BASALT – Anglers, and almost certainly fish, can sense how much water is running down a river at any given time.

Last summer and fall, for example, some fly-fishermen who regularly wade in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir thought there was too much water flowing out of the reservoir, as the river was running at 275 to 300 cubic feet per second. At that level, the river can be hard to cross in places.

Flows were up in the Fryingpan last year because a record amount of water was being released from Ruedi for the benefit of the 400 or so remaining Colorado pikeminnow living in 15 miles of the Colorado River between Grand Junction and Palisade.

Yet there still wasn’t enough water in the river for the pikeminnow last summer, despite a total 24,412 acre-feet of water released from Ruedi and sent down the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers. The “fish water” sent out of Ruedi last summer and fall may have helped the native fish struggling to survive in the heavily depleted Colorado River, but it still wasn’t enough on many days to reach the target flow level of 1,240 cfs set by biologists.

The same water sent downstream to make ancient fish in the Colorado River happier made veteran anglers on the Fryingpan River crankier. A similar scenario may play out again this summer, as up to 27,412 acre-feet of “fish water” is poised to be released from Ruedi this year to benefit the fish in the Colorado. On its way down, the water could cause late summer and early fall flows to rise again in the Fryingpan to 250, 300 or 350 cfs.

A graph, courtesy of Jana Morhman, a hydrologist and the project manager of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, showing the amount of fish water released from Ruedi, in acre feet, and the level of flows of the water, in cubic feet per second, as it was released into the Fryingpan River.
Credit: Source: Jana Mohrman, USFWS
A graph from USFWS showing the flow target of 1,240 cfs in 15-mile last August, September and October, actual flow in blue, and what flow would have been without releases of fish water from various upstream reservoirs. In short, the fish water helps meet the target flows, but it is still not enough.
Credit: Source: Jana Morhman, USFW

Experienced anglers

“My perfect flow for the ‘Pan, where everything is gravy, dry-fly fishing is perfect, and older people can get around, is 220 cfs,” said Marty Joseph, manager of Frying Pan Anglers. “Three hundred cfs is on the high side, especially for the older guys.”

A big part of “wadability” is “crossability,” or whether someone can get across the river to fish a better hole without the water rising above their waist and sweeping them off their feet.

“There are a lot of spots on the river, especially where I like to fish, where its crossable at 250 cfs with a client,” Joseph said. “But at 300 cfs, you can’t cross at that same spot.”

Last year’s flow, especially the steady 300 cfs that ran down the ‘Pan in late September and early October, caught the attention of many of his regular clients.

“We do get most of our experienced guys at the end of season, and a lot of them are older, and a lot of them are very particular, and they’ve been coming here for 10 or 15 years, and then all of a sudden they see this hike in the flows, and they’re having trouble with that,” Joseph said.

Credit: Jordan Curet/Aspen Daily News
Mean monthly flows Fryingpan

Frustrating flow

At least 10 of his clients wrote letters to him complaining about the high flows, and those letters recently were sent to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which has a role in sending fish water out of Ruedi.

“We enjoyed our time at Taylor Creek cabins again this fall,” wrote one client to Frying Pan Anglers, “but, I should let you know that fishing was not very good attributed to the very high flows (300 cfs) in the Frying Pan (sic) River. These flows prevented us from wading in many areas of the river we are accustomed to fish. This was disappointing and frustrating.”

Frying Pan Anglers is one of the two larger fly-fishing guide services in Basalt. The other is Taylor Creek Fly Shops.

An economic analysis commissioned in 2014 by the Roaring Fork Conservancy found that anglers spend $3.3 million a year on fly-fishing trips to Basalt, factoring in their total spending from fishing equipment to guides to lodging.

A survey included with the analysis found that “wadeable flows on the river” was the second highest concern of visiting anglers after “insect hatches.” Of those surveyed, 37 percent said they would spend more days on the Fryingpan if the number of days when the river was flowing over 250 cfs was reduced.

But the flow levels out of Ruedi could be going up in the future.

