GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The Colorado Water Conservation Board on Wednesday approved two leases of water from Ruedi Reservoir designed to help different types of fish populations in the Colorado and Fryingpan rivers.

For the fourth year in a row, the state agency will lease water from the Ute Water Conservancy District to bolster flows in what’s known as the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River between the Palisade area and the confluence of the Gunnison River in Grand Junction. That stretch of the river is critical habitat for native endangered fish species, including the humpback chub.

This year’s renewed lease agreement will allow the water board, which was meeting this week in Glenwood Springs, to release 6,000 acre-feet of water from Ruedi Reservoir held for the Ute Water Conservancy District by the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir.

At $7.20 per acre-foot, it will cost $43,200 and come out of the board’s species conservation trust fund. The water releases will take place during September and October, according to Linda Bassi, chief of the CWCB’s stream and lake protection department.

“It’s really important for us to be providing water to the 15-mile reach,” Bassi told the directors of the CWCB. “Every drop counts.”

The lower Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir on July 16, 2018, flowing at 150 cubic feet per second. Additional releases of water from Ruedi to benefit the 15-mile reach on the Colorado River near Grand Junction could boost flows in the Fryingpan. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

CWCB on tour

The directors of the CWCB met Wednesday and Thursday as part of their practice of meeting in different parts of the state.

On Tuesday, the agency’s board of directors took a tour of Ruedi Reservoir and attended an informational event at the private, members-only Aspen Yacht Club on the reservoir hosted by the Southeastern Water Conservancy District.

On Wednesday, Bassi described for the directors some of the drastic impacts that low flows can have on fish, including making fish more vulnerable to avian predators, leaving them stranded in small pools or even causing them to get sunburned.

Large diversions on the Colorado River above Palisade that send irrigation water to the Grand Valley, along with other diversions upstream on the river system, can cause the 15-mile reach flows to plummet to detrimental levels.

To help offset the diversions, officials with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program have set a low-flow target of 810 cubic feet per second this year. The leased water aims to help meet that target.

Since the beginning of July, the flows in the 15-mile reach have been fluctuating between about 400 cfs to 500 cfs, well below the target of 810 cfs.

A condition of the lease between Ute Water and the CWCB is that releases from Ruedi will not exceed 300 cfs and will not cause flows in the lower Fryingpan River below the reservoir to exceed 350 cfs, as flows at that level can make it difficult for anglers to wade in the popular fly-fishing river.

The lower Fryingpan on Wednesday was flowing at 150 cfs.

The outflow of water from Ruedi Reservoir at the bottom of the dam that forms it creates a popular fishing spot known as the Toilet Bowl. A condition of one of the leases approved by the state water board Wednesday will limit flows in the lower Fryingpan River to below 350 cfs to retain favorable conditions for anglers. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Winter flows

The CWCB board also approved a lease from the Colorado River Water Conservancy District to increase winter flows on the lower Fryingpan. The proposal was first introduced in May.

The lease will boost the minimum instream flow below Ruedi Reservoir between Jan. 1 and March 31 from 39 cfs to 70 cfs in an effort to prevent the formation of anchor ice.

Low streamflows, combined with frigid temperatures, can lead to ice forming on the bottom of the river. This has a negative effect on aquatic insects, which are food for the brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout that call the lower Fryingpan home.

Under the agreement, the CWCB will pay $65.25 per acre-foot to lease up to 3,500 acre-feet from the river district for a total of $228,375. The River District agreed to waive a $400 application fee.

The district owns a total of 11,413.5 acre-feet of water in Ruedi, with 7,500 acre-feet of that available for leasing. Of the total the district owns, 5,412.5 acre-feet is to support flows for the endangered fish recovery program.

The proposal to maintain a healthy food source for the Gold Medal fishery’s population of trout was a collaboration between the river district and the Roaring Fork Conservancy, which is based in Basalt.

“We are excited to see [the lease] approved and to partner with the CWCB and the River District,” said Heather Tattersall Lewin, watershed action director for the Conservancy. “It’s really the first lease of its kind.”

A view of the dam that forms Ruedi Reservoir, which sits astride the Fryingpan River. The state water board on Wednesday approved two leases to release more water from the reservoir in an effort to help downstream fish populations on the Fryingpan and Colorado rivers. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Differing costs

Although the CWCB board unanimously approved the Ruedi water leases, two board members raised questions about the differing cost per acre-foot for the two projects.

At more than $65 per acre-foot, the River District water costs roughly nine times more than the water leased from Ute Water.

Over the previous three years, the CWCB has spent a total of $194,400 on the Ute Water lease for a total 27,000 acre-feet.

Board member Patricia Wells, who represents the City and County of Denver, said she was trying to reconcile the dramatic difference in price.

Jim Yahn, the current CWCB chair, who represents the South Platte River basin, asked whether CWCB staff had negotiated the cost of the lease with the River District.

They did not, Bassi said.

“It struck me, the price difference,” Yahn said.

River District Chief Engineer John Currier explained that earlier this year, in response to the leasing proposal, his organization created a third use-category in addition to its existing categories of agriculture and municipal/industrial: in-channel use.

The River District then decided to market the water at the same price as they do for agricultural use.

“The River District runs a water marketing enterprise,” Currier said. “It’s my job to make sure that enterprise runs in the black.”

Ute Water External Affairs Manager Joe Burtard said the water provider does not try to generate revenue with its leases, instead it simply wants to cover its costs associated with operation and maintenance of the reservoir.

The cost of the River District water didn’t seem to bother board member Russ George, who represents the Colorado River basin on the CWCB board. He said the instream flow leases demonstrate the importance of Ruedi as a storage unit.

“I’m delighted the River District bought the water and we have it for use today,” he said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times and the Post Independent published this story on July 20, 2018.

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...