Voluntary Flow Management Program Summary

Summary of the VFMP by Ryan Bouton

The Voluntary Flow Management Program (VFMP) is a cooperative effort for managing and augmenting flows on the Arkansas River expressly for the enhancement of non-consumptive recreational use (primarily fishing and rafting).

Recreation flows help local economies.

Surfing the Arkansas River.

Participating entities that make up the cooperative agreement include the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), Colorado Trout Unlimited (TU), the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (SECWCD) and the Arkansas River Outfitters Association (AROA).

Fryingpan-Arkansas Project water from Upper Basin reservoirs is used for the VFMP. It utilizes the non-consumptive attributes of senior water rights to benefit multiple user groups while not injuring downstream senior water rights holders.  The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), while not a signatory to the agreement, plays a key role in managing the VFMP by operating the reservoirs and releases of water that makes VFMP possible.


 The VFMP began in 1990 on an informal basis after the Arkansas River Outfitters Association (AROA) approached the Bureau of Reclamation to inquire about releasing water from Twin Lakes Reservoir to Pueblo Reservoir in order to augment native flows during summer months for the benefit of whitewater rafting. Not owning the water that would be released, the Bureau of Reclamation had no objections. Therefore, in 1991 the Arkansas River Flow Management Program Agreement was initiated (and formalized in 2005) and the following year the program was modified to include cold water fishery protection at the urging of Trout Unlimited and the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Program Details

The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District commits up to 10,000 acre-feet of water each year to the VFMP, depending on availability.  Moving water from Twin Lake to Pueblo Reservoir is part of the district’s normal operations. The flow program only affects when water is moved. 

The primary objective of the summer component of the VFMP is to maintain flows on the Upper Arkansas River sufficient for an enjoyable rafting experience while ensuring supplemental flows do not get high enough to damage the fishery (~1,000cfs+).

By maintaining target flows from July 1 to August 15 (~700 cfs), the VFMP permits Arkansas River whitewater rafting outfitters to offer the longest boating season in Colorado. The Arkansas River’s rafting industry brought more than $50 million in revenue for local economies according to an economic impact study funded by the Arkansas River Outfitters Association (AROA). 

Outside the summer months, the flows of the VFMP are managed to support the fishery and the local fly-fishing industry. Boasting over 100 miles of Gold Medal waters, the Upper Arkansas River is among the most popular fishing locations in the nation.

The VFMP reduces flows in spring prior to runoff to the optimal range for trout, 250-400 cubic feet per second. This water management practice allows yearlings to become established, optimizes feeding conditions and strengthens fish prior to the challenge of high flows.  In the fall, at the conclusion of the summer component of the VFMP, beginning Aug. 16, flows decrease to the year-round minimum of 250 cfs. Later, from Oct. 15 through Nov. 15, a spawning flow rate is instituted, which may vary from year to year, from 300 to 700 cfs. Lastly, a period of minimum incubation flows follow (November 15 – March 31), ranging from 250 to 400 cfs based on what the river flow was during spawning. 

Lastly, in addition to the targeted flows throughout the water year, VFMP parties request the Bureau of Reclamation avoid dramatic fluctuations on the Arkansas River. The ramping up or down of flows should be limited to the 10-15% range. 

There are really three critical elements that lead to the Program’s success: 1) Colorado Water Law, 2) trans-basin infrastructure and water, and 3) effective cooperation, collaboration, and communication between interested parties and Program signatories. 

Colorado Water Law

Known as Prior Appropriation, water law in Colorado permits water to be moved across boundaries, property lines, and river basins. Without this form of law, neither trans-basin diversions nor the economic success they enable would be possible.  Ultimately, it is this form of water law along with the infrastructure elaborated below, that allows Arkansas River flows to be managed year-round.

Trans-Basin Infrastructure 

The commitment of the VFMP to achieving flow objectives depends upon water availability and the water manager’s ability to move or store water when and where it is needed. This would not be possible without significant man-made infrastructure throughout the Upper Basin. The Arkansas River is fortunate because it is home to not just one but two large (100,000+ AF) reservoirs located near the headwaters of the basin (Turquoise and Twin Lakes). If it were not for these critical pieces of infrastructure, coupled with Pueblo Reservoir, trans-basin diversion infrastructure, and the water they contain, the VFMP would not be possible. 

