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Q&A With a Cool Coloradan: Nathan Fey

Director, Colorado River Stewardship Program at American Whitewater

A sixth-generation Coloradan, Nathan Fey has been paddling Colorado's rivers since 1990. In his role as director of the... More Details

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Can you tell us about any childhood experiences that fostered your love of paddling and being on the river?

It’s hard to pin down any one experience that led to my love of rivers and paddling. As a very young kid, long before I started paddling, I spent lots of time fly-fishing in places like the Elk River in northwest Colorado with my parents and grandparents. Wading around in those currents probably gave me my first hint at the thrill that comes with being immersed in the river. I learned to respect currents, rapids and eddy lines early, but I didn’t get hooked on paddling until my first whitewater trip around 1988. But even prior to that, I remember the first few times I had a paddle in my hand while canoeing through everglades in Florida. I suppose it all added up to the connection I have with water and the river today.

You used to be a teacher and guide for the Boulder Outdoor Center. What’s your top piece of advice for beginner rafters and paddlers?

Take a class. It’s that simple and doesn’t matter if you are in a raft, kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard. The learning curve for whitewater is steep, and I’ve seen too many people jump right into trying to run rapids, without the basic understanding of currents, paddle strokes or self-rescue. This usually ends one of two ways — either people scare themselves out of paddling again, or they develop bad habits that put themselves and others on the river in a bad place. Nobody wants to be a liability or risk, so take the first step and find an outfitter or local club that offers high-quality instruction.

What is it about our state's rivers that stand out for recreation, particularly the Colorado River?

By nature of its geography, Colorado is home to very diverse rivers, and many of our rivers still show a seasonal variation in flow — both make our rivers appealing in the recreation world. In terms of river diversity, Colorado has everything from high-alpine rivers that flow fast, cold and clear, to desert rivers that move slow and warm, laden with silt and sediment. Sometimes, it’s the same river, running from its headwaters at 14,000 feet to its desert confluence nearly 300 miles downstream. No other destination in the lower 48 can offer the range in diversity that Colorado offers. I might be biased though …

And while there are an astounding number of dams and diversions from Colorado’s rivers, our waterways still resemble a natural snow melt-driven system with peak run-off in late May/early June. This is one of the greatest characteristics of rivers in the state. Every year, depending on how our winter snowpack is shaping up, flows can provide a different challenge from one year to the next, and throughout the season. Based on reports I hear from friends from across the country, and even internationally, these dynamic river flows are probably one of Colorado’s most characteristic features. Every year is different.

Do you have a favorite stretch of water in Colorado?

Without hesitation, my favorite is the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument. Aside from the fact that the Yampa is great for SUP, kayaking or rafting, the river stands out in my list because it has so much amazing natural and cultural history. As a relatively free-flowing river, the Yampa is one of the last places where we can see how water and the land interact, and in the Yampa River Canyon this interaction has created some of the most unique and spectacular canyons and geologic formations. Because the river un-dammed, despite earlier efforts to drown the canyons behind Echo Park Dam, a natural variability in flow regimes still exists on the Yampa, and it makes each trip unique and the experience of running rapids a thrill every time. For myself, the Yampa tells a palpable story of rivers in the west; of the fight to protect them, of efforts to reclaim and serve them up for industry and expansion, of outlaw hideouts and cattle-rustlers, of ancient cultures, and of the persistence of water flowing across a landscape. Each opportunity I get to experience the Yampa, the river unveils a little more to each story, and it has me hooked like no place else.

As a sixth-generation Coloradan, what have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in outdoor recreation in Colorado?

I’ve witnessed a lot of changes in Colorado’s rivers, and especially how locals and visitors alike experience our rivers. Changes in technology, improvements to public access and more predictable flow conditions are all leading to more recreational use. Recreation is now a much bigger business than it was five or 10 years ago, and communities are realizing — and choosing to prioritize — river recreation as an economic base. Some places are becoming more crowded every year, which can create a tricky management dilemma, where the experience on the water is so highly valued that the resource starts to suffer and a balance must be found. All of this comes with growth, I believe. But the biggest change I have seen would have to be how the dialogue around water supply and demand management has shifted in the last decade. Ten years ago, recreation might have been standing in the back of the room, but today, we have a seat at the table. Communities are realizing how important recreation is to our economy, and taking active steps to consider how best to manage streamflows that sustain this economic foundation as a part of good water policy for the state. I know that American Whitewater has played a leading role in this shift, and we continue to today. It’s important that residents and visitors alike do their part too.

Through your work with American Whitewater, you’ve helped local governments secure in-stream water rights for recreational use. What kind of impact does this have in our state? What are the biggest threats or challenges that Colorado’s rivers are facing and what should people know about the state of our water resources?

