McPhee Reservoir update: “…inflow from the Dolores River is helping us tremendously” — Vern Harrell

October 3, 2014


From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Recent rains are filling McPhee Reservoir, improving its outlook for next season.The reservoir’s elevation is 4½ feet higher than this time last year, reports Vern Harrell, a Bureau of Reclamation engineer.

“This latest storm produced 1,676 acre-feet of storage,” he said. “Irrigation outflow is pretty much done, and the inflow from the Dolores River is helping us tremendously.”

Carryover storage as of Oct. 1, 2014, is at 34,185 acre-feet, compared with 21,943 acre-feet for the same day last year, an increase of 12,242 acre-feet.

Last year, farmers suffered shortages, receiving just 25 percent of their normal water allocation because of poor snowpack and early hot weather.

This year, farmers from Dove Creek to Towaoc received 90-100 percent of their allocation, and monsoon rains reduced overall irrigation demand.

“It turned out to be a good water year,” Harrell said.

On Sept. 29, the Dolores River hit a record peak of 1,060 cubic feet per second — up from 100 cfs the day before — because of a massive rainfall event in the San Juan Mountains over the weekend. The previous record on that day was 626 cfs in 1927. On Oct. 1, the river at Dolores was flowing at 456 cfs, a boatable level.

Also this fall, significant upgrades to McPhee’s irrigation infrastructure will begin. The Bureau and the Dolores Water Conservancy District secured $4.5 million in funding for the improvements.

Automated pumping stations at Fairview, Pleasant View, Ruin Canyon, Cahone, and Dove Creek are all slated for upgrades, said DWCD engineer Ken Curtis.

The majority of the funding ($4 million) for the upgrades comes from revenues generated at the Glen Canyon hydro-electric power plant. DWCD pitched in $465,000.

“The Colorado Basin Power funds were used to pay for new reservoir projects, but there are no more of those, so now it distributes the money for upgrades and maintenance of existing facilities,” Curtis said.

The Fairview Pumping plant, which feeds off the Dove Creek canal, will receive the first overhaul at a cost of $1.6 million.

“The $500,000 needed for installation came in and construction is slated to begin in November,” Harrell said.

Now that the farming season is over, three variable-speed pumps and their 500-horsepower motors will be replaced, along with electronics and transformers.

The Fairview station delivers irrigation water through underground pipelines to 8,000 acres of farmland southwest of Yellow Jacket…

A wet fall and some carryover storage is a good sign for boaters as well. Officials say the reservoir needs an above-average winter snowpack to fill.

More Dolores River watershed coverage here.


Lower Dolores study details native fish needs — The Dolores Star

July 24, 2014

From The Dolores Star (Jim Mimiaga):

A conceptual plan for aiding native fish on the Lower Dolores River was approved by the Dolores Water Conservancy District in June. The District has been negotiating with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the BLM, Forest Service, and conservation groups on ways to improve native fish habitat below McPhee Dam. The result is the Lower Dolores River Implementation, Monitoring, and Evaluation Plan, focusing on three native fish: the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker, and roundtail chub.

“The plan provides a more coordinated approach for improving native fish habitat, with a focus on additional monitoring,” said Amber Clark, with the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance.

After McPhee Dam was built, small spills, as well as non-spill years from 2001-2004, began reducing the quality and amount of habitat required to meet the needs of native fish. Spring releases from the dam are later in the season, which has reduced the chance for spawning and survival of native fish.

“Protecting the native fish species locally is important because the healthier they are, the less likely they will be seen by the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) agency as requiring protective status under the Endangered Species Act,” said Ken Curtis, an engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “Working to help these species keeps control of our river at a local level.”

The implementation plan presents known and preferred habitat conditions and lifecycles of native fish within six separate stretches of the river below McPhee dam, four of which are a focus of conservation: Dove Creek Pump Station to Pyramid (Reach 3), Pyramid to Big Gypsum Valley (Reach 4), Slickrock Canyon (Reach 5), and Bedrock to San Miguel confluence (Reach 6) Reach 3 (nine miles)

Roundtail Chub are most abundant in Reach 3 and have a relatively stable population there. Mature roundtail are smaller than in other Western Slope rivers, indicating they are adapting to low flows. Fish counts at the Dove Creek area counted 140 roundtail chub, the highest in 13 years.

