Front Range, West Slope agree to provide equal amounts of water, but some West Slope stakeholders are concerned about impacts to trout fisheries
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A proposal to revamp water allotments for endangered Colorado River fish could benefit some fisheries in some streams while threatening economically valuable fisheries in other West Slope basins.
Some stakeholders in Eagle and Pitkin counties said they are concerned that the planned releases from Ruedi Reservoir could threaten the economically valuable trout fishery in the Roaring Fork.
But if the various stakeholders can make all the pieces fit together, it could be a win-win, with less water coming out of Ruedi and some additional flows from Granby Lake and Green Mountain Reservoir, according to Dave Nickum, director of Colorado Trout Unlimited.
Most trout species (with the exception of cutthroats) are not native to Colorado, but angling has become a huge part of the recreational economy. As such, the plan to recover the native fish sets up an interesting conflict between protection of endangered native species and potential impacts to non-native fish that are a big part of the culture and economy of the West Slope. Learn more about the recovery effort at this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.
At issue are the Colorado pikeminnow, the bonytail and humpback chub and the razorback sucker. The four species are native to the Colorado River, but dam-building and diversions reduced their habitat to just a few pockets.
Under a 1999 programmatic biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that addresses impacts to the four endangered species, Front Range and West Slope water users agreed to provide equal amounts of water for the recovery effort.
The proposed releases aim to bolster flows for the fish when they most need the water in one of their main strongholds, the 15-mile reach, near Grand Junction. But the releases from Ruedi Reservoir could disrupt the natural ebb and flow of the Roaring Fork River during prime angling season, said Sharon Clarke, of the Roaring Fork Conservancy.
“The big concern is that the bulk of the burden is falling once again on the West Slope,” Clarke said. Instead of limiting their overall diversions and cutting back on urban landscape watering, the Front Range water providers — who agreed to deliver half the water needed for the endangered fish — will dry up valuable agricultural land on the West Slope, she explained.
The water from a designated environmental pool in Ruedi would be released during the height of the recreational fishing season, from mid-July to mid-October. Normally, this is the time of year when runoff dwindles and insect hatches provide plentiful food for trout, but the releases, sometimes occurring on a day-to-day basis, would alter the natural hydrograph and potentially interfere with feeding and spawning.
“Part of the problem is that Ruedi Reservoir was built to support uses that are not always compatible with recreation,” said Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority. Fuller said some local stakeholders are concerned that the releases would turn the Roaring Fork into a pipeline of sorts, conflicting with other local efforts to protect the river’s aquatic resources.
Since Ruedi was “late to the party” in terms of allocations, it means that the reservoir’s water is still available for contracts, including the amounts committed to environmental purposes.
“The proposed releases could reverse the natural hydrograph of the river, and that could be a problem for spawning fish,” Fuller said. Other concerns include the formation of anchor ice during the winter if flows are low, and that could also be devastating for spawning trout, he explained.
How to help recover the endangered fish while protecting the recreational and economic values in the Roaring Fork has proven a vexing question.
As Clarke said, one potential solution is for the Front Range to provide more wet water for the recovery project by limiting its diversions.
Fuller said some stakeholders are also advocating for smaller off-stream reservoirs that could be used to boost flows when needed without requiring large and potentially destructive releases from Ruedi.
Another option could be a pipeline from Ruedi Reservoir downstream to the vicinity of Basalt, an option that was considered for a time but discarded because of the high cost — at least $4 million. But such a pipeline could deliver the needed water without impacting the Roaring Fork fishery and potentially generate power at the same time, he concluded.
“It’s a difficult situation,” said Jana Mohrman, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that administers the endangered fish recovery program. The water in Ruedi isn’t just dedicated to providing flows for trout in the Roaring Fork. The reservoir was built to support a variety of uses, and juggling the competing demands isn’t going to get any easier,” Mohrman said.
“Before the reservoir was built, the Fryingpan River used to go completely dry sometimes,” she said. “We try to accommodate the different uses,” she said, explaining that releases are limited starting Oct. 15 to protect spawning brown trout.
The Ruedi Reservoir water is critical for the endangered fish recovery program because it’s just one day away from the critical 15-Mile Reach, she said. That means, when biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say they need water, it can be delivered much more quickly from Ruedi than from any other source.
Along with splashy rainbow trout and fat German browns, the Colorado River is also home to several species of native fish, perhaps not as popular with anglers, but fascinating because they evolved to become well-adapted to the natural ebb and flow of the mighty stream.
The Colorado pikeminnow, the bonytail and humpback chub and the razorback sucker are all powerful swimmers with torpedo-like snouts that help them thrive in the strong current. But as the river was tamed, habitat for the fish dwindled to just a few pockets, including the 15-Mile Reach, a stronghold in the heart of Colorado, upstream of Gunnison. Details of the recovery program are online at this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.
There, in quiet side channels that are flooding during high flows in the spring, the four fish — all on the endangered species list — find places to spawn. The populations are relatively stable, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, working together with other river stakeholders, have launched an ambitious effort to bolster flows in the reach during late summer and early fall, when natural flows start to drop and diversions from the Colorado River reach their peak.
The pikeminnow is a big-river minnow found only in the Colorado River Basin. It can live for 40 years, grow six feet long and weigh up to 80 pounds. The pikeminnow was valued by early settlers as food. Similarly, the razorback sucker was also a source of food for early settlers and miners. It’s the most rare of the four species, mainly because of predation by non-native species. Learn more about all four fish at the Colorado River Recovery website.
Filed under: biodiversity, Colorado, endangered species, Environment, Summit County news Tagged: | Bonytail chub, Colorado Pikeminnow, Endangered Colorado River fish, Environment, humpback chub, razorback sucker, Roaring Fork Conservancy, Roaring Fork River, United States Fish and Wildlife Service