A big trout in the Fryingpan River, a prize sought by many.
Credit: Courtesy Frying Pan Anglers
A view of Ruedi Reservoir showing the face of the dam, the spillway, the building that houses a hydropower plant, and an overflow outlet just above it. The pool just below the outlets often has the biggest fish on the river lurking within it.
Credit: Photo courtesy USFWS

Water flavors

There are three types of water released each summer and fall from Ruedi, a major storage reservoir for the Colorado River Basin opened in 1968 with a capacity of 102,373 acre feet. The first is a base flow, which in the absence of other water is 110 cfs. On top of that can be a fairly steady flow of “fish water” released at a rate that has varied over the last five years from 100 to 189 cfs. Last year, the flow rate of the fish water from Ruedi did not go above 175 cfs.

And on top of the layer of fish water can be a relatively thin layer of “contract water.” That’s water released in accordance with contracts the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which built the reservoir, has with 30 different owners. These pools of stored water are not often released, but the contracts do range from as little as 15 to much as 12,000 acre feet and collectively total 39,000 acre feet, so there is potential for significant future releases.

The dam manager working for the Bureau of Reclamation looks for the sweet spot on the Fryingpan and tries to deliver enough fish and contract water to meet demands while also keeping the river at a level that works for anglers. But that may be harder to do in the future, as there is more fish water than ever in Ruedi, and all of the available contract water has been sold, which means more people may call for it to be released, especially in the late summer and fall.

A map showing the location of the 15-mile reach.

Sweet spot

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service value water in Ruedi because it only takes two days for it to get to the critical reach where the pikeminnows and other endangered fish enjoy “feeding, breeding and sheltering.”

Over the years, officials have developed a pool of 15,412.5 acre feet of fish water in Ruedi. Then last year, the Colorado Water Conservation Board gave Fish and Wildlife another pool of water by leasing 12,000 acre feet from Ute Water Conservancy District, a water provider in Grand Junction.

Ute Water bought 12,000 acre feet of water in Ruedi in 2013 for $15.6 million to use as a back-up supply. It’s the biggest pool of contract water in the reservoir. And rather than leave it there, Ute Water entered into a lease with the CWCB to use it as fish water in 2015.

The CWCB, in coordination with Fish and Wildlife, then released 9,000 acre feet of the 12,000 acre-foot pool in September and October. It would have released more if not for its self-imposed limitation of flows not to exceed 300 cfs.

Ute Water plans to lease 12,000 acre feet to the CWCB again this year to send down the Fryingpan River and on to the Colorado River to benefit the fish. Between the existing 15,412.5 acre feet of fish water in Ruedi, that could bring up releases to 27,412.5, which the ancient native fish might appreciate.

Danielle Tremblay of Colorado Parks and Wildlife holding a Colorado pikeminnow collected on the Colorado River in Grand Junction. An apex predator in the Colorado, pikeminnows used to be found up to six feet long and weighing 100 pounds.
Credit: Photo courtesy USFWS

Big, old fish

The Colorado pikeminnow, which is considered an indicator species for ecosystem health in the 15-mile reach, “evolved as the main predator in the Colorado River system,” states a 1999 programmatic biological opinion, or PBO, that guides recovery efforts for the fish.

“It is an elongated pike-like fish that during predevelopment times may have grown as large as 6 feet in length and weighed nearly 100 pounds,” the PBO states.

One pikeminnow with a radio tag was tracked swimming up the Colorado River nearly 200 miles from Lake Powell to the 15-mile reach above Grand Junction between April and September 1982, a year of very high flows.

Another endangered fish, the humpback chub, likes to live in deep fast-moving water. About 1,800 to 1,900 wild native chub are still making a go of it in the Black Rocks and Westwater sections of the Colorado, downstream from Loma.

Two other species, the razorback sucker and bonytail, have had a tougher time over the years, although hatchery-bred suckers are now said to be doing fairly well.

A razorback sucker fresh from the Colorado River.
Credit: Courtesy USFSW
A graph, courtesy of the Colorado River District, showing the releases of fish water in 2015 from four Western Slope reservoirs: Green Mtn, Ruedi, Wolford and Granby. The graph shows that flows from Ruedi, in blue, were fairly steady last summer and fall.
Credit: Source: John Currier, Colorado River District

Of AF and CFS

To make up for low flows in the Colorado where the fish live, a total of 1.3 million acre feet of water since 1998 has been sent downstream from regional reservoirs. Of that total, 329,032 acre feet came out of Ruedi and flowed down the Fryingpan. On its way, the water has apparently helped, not hurt, the trout stream, but it has compromised wadability.