Throughout Colorado, there are currently 44 trans-basin diversions, with ten of those importing water into the Arkansas Basin. Central to the VFMP’s success is the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.  Authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Kennedy in 1962, Fry-Ark is a multipurpose trans-basin water diversion and delivery project that makes possible an annual diversion of up to 69,200 acre-feet. Since the Fryingpan‐Arkansas Project began diverting water through Boustead Tunnel in 1972, however, the average annual diversion has been closer to 53,000 acre‐feet. Project infrastructure permits the controlled management of the water as well as book-ends the extent of the Program’s operations.  Consisting of sixteen West Slope diversion structures, Fry-Ark’s North and South Collection System diverts and transports water from the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork River Basins, near Aspen CO, under the Continental Divide, via the 5.4-mile-long Boustead Tunnel, discharging it into Turquoise Reservoir (~129,000 AF.  Initially owned by CF&I Steel and expanded by the Bureau of Reclamation as part of Fry-Ark). 

Thirteen miles downstream is Twin Lakes (~147,000 AF).  This reservoir provides storage for both Fry-ArkProject water as well as Twin Lakes/Independence Pass trans-basin water.  In order to support the VFMP, the Bureau of Reclamation releases water from Twin Lakes to the Arkansas River at a max rate of 1,600 cfs.      

The final piece of infrastructure that makes the VFMP possible is Pueblo Dam and Reservoir. Located on the Arkansas River 6 miles upstream of Pueblo, CO, Pueblo Reservoir serves as the terminal storage point for Fry-Ark Project water. Ultimately, it is this 357,000 AF reservoir, located 150 miles downstream from Twin Lakes, which allows SECWCD the flexibility to manage releases of Project water in a manner that doesn’t injure downstream senior water rights.  [This is a huge point because if downstream/senior water rights holders were being adversely impacted by this Program and its management of Arkansas River water, the Program would be finished in a heartbeat!]

Ultimately, it is the managed release of the supplemental water provided by the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project that allows the Arkansas River to be the most popular river to raft in North America as well as enabling 102 of the 152 miles of the Arkansas River from Twin Lakes to Pueblo Reservoir to be designated as Gold Medal for fishing.

Cooperation and Collaboration 

The final aspect that provides strength to the VFMP is the cooperation, collaboration, and communication between the various agencies and entities that manage the Arkansas River and the VFMP. Collaboration for maximum benefit is at the heart of the program’s long-term success. 

The creation of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in 1989 played a critical role in the effective management of the river. Coincidental to the development of this unique recreation area was the creation of a Citizens Task Force. This task force reviews area issues, including recreation along the Arkansas River, and makes recommendations to AHRA management, which in turn influences CPW’s management of the VFMP. The Task Force is made up of volunteer citizen members throughout the basin with representation from anglers, environmental groups, cattlemen, water users, local governments, private boaters and commercial rafting companies. Ultimately, it is this collaboration that allows for the targeted flows on the upper reaches of the Arkansas River from July 1 through August 15 for the benefit of river recreation, while also managing flows for the benefit of the fishery throughout the remainder of the year.

Lastly, what makes the Program voluntary is the fact that none of the documents regarding the Program signed by any of the participating entities are legally binding agreements.  If Colorado Parks and Wildlife or Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District just wanted to walk away next year they essentially could.  There would probably be some significant outcry from the other participants, from the local recreation community, and possibly even some lawsuits.  But there are no hard-core, written-in-stone stipulations requiring or mandating participation. 

Ultimately what keeps everyone at the table is that this program is beneficial for all who participate, not just one. Furthermore, while the intended/direct beneficiaries of the Program are the recreation outfitters operating along the Upper Arkansas River, the secondary and tertiary economic benefits to Fremont and Chaffee counties are substantial.