Two American Robins bathe in a stream.
Two American Robins bathe in a stream.

American Robins. Photo: Susan Murray/Audubon Photography Awards
American Robins. Photo: Susan Murray/Audubon Photography Awards

Western Rivers Initiative

Protecting Colorado’s Streams for Birds and People

More than 520 miles of streams protected in southwest Colorado.

The protection of Colorado’s waterways is essential for birds, the natural environment, and all of us to thrive. These are the rivers that sustain us—rivers that provide us drinking water, habitats for birds and wildlife, scenery to revel in, and endless opportunities for recreation. With the uncertainties of climate change and declining water supply, our help is needed now more than ever. We depend on these waterways as much as they depend on us, and it is up to us to steward them.

Audubon applauds our partner organizations within the Southwest Outstanding Waters Coalition for their collaborative and invaluable efforts to designate more than 520 stream miles as outstanding waters in the San Juan, Gunnison, Dolores, San Miguel, and Animas basins. The coalition worked collaboratively over the last three years to select, sample, and identify outstanding resources for 25 different stream reaches to be designated as Outstanding Waters. We commend the tenacious work of everyone involved and are proud to support the work of our partners in this collaboration.

The Clean Water Act gives states the authority to designate waterways with exceptionally high water quality as Outstanding Natural Resource Waters to ensure their water quality is protected. In Colorado, a waterway is declared outstanding when it meets specific water quality criteria, has outstanding natural resource values such as aquatic life habitat or recreational use, and is threatened by outside impacts that require additional protections. This program is administered by Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission through a triennial review process. Colorado has declared diverse waterways throughout the state, ranging from the bountiful San Juan Mountains to our iconic Rocky Mountain National Park, as Outstanding Waters. This most recent effort added 520 miles of Outstanding Waters.

In the face of drought, wildfire, and development, Colorado must work to ensure streams with high water quality are protected and help preserve their exceptional ecological and recreational values. The Outstanding Waters designation, and the data that supported it, show that there are streams across Colorado with exceptional water quality, and maintaining them to protect that water quality ensures a future that is resilient to climate change and other challenges.

The new water quality protections afforded to streams in the Southwest are a great start to ensure greater climate resilience, ecosystem health, and recreational opportunities in Colorado. The state has an opportunity to secure additional Outstanding Waters protections across the state—including in the Colorado Basins—where there are many high-quality streams deserving of protection.

Our call to action for you, Audubon members: this is your chance to help identify streams that are in need of protection! Belted Kingfishers and Black-headed Grosbeaks are calling on you. Where are your favorite riverside birding spots on the Western Slope? What are exceptional riparian areas that are worthy of protection? We would love to hear from you. Please email me with your input at samantha.grant@audubon.org.  

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