America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2014: White River, Colorado
Threat: Oil and gas development
At Risk: Fish and wildlife habitat and drinking water supplies
The White River is one of Colorado’s hidden gems, home to abundant fish and wildlife, and providing excellent fishing, boating, and other recreational opportunities. However, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing to allow 15,000 new oil and gas wells in the region, which threatens to industrialize this remote and beautiful area and ruin clean water and wildlife habitat. The BLM must instead act to protect the White River and balance new development with conserving the area’s unique wild values for future generations.
The two forks of the White River start high up in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area— the second largest wilderness area in Colorado— within the White River National Forest. Originating from the melting snow and ice above Trappers Lake, the North Fork of the White River flows freely through beautiful canyons and countryside to the desert plains of the Uintah Basin. The North Fork joins the South Fork near the small hamlet of Buford as it winds west, passing through a bucolic valley dotted with hay meadows, farmhouses, and abundant wildlife. Roughly 7000 citizens, the majority residing in the towns of Meeker and Rangely, depend on water supplies from the White River.The river provides habitat for imperiled fish and wildlife species, and is home to some of North America’s largest big game herds. The warmer, lower reaches of the White River are also home to four endemic endangered fish species.
The White River Basin is threatened with an unprecedented level of oil and gas development—roughly 15,000 new oil and gas wells have been proposed— that will cause irreparable change not just to the river, but the entire character of the region. In 1997, the BLM forecasted that 1100 oil and gas wells would be drilled over the next 15 to 20 years. However, in 2006, faced with increased demand for oil and gas development, the BLM announced it intended to amend the White River Field Office’s Resource Management Plan (RMP). Since BLM had just recently completed an RMP revision, funding was not available for another planning process. Instead of waiting for federal funding to become available for an full RMP Revision, BLM reached an agreement whereby the oil and gas industry paid for the plan— seemingly a conflict of interest.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) released in August 2012 provided a range of alternatives that would allow anywhere from 6,600 to more than 20,000 wells to be drilled, with a preferred alternative allowing for more than 15,000 wells, making this the largest public lands development proposal in Colorado history. This would impact so great an area that the preferred alternative has a management “goal” that could allow for a 30% decline in mule deer populations over the life of the plan, which would exacerbate the disastrous drop in mule deer populations from an estimated 120,000 deer in 2006 to less than 44,000 in 2011.
The likely impacts of this scale of development are seemingly endless— pollution and dewatering of surface and groundwater supplies, the conversion of agricultural lands, degradation of air quality, long-term socioeconomic impacts to local communities, and the destruction of habitat for numerous species, including the imperiled greater sage grouse, Colorado cutthroat trout, big game, and many other plants and animals.
What Must Be Done
BLM must release a plan that adequately protects the diverse array of unique resources and values of the White River, Colorado. That means completing a Master Leasing Plan that protects the air and viewshed of Dinosaur National Monument as well as the Greater sage-grouse and big game populations of Blue Mountain.
In addition, BLM must conserve the numerous “Lands with Wilderness Character” units within the purview of the White River Field Office. These units provide refuge from the pressures of development not only for a variety of wildlife— including Colorado cutthroat trout— but also for the backcountry recreation experiences that people seek out in White River Country.
Finally, BLM must propose a development program that will protect wildlife habitat as well as ensure that the air and water quality of the region will not be detrimentally affected. By taking these actions, BLM would not only fulfill its obligation as a multi-use agency, it would prevent a flawed and damaging plan from being adopted and allow a part of rural Colorado to retain its heritage and culture. Managing the White River watershed in a holistic manner— instead of a narrow-sighted focus on energy development— would ensure that the health of local communities, rivers, and the landscape as a whole are protected in a manner consistent with the agency’s mission, “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”