Complaints about flow levels have been recognized in previous environmental reviews on the impacts of storing and releasing fish water in Ruedi. And the benchmark to try and hit was 250 cfs.

But a recent modeling effort by Colorado Parks and Wildlife suggested 300 cfs was also an acceptable wadability level, and that level was used last year to guide releases on the Fryingpan.

“We have done some surveys in the past, and using modeling, came up with 300 to 350 cfs is where you significantly lose wadablity in the river,” said Kendall Bakich, a wildlife aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “But angler experience is a little different than what a model can say, so that’s where that 300 target came from.”

But on March 21, after reading the letters to Frying Pan Anglers, officials from the CWCB and the Fish and Wildlife Service said at a meeting in El Jebel that they will try to keep releases to the 250 cfs level this summer.

“Our board said that staff should work with the Bureau of Reclamation and angling interests to try and accommodate to the extent practicable angling concerns so that releases of water under the water lease agreement shall not cause the flows to exceed 250 cfs,” said Ted Kowalski, a section chief of the CWCB, referring to the CWCB’s recent approval of renewing the lease with Ute Water for the 12,000 acre feet of water.

It’s not a firm cap, though, and if necessary to meet the goals of the endangered fish program, releases could go to 300 cfs, and the river to 350 cfs after tributary flow is factored in.

Joseph at Fryingpan Anglers said the fishing wasn’t bad at 300 cfs, and that experienced guides can still find good spots to wade with clients. But Joseph has his concerns.

“My worry is this year they say 300 is acceptable and next year it’s going to be 350, and two, four, five years, it is going to 400 cfs,” Joseph said. “They’re slowly just going to keep moving on it.”

That’s also a concern of some local officials.

“One of the fears that we’ve had from the very beginning here, and one these days it’s going to come true, its that the Fryingpan is going to be converted from a gold medal trout fishery, with a occasional high releases, to a sluiceway that does basically nothing but deliver water downstream,” said Mark Fuller, the director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which recently sent comments on the issue to the CWCB.

Personnel from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service electrofishing on the Colorado River. The results from monitoring  fish populations on the Colorado between Rifle and Lake Powell is now of regional interest.
Credit: Photo courtesy USFW

Fish Patrol

Fuller and regional water managers understand the value of working to keep the endangered fish alive in order to avoid enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

“The 500-pound gorilla in the room is the PBO,” said Larry Clever, general manager of Ute Water, referring to the 1999 programmatic biological opinion.

The PBO requires that progress be made on sustaining the endangered fish. If not, an extensive environmental reviews known as “section 7 consultations” may be required under the ESA for all new or improved water projects on the upper Colorado River system.

“If those four endangered fish don’t make it, everybody has a section 7, for everything,” Clever said. “And, oh, we did one on a pipeline expansion. It cost $2.4 million. If the PBO goes south, we’re all in trouble.”

A USFWS employee holding a smallmouth bass, caught via electrofishing, that just swallowed a native bluehead sucker. Non-native fish eating  young native fish is a big obstacle to developing healthy populations of native fish.
Credit: Photo courtesy USFWS

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program has been managing regional efforts to see what can be done for the fish both in the spring, when peak flows of at least 15,660 cfs are important to the fish, and in the late summer and early fall.

The goal is to stabilize populations through a variety of methods, including river flows, removing predatory non-native fish that eat young native fish and improving native fish passage around diversion dams.

As the 2016 runoff season approaches, water managers up and down the Colorado River are poised to again coordinate, via a weekly conference call, the release of fish water from reservoirs in the upper Colorado River basin.

They’ll do so for the sake of the remaining 400 adult Colorado pikeminnows, and their optimistic offspring, who desire at least 810 cfs of water in the fall, if its a dry year, and 1,240 cfs if it is a normal year.

And for visiting anglers, they’ll also work to keep flows in the Fryingpan near 250 cfs.

Editor’s note:
Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, March 27, 2016.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...