • American Rivers is working with the Town of Carbondale to re-engineer a major ditch and headgate to improve efficiency of raw water delivery in the town (for irrigation)
  • Project partners are working with the State and private funders to install gages on the lower Crystal River to demonstrate accountability in monitoring flows, signaling conditions for conservation transactions, and verifying diversion reductions.
  • The Nature Conservancy is consulting on the creation of a prototype river restoration fund to incentivize water management and delivery improvements that result in enhanced stream flows.
  • The Town of Carbondale, Aspen Valley Land Trust and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are partnering to restore riparian areas, in-river habitat and provide passive educational opportunities on a river reach in the town.

Restoration of the Crystal River will require long-term engagement by local stakeholders who depend on the river. Public Counsel working with project partners will continue to refine and test the tools of State water policy and administration to understand if and how Colorado can effectively address environmental and recreational flow needs in this watershed and other over-appropriated basins through voluntary, incentive –based collaboration.