Bluehead and flannelmouth suckers are present, but in low abundance. In 2013, eight bluehead and one flannelmouth were counted. Habitat is good for bluehead, a more cold tolerant fish.

Reach 4 (38 miles)

Disappointment enters the Dolores in this stretch, flushing sediment into the main channel.

All three native species are found in this stretch as well as problematic non-natives including the black bullhead and smallmouth bass, a voracious predator.

Studies show that populations shift toward non-native species during prolonged low-flow periods. In 2004, native species made up less than 50 percent of the fish caught. After a prolonged spill in 2005, 84 percent of the fish sampled were flannelmouth sucker or roundtail chubs. Because of silt buildup from Disappointment Creek, improving flows here would especially help native fish beat out non-natives.

In August 2013, flooding showed that Reach 4 below Disappointment caused unnatural silting, causing a significant fish kill.

A lack of water limits critical dilution effects, and there is an unnatural buildup of silt because of infrequent flushing flows. “During a flash flood event on Disappointment, the surge of debris-filled water flows into the Dolores River, but there is no water to help dilute the surge of silt-laden water,” said Jim White, a CPW fish biologist.

Monitoring native species at Big Gypsum will remain a priority as it appears that the population may be sensitive to low flow.

Flows are a big factor. In 2005, when there was a managed spill, biologists found 150 flannelmouth per hectare at the Big Gypsum site. While in 2004 when there was no spill, flannelmouth were counted at five fish per hectare.

In April 2013, a PIT-tag array was installed across the river just above the Disappointment Creek confluence. Fish are implanted with grain-size microchips and can be detected when they move. Only a few fish have been tagged in the lower Dolores, but more implants are planned. Data shows native fish move up and down the river. The cost of the PIT-tag array is about $75,000.

Slickrock Canyon (32 miles)

All three native fish species are found,but in low abundance. This canyon is difficult to survey, and can usually be floated if there is a spill from McPhee reservoir. The last survey was in 2007, but more are needed to determine if the stretch has rearing habitats for native fish. A relatively large number of small native fish was found near the mouth of Coyote Wash, suggesting tributaries play an important role for young fish.

Bedrock to the San Miguel River confluence (12 miles)

There are a lot of unknowns. It is highly affected by natural salt loading through the Paradox Valley. The salinity is a barrier for fish between the Dolores River below the San Miguel and Slickrock Canyon. A salinity injection well is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation here to mitigate the problem. Researchers want to ascertain the levels of salinity. A second PIT-tag array is considered near Bedrock to help figure out how fish move .

Spill management

Mimicking a natural hydrograph for native fish is one goal of the implementation plan.

McPhee stores most of the Dolores River spring runoff, and exports much of the storage to the Montezuma Valley of the San Juan River Basin. The result is a lack of spring flushing flows in the Lower Dolores to move sediment and create natural habitat.

When inflow into the reservoir exceeds capacity, the spill benefits boaters and the downstream fishery. However, a prolonged drought has limited spill years. The reservoir holds a fishery pool of 29,824 acre-feet allocated downstream throughout the year by CPW. Spill water doesn’t count against the fishery pool, but it is subject to shortages in dry years.

The report suggests ways to optimize the fish pool and spills for the benefit of native fish.

Thermal regime management sends water downstream earlier, in March and April rather than in May, to keep water cooler and delay the fish spawn until after the whitewater season.

Biologists have documented that when spill water is released in May, the low flows on the lower Dolores have heated up, cueing fish to spawn early.

“The fry and eggs are washed away in the whitewater, a hit on survival,” White said.

A model indicates that flow volumes of 125-200 cfs on May 1 may be necessary to keep water below 15C at the Dove Creek Pumps. More water downstream may keep water cool enough to delay spawning. A gauge at James Ranch will monitor conditions.

Flushing flows range from 400-800 cfs are important to prepare spawning areas and improve oxygenated flow around eggs.

Habitat flows ranging from 2,000 cfs to 3,400 cfs are necessary for resetting channel geometry, scouring pools, creating channels for fish nurseries. The Bureau of Reclamation urges increasing the fish pool to 36,500 acre-feet a year. A fund of $400,000 is earmarked for buying additional water, but none has been acquired using these funds.

“There has always been a desire for more water for the downstream fishery,” says Curtis, of DWCD. “Before there is a blanket grab for additional water, there needs to be a specific focus on how it will help, and those questions are being pursued.”

