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The North Platte River Basin, Taste of the Old West

The valley narrowed as we ascended and presently divided into a gorge, through which the river passed as through a gate—a beautiful circular valley of 30 miles in diameter, walled in all around with snowy mountains, rich with water and grass, fringed with pine on the mountain sides below the snow, and a paradise to all grazing animals.”

So wrote Lieutenant John F. Fremont in 1844 after traversing the North Platte Basin heading south from Wyoming towards Colorado’s Middle Park.

Today, more than a century and a half later, thanks to the prevalence of agriculture, one sees a very similar image when entering the park. Approaching from the Front Range, travelers pass through the Roosevelt National Forest on the Poudre Canyon Highway. As they cross Cameron Pass the snowpack deepens, rivers meander, population decreases, and it’s clear they enter a wild expanse of a valley—a very different place.

The North Platte Basin—a 2,050 square-mile area that encompasses all of Jackson County and a portion of Larimer County—is nestled up against the Continental Divide in north central Colorado between the Front Range, Routt County and the Wyoming border. About 65 percent of Jackson County is public land, managed by state and federal agencies; still there is plenty of room for the basin’s small population of about 1,400 people.

Anyone in the basin will say that North Park remains a quiet and unique place. Bearing the headwaters of the North Platte River and connected by this artery to Wyoming and Nebraska,

the North Platte Basin is somewhat insulated from the booming population and water worries of the rest of Colorado. Geography, lack of major development and a U.S. Supreme Court Decree governing water development have protected the basin.

In 1879, after scattered periods of mining activity and seasonal occupation by ranchers who left every winter, the first brave permanent ranchers settled the valley. They filed homesteading claims and initiated what would become, and continues to be, the major industry of the basin—agriculture.

The basin’s first water rights were adjudicated in 1892. Until then, there were no water districts, no water commissioners, and no official water appropriations in the North Platte Basin, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t water diversions and development. Rather, the basin slowly developed throughout the 1880s, according to former water commissioner and historian Eric Wagner. The water adjudication system began as a response to droughts in 1891, when people faced with stressed water resources wanted legal recognition of their water diversions.

In the North Platte Basin, this precious water is used mostly for flood irrigation—watering meadows to produce a crop of high mountain hay, which sustains cattle locally or is trucked outside the basin and sold as a commodity, such as horse or cattle feed. That’s the way it’s been for years. Ditches wind across the basin, transporting water from rivers, streams and reservoirs to nourish agricultural land.

When George Grinnell visited North Park in 1879, as ranching was just getting started in the basin, he found a different type of wetland. “In the valley at my feet, stretching away to the west for seven or eight miles, and to the north and south for 15, lay the largest beaver meadow that I have ever seen. I presume that there were 500 dams in sight, most of them kept in good repair. The water set back by these dams flowed through a thousand little canals and ditches, and the whole from the height looked like a silver net spread over an enormous carpet of emerald velvet,” Grinnell wrote. Some members of the North Platte Basin Roundtable suggest that although the beaver dams are gone, the ditches and irrigation systems of North Park’s ranchers have taken their place in creating and maintaining the basin’s wetlands.

Balancing Modern Demands

According to the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Statewide Water Supply Initiative 2010 report, the North Platte Basin is expected to see a relatively small increase in municipal and industrial demands—100-300 acre feet per year by 2050 to meet the needs of a population that’s predicted to grow from 1,500 to between 2,000 and 2,500 in that timeframe. Upon completion of a water supply improvement project that the Town of Walden began in 2010, the North Platte Basin should see no gap between water demand and supply in 2050.

Today, water in the basin and throughout Colorado is managed to meet the many needs of both people and the environment. Those needs can either be considered “consumptive,” when water is consumed by humans, crops or livestock, lost to evaporation or otherwise removed from the immediate water environment; or “nonconsumptive,” where water is used in a way that doesn’t require removing it from the waterway. This applies to environmental and recreational uses. In a 2010 study by the North Platte Basin Roundtable, roundtable members identified stream fishing, lake fishing, waterfowl hunting and viewing, waterfowl/shorebird habitat and amphibians as the top five local, nonconsumptive priorities for water.

The Roundtable is reaching out to the community to help them marry consumptive and nonconsumptive values, while looking to the rest of the state’s experience. Although the North Platte doesn’t have the same pressures that other river basins have, such as the Yampa to the west, the Colorado to the south and the South Platte to the east, roundtable members recognize the need to cooperate and make the most of their water resources.

The North Platte Basin Roundtable meetings are open to the public and held each month at the U.S. Forest Service building in Walden. Contact the roundtable chairperson, Kent Crowder, for detailed information or visit the roundtable’s website at http://cwcb.state.co.us/water-management/basin-roundtables.

For more information on Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin, please see the website www.rgwcei.org or www.water2012.org. Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin is pleased to announce their first summer tour of Sanchez Reservoir, the San Luis People’s Ditch, and the Sangre de Cristo Canal Rehabilitation Project on June 22. All attendees must register online at www.rgwcei.org under the Calendar of Events. For full tour details, please see the website.

Anti-discrimination Policy: The Rio Grande Watershed Conservation Education Program prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and where applicable, sex, marital status, familial status, parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, political beliefs, reprisal, or because all or a part of an individual's income is derived from any public assistance program.

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