Protecting Instream Flows in the Gunnison Basin and Beyond

Here at HCCA we’re doing a number of things to protect healthy streams. One of the ways that streams can be protected under Colorado law is through the appropriation of instream flow rights. We’d like to begin sharing with our members some information about instream flows and the importance of supporting these protections in the Colorado Water Plan.

Instream Flow Q & A Session: Part One

Q: What are instream flows?

A: The term “instream flow” generally refers to the flowing water that remains in a natural stream bed. An instream flow water right is a legal right that protects a quantified amount of natural flow in a stream, river or natural lake. Instream flow rights are generally designated for a particular stream reach and quantified based on a cubic feet per second (cfs) standard. The cfs standard is a rate of flow equal to a volume of water one foot high and one foot wide flowing a distance of one foot in one second (an amount roughly the size of a soccer ball).

Q: Why are instream flows important?

A: First and foremost, instream flows can preserve and improve natural stream and lake habitats. Stream flows protect aquatic ecosystems and play a crucial role in supporting healthy fisheries and wildlife populations. They provide for a range of recreational activities, including fly-fishing and boating. In the valley instream flows contribute to the natural aesthetic along trails and in our panoramic views. Finally, stream levels can have direct impacts on water quality.

Q: Can instream flows protect streams against all other uses?

A: Sometimes, but not always. Like all water rights in Colorado, instream flow rights have what is known as a “priority date” associated with them. Rights that are “senior”, or appropriated earlier in time, must be fulfilled before “junior” rights, or rights appropriated at a later date, can be enforced. This means that senior rights used for consumptive purposes, such as for stock watering, irrigation, etc., must be satisfied before junior instream flows can be enforced. Thus, even if a stream has an instream flow, it may still be dried up if there are significant senior water rights on that stream. However, the instream flow will still protect the stream against appropriators that came later in time as well as against future appropriations.

Stay tuned for more information on instream flows and their role in protecting why we love it here!