The goal of the Implementation Plan is to maintain, protect, and enhance the native fish populations in the Dolores River.

The area is susceptible to being overrun by small mouth bass and affords opportunity for their suppression by removing caught fish.

Managed spills scour the river bottom, and move sediment in ways that benefit native fish and their young.

Blueheads are rarely detected in this stretch.

Biologists see the problem as two-fold:

The Snaggletooth Rapid is in this stretch, making fish sampling a challenge, but regular fish monitoring is encouraged in the report.

More Dolores River watershed coverage here and here.


2014 McPhee Reservoir irrigation water allocation set

March 20, 2014

mcpheereservoiroverlook

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The Dolores Water Conservancy District, which operates McPhee Reservoir, forecasts full-service users will receive at least 15 inches per allocated acre of the 22 inches of a full contractual amount.

“It is an improvement from our last prediction of 11 inches,” said DWCD general manager Mike Preston. “But we will need additional snowpack in the next 6-10 weeks to fill the reservoir and deliver a full supply.”

Water officials emphasize that the 15 inches is the minimum amount expected to be delivered based on current snowpack levels measured at five different locations in the river basin.

According to a March 7 letter sent to irrigators, “If conditions completely dry out, the worst case works out to 70 percent or 15 inches per allocated acre.”

Late summer monsoon rains that recharged the soil is a major factor for the improved outlook.

Instead of soaking into the ground as it did in Spring 2013 due to a extremely dry 2012, snowmelt this year will reach the reservoir more.

“The improved soil moisture will prevent us from totally cratering like last year,” said Ken Curtis, a DWCD engineer.

Last year, full-service irrigators received just 25 percent of their total allocation, or about 6 inches of water per acre. Instead of three cuttings of alfalfa, most farmers harvested just one.

The latest water news is critical for farmers, who begin ordering fertilizer and seed now for the upcoming growing season. Calculations of how much to plow also depend on estimated water supplies.

“If we get a weather build up, it will just improve from the 15 inches,” Preston said…

If the high country received 4-6 inches of snow each week through April, managers predict the reservoir would reach its full irrigation supply.

On the down side, lower elevation snow is lower than normal. Also, because there is no carryover storage from last year’s dry conditions, McPhee reservoir will end very low and lack carry over storage for a third straight year.

More McPhee Reservoir coverage here.


Dolores River: Instream flow right below confluence with the San Miguel River?

February 20, 2014
Dolores River Canyon near Paradox

Dolores River Canyon near Paradox

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:

A spirited debate before the Colorado Water Conservation Board in Denver in January featured local officials expressing their opinions about a plan to increase flows on the lower Dolores River.

A live Internet broadcast of the hearing presented views for and against appropriating new minimum in-stream flows on a 34-mile section of the river below the confluence of the San Miguel River.

Representatives from the Dolores Water Conservancy District, in Cortez, and the Southwestern Water Conservation District, in Durango, attended the meeting and urged the state board to delay the matter. Local officials say new in-stream flows could threaten agricultural users who depend on McPhee Reservoir, and they want more time for negotiations with local federal agencies about newly implemented river regulations.

But they were rebuffed by the state board and state officials who argued the in-stream flows were a good way to protect struggling native fish and avoid intervention by the federal government moving to list them under the Endangered Species Act…

The proposed in-stream flow on the Dolores is for 900 cfs to flow for 61 days in the summer to aid the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub below the San Miguel confluence.

Eleven organizations commented on the proposed in-stream flow, some for and some against.

Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores district, urged the state board to delay its intent to appropriate the new Dolores in-stream flow.

“These ISFs are intertwined with recent federal actions that add up to create considerable uncertainty and risk for the Dolores Project,” he said. “We ask for the delay to straighten out these issues with federal land agencies.”

The in-stream flow proposal comes on top of recent federal action on the Dolores that elevates two additional native fish, the bluehead and flannelmouth suckers, to a category called Outstanding Remarkable Values.

The values are used to categorize special aspects of rivers like the Dolores that are designated “suitable” for National Wild and Scenic River status.

Creating that official high level of protection would require an act of Congress. But reservoir managers oppose even a hint of Wild and Scenic because if ever designated, those rivers come with a federally reserved water right that could force water from McPhee to be released downstream for the benefit of native fish.

State water board director John McClow said that the in-stream flow was a good solution and questioned why it had so much resistance.

