Cooperatove Conservation Project

Pathfinder Project on the Colorado “GMUG” National Forests

Balancing Healthy Streamfl ows and Human Water Needs

Location: South-Central/South-West Region: Colorado

Project Summary: Pathfinders developed 27 strategies to achieve instream flows without imposing federal restrictions on water diversions in 3 Colorado National Forests.
Photo Not Available
Pathfi nder Project Steering committee members inspect stream fl ow effects of a private water diversion on Willow Creek. (PHOTO BY JOHN ALMY)
Resource Challenge

Colorado water users and water providers have often challenged USDA Forest Service restrictions on bypass flows—water that can be diverted from the stream for other uses such as irrigation or livestock—versus water that needs to remain in the stream to support wildlife, fish, and environmental health on National Forests. The USDA Forest Service initiated a collaborative process to address instream flow management on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests (GMUG).

Pathfinders is a community-based group convened in 2000 to identify instream flow needs for the GMUG National Forests. The group integrates local needs, science-based analysis, and USDA Forest Service management objectives, finding ways to maintain adequate stream flows while meeting human needs. Three issues were considered in detail:

  • The USDA Forest Service did not rely on the State’s Instream Flow Program as administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB).
  • The USDA Forest Service sometimes set conditions on special use permits requiring "bypass" flow to provide instream flows.
  • The USDA Forest Service should adhere to state water laws, recognize private water rights, and the State’s ability to adjudicate water for instream flow. 
Examples of Key Partners

Club 20 (individuals, businesses, and local governments from western Colorado), Colorado Division of Wildlife, Colorado Division of Water Resources, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Trout Unlimited, San Miguel Watershed Coalition, local Rancher, Overland Ditch and Reservoir Company, Colorado River Water Conservation District, Ute Water Conservancy District, High Country Citizen’s Alliance, USDA Forest Service National Forests (GMUG).

Results and Accomplishments

One of the primary objectives of Path. nders was to find "tools" that the USDA Forest Service could use to achieve instream . ows without imposing bypass . ow requirements on special-use permits. Pathfinders identified 27 strategies that will be implemented in a tiered fashion. Some provide direct instream . ow protection, while others contribute to instream flows as one of several actions. First tier tools are less controversial, while the second tier requires greater coordination and, possibly, negotiated agreements. Actions include: reopening diversion or water storage facilities, variable water use, acquisition, and better diversion monitoring and management.

The Pathfinder strategy is progressive, seeking cooperation first, and moving to more collective, coordinated actions. It provides a variety of options before the USDA Forest Service would need to impose bypass flow requirements on special-use permits, an alternative considered the last resort.


Specifi c tools developed to provide collaborative-based options that will ensure appropriate water fl ow levels.

Project Contact
Chris Treese
External Affairs
Colorado River Water Conservation District



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