Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
LA JUNTA – The directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board have given their staff the go-ahead to let 12,000 acre-feet of water out of Ruedi Reservoir this year to benefit endangered fish in a 15-mile reach of the Colorado River above Grand Junction.
The board’s unanimous approval to renew a one-year lease with the Ute Water Conservancy District came last week in a meeting in La Junta. The approval includes the condition that releases from the dam should not go above 300 cubic feet per second, or bring overall flows in the lower Fryingpan River above 350 cfs.
And after hearing of complaints by clients of Basalt-based fly-fishing outfitters about last year’s releases, also at the 300 cfs level, the CWCB board additionally gave its staff the flexibility to try and keep the release levels at or below 250 cfs to make it easier for wading anglers.
A meeting with local stakeholders about the CWCB’s planned releases from Ruedi this year is set for today at 4 p.m. in El Jebel at the Eagle County building.
Two CWCB officials are expected to attend the meeting: Ted Kowalski, the head of CWCB’s interstate, federal and water information section; and Linda Bassi, the section head of the agency’s instream flow program.
In a memo written in advance of the CWCB board meeting, Kowalski and Bassi had noted that last year’s releases from Ruedi “by most accounts, worked very well for everyone involved.”
But on March 15, two days before the Ruedi lease was on the CWCB’s agenda, Marty Joseph, the manager of Frying Pan Anglers in Basalt, sent the agency a list of 32 clients upset about conditions last year on the Fryingpan River during the first year of CWCB releases from Ruedi.
“The ideal flow for our older clients is around 220 cfs, please take this into consideration for future water flows on the Frying Pan (sic) River,” Joseph told the CWCB in an email on March 15. “We only started collecting emails for about three weeks before our season was over last year (Oct. 5, 2015). We could easily have had 10 times more if we started it at the beginning of the season.”
Joseph’s email was followed the next day by an email to Bass at the CWCB from Warwick Mowbray, also of Frying Pan Anglers. He sent in ten letters from clients complaining about the flows. He said he had requested comments from clients back in October about the high flows at the request of Jana Mohrman, a hydrologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
One client told Frying Pan Anglers, “this past August, the flow rate at the beginning of my stay was 25O cfs then increased to just over 300 cfs and then dropped to around 28O cfs. The fishing was adversely affected by both the high flow and the numerous fluctuations in the rate.
“Additionally, for the first time while fishing the Frying Pan River, I lost my balance and fell in the river,” the client said. “This occurred on a number of occasions. I felt that wading my normal sections of the river were unsafe due to the high flow rate. If the high flow rates experienced this past summer become the norm for the Frying Pan, it is likely that I will find another location for my fishing trips.”
Another client said that their trip to the area “was especially disappointing as my son and I took our eight-and-half-year-old grandson wading for the first time. With the 300 (cfs) flows, only place on the whole twelve-mile stretch of the ‘Pan’ was a few feet from shore at the shallows at the dam where it was safe enough for him.”
It should be noted that the CWCB’s releases of water were only one factor in the overall flow in the lower Fryingpan River last summer and fall.
Last year, for example, releases from Ruedi Reservoir, which is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, generally ranged from 275 to 300 cfs from early August to mid-October, according to the USGS gauge just below the Ruedi dam.
But the releases of water controlled by CWCB came only in parts of September and October and never contributed to more than 170 cfs of the total river flow, according to the CWCB.
For example, from Sept. 3 and 20, the CWCB sent 6,000 acre-feet down the Fryingpan, at the rate of 170 cfs.
And between Oct. 6 and 17, the CWCB sent another 3,000 acre-feet downstream, also at 170 cfs.
The CWCB is not the only entity releasing water from Ruedi to reach target flow levels in the 15-mile reach. As a graphic presented by Kowalski notes, a total of 24,412 acre feet was released from Ruedi last year to flow to Grand Junction.
But beyond the nuances of whose water was being released by the Bureau of Reclamation for what purpose, the perception by some anglers was that the river was higher than usual, especially in the fall.
During his presentation to the CWCB board on March 17, Kowalski acknowledged the recently-arrived complaint letters from anglers about flows in the Fryingpan.
“If there are ways that we can accommodate angling interests, we will do so,” Kowalski said, noting it will be easier to do this year if it is drier than last year.
But Kowalski said any concessions to anglers would be a lessor priority for the agency than meeting CWCB’s “intended purpose of the full 12,000 acre feet being dedicated to the 15-mile reach.”
Kowalski also noted that Ruedi is, after all, “a water supply reservoir.”
“We are paying state dollars for specific purposes, and the endangered species purposes are important to the state and to water users within the state,” Kowalski said. ”Nevertheless, we want to be sensitive to the local concerns and we’re looking forward to the meeting and a spirited discussion.”
The CWCB plans to pay $7.20 an acre foot to lease the 12,000 acre feet of water owned in Ruedi by Ute Water. The water can be used for instream flow purposes, and the CWCB holds an instream flow right of 581 cfs in the 15-mile reach.
Russ George, who represents the Colorado River basin on the CWCB board, favored keeping release levels at 300 cfs, despite the concerns of some anglers.
“First of all, I don’t know who it is that can’t fish with a little bit more water,” said George, who is now chair of the CWCB board. “Twenty-five cfs is not a lot of water in that river. So I’m a little confused, but that’s probably because I’m a poor fisherman.
Jay Skinner, an instream flow specialist at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, told the CWCB board the flows were not having an impact on the quality of the fishery on the lower Fryingpan.
“My understanding of that whole issue of the 250 to 300 cfs is more ‘fishability’ than its impacts on the fishery itself,” Skinner said.
But the water from Ruedi is apparently helpful to the fishery in the 15-mile reach and, secondarily, to the major water providers and managers in Colorado and the upper Colorado River basin.
Helping ancient fish
The program’s goal is to maintain populations of four species of large native fish, the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail, and humpback chub. A key part of the effort is keeping flows in the 15-mile reach at 1,240 cfs or higher.
The program also helps protect the status of 1,216 water-diversion projects in Colorado and their collective ability to move 2.1 million acre-feet of water a year off the river.
If the ancient warm-water fish species in the 15-mile reach above Grand Junction start to disappear completely, lawsuits regarding compliance with the Environmental Species Act could lead to reduced diversions on the river.
“The program serves as the environmental compliance for hundreds of diversions and water storage projects in the upper basin,” Kowalski said.
In 1988, regional water interests began to collaborate on the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
And while non-native fish eating young native fish remains a primary obstacle to growing populations, there are signs the recovering program is making a difference.
For example, in 2015, 1,331 small “young-of-year” Colorado pikeminnows were collected from Colorado River backwaters, according to the 2015-2016 report on the program.
“This was the highest catch in this reach of river in 30 years,” the report said.
And, Kowalski noted, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in its annual review of the program, recognized last year’s lease of water from Ute Water as contributing to the effort.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. A version of this story was published by the Aspen Daily News on Monday, March 21, 2016.