“I’m having a difficult time connecting the dots here,” he said. “We have argued to federal agencies that in-stream flows are a better option than suitability. If we declare intent to appropriate, it lets the federal agencies know that we are serious and are going to do this and provide the protection for these fish.”

After the testimony, the state water board voted unanimously to declare its intent for appropriating the proposed in-stream flows on the Lower Dolores River.

However, to give time for stakeholders to negotiate with the Bureau of Land Management about the possibility of dropping Wild and Scenic suitability, the hearing about the matter was delayed until January 2015.

Here’s a guest column about the proposed instream right and the Dolores Project, written by Mike Preston that’s running in the Cortez Journal:

There is a lot going on these days that could affect the Dolores Project and many recent events have received newspaper coverage. This column is intended to put these events into a broader context that will help those who are interested understand what is going on as this story continues to unfold.

Let’s start with the biggest long term risk to Dolores Project water supplies: A listing of any of the three sensitive native fish species on the Dolores River as Threatened and Endangered. This would put the US Fish and Wildlife Service in charge of the Dolores River resulting in a loss of control by everyone else. What is being done? Local partners including water managers, fishery managers, conservation groups, boaters and county commissioners are working together to put together a science based Native Fish Implementation Plan to evaluate opportunities to address the needs of native fish without putting water supplies as risk.

The next level of risk is the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act as a result of additions to the recently released BLM and Forest Service resource management plans which list the two sensitive native fish as Outstandingly Remarkable Values which Implementation Plan monitoring show to be uncommon and rare above the confluence with the San Miguel River. The federal plans also added flow standards that are unachievable below McPhee Reservoir. What is being done? DWCD and Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWWCD) are actively protesting and appealing these plans with the support of the State of Colorado, Colorado Water Congress, local counties and west slope water entities.

There is also a large instream flow proposed on the Dolores River below the San Miguel confluence. Representatives of DWCD and SWWCD recently appeared before the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) and asked that the instream flow proceeding be delayed until risks associated with the federal plans are addressed. The CWCB granted a delay until January of 2015 and pledged State of Colorado support in resolving the federal issues described above. The one year delay also gives local water boards the opportunity to negotiate protections to insure that the instream flow will pose no risks to water stored in McPhee and other water rights within the basin.

Given the need to manage these multiple risks, what can be done to create stability and certainty going into the future? There is a Legislative Subcommittee made up of County Commissioners, Water Managers, and Conservation Groups, grazers and OHV users that is crafting legislation that will eliminate the Wild and Scenic River designation from McPhee Dam to Bedrock, protect water rights and Dolores Project allocations, recognize the Native Fish Implementation Plan as the means of taking care of the fish, while protecting water rights, mineral rights, private property rights and access.

Are we going to be able to succeed in all of these activities designed to protect community water supplies? These efforts are grounded in community level cooperation by representatives of the full range of Dolores Project purposes: irrigation, community water providers, boating, the fishery and the health of the downstream environment. If we all stick together, we will find a way to do what’s right by our community. As this story unfolds we will make every effort to keep you informed.

More Dolores River watershed coverage here and here.


Wild and scenic designation for the Dolores River?

January 14, 2014
Dolores River near Bedrock

Dolores River near Bedrock

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

New management plans by the BLM and Forest Service upgrade the status of two native fish, and list new sections of the river as “preliminarily suitable” for a Wild and Scenic designation.

Roy Smith, a BLM water specialist, explained that the suitability status for the Lower Dolores from the dam to Bedrock has been in place since a 1976, and the special status was reaffirmed in a recently released public lands management plan.

“It qualifies because below the dam, the lower Dolores is a free-flowing stream that has outstandingly remarkable values (ORVs),” he said. “A common misconception is that suitability means we can wave a wand and make it Wild and Scenic, but that is not true. That takes congressional action.”

The 1976 suitability study noted that the Dolores is compatible with a Wild and Scenic designation, and “McPhee dam will enhance and complement such designation.”

ORVs are obscure and sometimes controversial assessments that identify river-related natural values. They are an indication that a river could qualify as a Wild and Scenic River in the future. In the meantime, their natural values are protected in management plans.

In their recent management plan, the BLM and Forest Service upped the ante, adding the bluehead and flannelmouth suckers to ORV standard list, which already includes the bonytail chub.

