Colorado’s Clean Waters, Wild Forests

A campaign to permanently protect over 6,000 miles of streams and rivers and the 4.4 million acres of roadless national forests from which they flow.

Outstanding Waters

The Clean Water Act and EPA’s Antidegradation Rules allow for a state to assert its rights to permanent clean water through "Outstanding Waters" designations. Because states are delegated authority with implementing and complying with the CWA, they are charged with developing water quality standards that provide opportunities to protect the most vital ecological and recreational waters within their borders. Some states have had the foresight to use the protective designation broadly to protect their headwaters from contamination.

Alpine River in Colorado Large pc istockThe state of Colorado is blessed with over 10,000 miles of streams and rivers within its federal roadless and wilderness national forests. With unequaled foresight, Colorado invoked its powers under the Clean Water Act and designated close to 4,000 miles of these waters—those within designated wilderness areas as well as waters within Rocky Mountain National Park – as “Outstanding National Resource Waters” (Outstanding Water), thereby providing permanent protection for the water, and by extension, the surrounding forests. Colorado can now complete this important measure towards a secure water future by naming the remaining 6,000 miles of the state’s waters in the 4.4 million acres of federal roadless and wilderness forests as Outstanding, effectively protecting its headwaters in perpetuity.

In 2010, WildEarth Guardians commenced a campaign in Colorado to add pristine waters and designated cutthroat trout habitat in Inventoried Roadless Areas on Colorado’s National Forests to the list of Outstanding Waters.  As permanent administrative or congressional protections for roadless areas continue to shift with the political winds, Wild Earth Guardians is progressing towards state-driven protections under the Clean Water Act that will provide lasting protections for wild roadless forests.

The process for designating waters as Outstanding is set forth in the Clean Water Act and Colorado’s Water Quality Control Act, both of which vest the state with authority to ensure water quality is protected. Colorado’s water quality standards and regulations explicitly allow for citizens to petition the Water Quality Control Division to modify the state’s water quality standards to designate an Outstanding Water at any time. Once designated, the Forest Service and any potential extractive activity would be forever prohibited from polluting (“no degradation”) these Outstanding Waters. By protecting the high quality waters of roadless national forests in their current, pristine condition we believe that we can create a powerful layer of protection for the forests and watersheds that sustain these waters.

Colorado’s Outstanding Water Designation Process

Created by the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, the Water Quality Control Division (WQCD), of the Department of Public Health and Environment, is the state entity charged with water quality control as defined by the Colorado Code of Regulations. §25-8-101 C.R.S.; 5 CCR 1002-31. The WQCD's Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) is the internal entity, which is responsible for preparing and reviewing antidegradation rules. 

The antidegradation laws for Colorado are compiled in the 1200 section of Colorado's Code of Regulations under Regulation 31. Upon petition, the WQCC may hold a public hearing, review water stream standards, and revise or change designations according to the antidegradation policy to ensure compliance.  However, such action is at the discretion of the Commission. §24-4-203 (7) C.R.S.

Geographic Scope of the Campaign

The geographic scope of this particular proposal is the state of Colorado and its roadless and wilderness forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The Colorado State Engineer's Office has geographically divided Colorado into seven major river basins, the South Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande, Gunnison, Colorado, Tampa/White, and the San Juan/Dolores Rivers. There are roadless and wilderness forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service in every one of the major basins. Map of Potential Outstanding Waters in Colorado

For additional information see:

Outstanding Waters proposal upper Colorado river Basin

Outstanding Waters proposal Yampa/white River Basin

Map of Potential Outstanding Waters in Colorado

Map of Potential Outstanding Waters in Upper Colorado

Map of Potential Outstanding Waters NW of Flat Tops Wilderness

Map of Potential Outstanding Waters W of Flat Tops Wilderness

Map of Potential Outstanding Waters W of Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness

Map of Potential Outstanding Waters W of Holy Cross Wilderness


City of Durango

Read our September 2011 Clean Water, Wild Forests report.

Alpine River photo

Click map to enlarge and view potential ONRW waters in Colorado