Colorado: Some rivers, fish already on life support

Wildlife managers implement voluntary fishing closure on the Yampa

Some Colorado rivers and streams will take a hit from the drought this summer, but fishing should be fine at high elevation reservoirs like Clinton Gulch.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — During what should be the peak of the runoff season, some of Colorado’s streams and river are already on life support, including the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs, where state officials have asked anglers to observe a voluntary fishing closure.

The closure will be in effect from the upstream boundary of the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area downstream through the city limits of Steamboat Springs, and anglers are asked to avoid this area.

Ron Velarde, regional manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the closure is voluntary for now and anglers are asked to avoid fishing there during the hottest part of the day, or preferably, to fish in other areas. If conditions worsen and several criteria established by regulation are met, a strict emergency closure enforced by law may become necessary.

West Slope streams have been hit a triple whammy this year. Along with the usual impoundments and diversions to the Front Range, this year’s scant snowpack melted many weeks earlier than usual, and above-average temperatures have persisted for months.

In the Yampa, wildlife managers have already measured temperatures of 71 degrees and flows as low as 81 cubic feet per second. The median flows for this time of year are about 1,400 cfs.

In these conditions, already severely stressed fish weakened by warm waters often die when caught, even if they are quickly released back into the water.

Warm water is oxygen-poor to begin with, and the warmer temperatures also promote the growth of algae, which adds oxygen during the day when there’s sunlight for photosynthesis, but uses up all the available oxygen during the night.

That’s why fish kills often are evident first thing in the morning. Anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts can help document the impacts of low flows by reporting fish kills. Some Colorado streams are subject to minimum flows set to protect aquatic life, those flows are often barely adequate.

“There appears to be little chance of precipitation adding measureable volume to the stream flow in the immediate future,” said Senior Aquatic Biologist Sherman Hebein.

“We ask the public for their cooperation to help us preserve our state’s fisheries,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife northwest regional manager Ron Velarde. “We do not know how long this voluntary closure will remain in effect, but as soon as conditions are once again favorable, we will lift it,” he added.

Wildlife managers may ask for similar closures on other rivers if the warm and dry weather continues. Certain sections of the Colorado have already seen water temperatures soar into the 70s, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jon Ewert, who said there was an unconfirmed report of a fish kill in the Burns area.

More senior downstream water users are starting to exercise their water rights, requiring releases from upstream reservoirs. Those added flows help sustain the Colorado River during dry seasons, but there are still certain segments that are susceptible to running low and warm, for example above Williams Fork Reservoir, and farther downstream around Radium and Pumphouse.

Warm temperatures are not as much of a problem on the Blue River system through Summit County.

“The Blue is not prone to that, it’s such a cold river to begin with … And the tailwater, below the dam, is always cold, even in a year like this,” Ewert said.





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