Some light discussion topics, eh? Colorado is unique in that we have our own system of water rights administration, and uniquely it includes rights to protect water in a river for the beneficial purposes of recreation. Keeping water in our rivers is a tough job, and keeping water in our rivers for recreation faces powerful opposition, more than most any other proposed use of water in Colorado. There are two basic sides to the discussion around recreational water rights: 1) These rights are a direct threat to our ability to meet future needs of cities and farms, and 2) These rights are critical to protecting recreation and environmental health. Recreational In-Channel Diversions (RICDs), the recreational water right recognized by Colorado’s water rights system, is relatively new to our system and faces significant opposition because it is viewed as limiting the ability of Colorado to develop all the water we are entitled to under various compacts and agreements. A right that keeps water in our rivers, prevents future dry-up of those rivers.

The biggest threat that our rivers are facing is over-development and de-watering. RICDS, or other Instream Flow rights help to protect our rivers from over-development in the future, but instream rights have little power to dictate future conditions. The biggest thing that people need to know is that Colorado is out of water, and that how our rivers flow today, is not how they will flow in the future. Water demands are growing across the state, and supply is trending down. On paper, utilities and water users have filed for rights to divert and drain even more water from our rivers in the future. On the ground, this very likely means that our rivers will run dry. Reduced flows, even today, present clear risks to clean water, keeping our rivers resilient so we can recover from extreme events like flood or fire and maintaining an active outdoor economy. Don’t assume that because you don’t see the threats when you are on the river today, that the threat isn’t there. That’s why today, municipalities and groups like AW, are more invested in ISFs, RICDs and Stream and Watershed Management Plans to make sure that the impacts on recreation and river health from new projects are fully reviewed and mitigated.

What people need to be mindful of, is that Colorado is a headwaters state — that rivers originate in Colorado’s mountains, and flow out. No rivers flow into Colorado. Every year, the water we have to meet the demands of cities, farms and the river, starts as snow. If we keep this in mind, hopefully people will do more to conserve the water we have.

How can people who love watersports in Colorado do their part in helping to maintain rivers, lakes and other bodies of water?

There are various degrees of effort that people can put into protecting the places we play — particularly rivers and lakes. The easiest thing that people can do, and should do at the very least, is take responsibility for yourself. This is so simple: Pick up after yourself. Don’t leave trash or waste at the boat ramp, or along the river or shoreline. Don’t dump food, or fuel, or anything into our waters. Everyone feels the same emotional response when they find used someone’s leftovers, or toilet paper, or fishing line, or candy wrappers in these places — that feeling of, “Gimme a break! Who does that? These people shouldn’t be allowed here!” Trashing the places we play is a sure way to lose access.

Beyond taking personal responsibility, there are more proactive things that people can take part in, like helping maintain or restore things like boat ramps and facilities, participating in river clean-ups. There are opportunities every year to volunteer for Colorado’s lands and waters.

There are also opportunities for people to help shape how state or federal agencies manage our rivers and lakes as well. This can require more time and energy, so few people take part in these opportunities. For some reason, it’s easier to post a comment on social media about the crowding on a river, or the lack of campsites, or how poorly water is managed for fish or boats. If only these same comments were submitted on record during planning. But, if people took responsibility for their own actions we can all continue to enjoy the places we play. And of course, support the groups that represent your interests with an annual membership or regular donation. Groups like American Whitewater or your local paddling club can leverage your donation to do real work on big issues. Ask yourself, how much is your time worth, and how much are the places you value, worth to you? Invest accordingly.

Can you share a particularly special memory or crazy story from being on a river in Colorado?

I’ve been paddling for close to 30 years! You want one story? One of the more notable moments in the last few years, happened in July 2015 at Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River. The trip was a celebration of the recent designation of Browns Canyon National Monument by President Obama, and involved floating the river with a group of people critical to the success of that effort. It was emotional for me, because I was with a group of people that were seeing the canyon for the first time — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Senator Michael Bennet, Congresswoman Diana DeGette, Governor Hickenlooper and a great group of local leaders enjoying first-hand the place that we protected. What is so remarkable for me, is that most of the people in the group had never experienced the canyon previously. This was their first time, even though many of them had been involved in the campaign for years.

Through their actions, I know that these are people that understood the intrinsic value of protecting the place, without knowing the place. At AW, we adhere to the belief that “you cannot protect, what you don’t know,” but this group broke that rule. Years of meetings in DC and advocacy for Browns Canyon locally and nationally played a part in getting us all on the river together that day in celebration, and I’ll never forget the look on their faces as the scenery, cultural history, rock formations and rapids washed over each one. I saw boatloads of lightbulbs going off, as every person on that trip finally saw what we had fought so long to protect. That moment, when it clicked — there are few words to describe that experience.

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