The Colorado Water Conservation board also believes native fish on the river deserve additional help. They propose to issue a new in-stream flow requirement for a 34-mile section of the river from the confluence with the San Miguel River to the Gateway community.

Ted Kowalski, a CWCB water resource specialist, explained that the new instream flow is proposed to improve habitat conditions for native fish.

“In-stream flows are designed to protect the natural hydrographs on the river, and we feel they are better than top-down river management from the federal side,” Kowalski said. “The proposed instream flows on that section of the Dolores are timed to accommodate spawning needs for native fish.”

Required peak flows reach 900 cfs during spring runoff, and then taper off. Most of the water would be provided by the San Miguel River, an upstream tributary…

The Dolores Water Conservation Board and the Southwestern Water Conservation board objected to the changes, fearing the move could force more water to be released downstream. They have filed appeals and protests to stop them.

Even the preliminary Wild and Scenic status on the Dolores is strongly opposed by McPhee Reservoir operators because if officially designated, Wild and Scenic rivers come with a federally reserved water right, which would also force more water to be released from the dam.

Jeff Kane, an attorney representing SWCD, said adding two native fish as ORVs was unexpected and unfair to a local collaborative process working to identify and protect native fish needs…

Accusations that federal agencies and the CWCB hijacked a 10-year-long, grass-roots effort to protect the Dolores were expressed at the meeting, which was attended by 80 local and regional officials…

A diverse stakeholder group, the Dolores River Working Group, is proposing to make the Lower Dolores River into a National Conservation Area through future legislation. As part of the deal, suitability status for Wild and Scenic on the Lower Dolores River would be dropped.

“It is still worthwhile to get our proposal out there,” said Amber Kelley, Dolores River coordinator for the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance. “We should continue to move forward in our collaborative effort despite the concerns about the BLM changes.”

More Dolores River Watershed coverage here and here.


Increased flows in the Dolores River this summer enable Kokanee spawning

November 10, 2013

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Last year, there was no run because the lake was so low, explained Jim White, a aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

In low water years, the river carves a wide channel in the lake bed that is too shallow for the kokanee salmon to make their way to spawning grounds, 5 miles up river at a specially designed fish hatchery.

But deeper water triggered a run this year attracting bald eagles to the valley and a line of people at the traditional November fish giveaway in Dolores…

The kokanee spawning zone on the Dolores River is a system of ponds that drain into a concrete-formed “raceway”, controlled by gates, sieves, and fish cages. The females lay their eggs in the fine gravel, and then go off and die, becoming a meal for eagles, bears, and otters.

Some eggs are harvested by biologists and raised in the Durango fish hatchery to be distributed to other hatcheries and lakes, including back to the Dolores.

From the hatchery, they float down river and into McPhee Reservoir, with most becoming a meal for predator fish. Those that survive, about 5 percent, spend 3 to 4 years maturing and then make their way to where they were born to lay eggs.

More Dolores River Watershed coverage here and here.


Colorado Water 2012: A look at the basins of Southwestern Colorado

October 31, 2012

sanjuan.jpg

Here’s the latest installment of the Valley Courier’s Colorado Water 2012 series, written by Bruce Whitehead. Here’s an excerpt:

Southwestern Colorado’s rivers are unique in that many of the rivers and tributaries flow from north to south and are administered as independent river systems.

This is due to the fact that many, such as the Navajo, Blanco, Piedra, Pine, Florida, Animas, La Plata, and Mancos Rivers, are tributary to the San Juan River in New Mexico or just upstream of the state line. The Dolores River flows from north to south, but makes a “U-turn” near Cortez and heads back to the northwest and joins the Colorado River in Utah. The San Miguel River originates just above Telluride, and flows to the west where it joins the Dolores River just above the Colorado-Utah state line.

The southwest basin has many areas that are under strict water rights administration on a regular basis, but there is still water available for appropriation and development pursuant to Colorado’s Constitution and the Colorado River Compact. The region is also known for its beautiful scenery and recreation opportunities, which is the basis for the establishment of the Weminuche Wilderness area as well as nearly 150 reaches of streams with in-stream flow water rights. Over 50 natural lake levels are also protected by the state’s In-Stream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program.

Water leaders have been active for many years in the basin and recognized early on that in order to meet agricultural and municipal demands storage would need to be developed. The Southwestern Water Conservation District was formed in 1941, and has been responsible for the planning, development, and water rights acquisition for many of the federal projects in the region. Reservoirs such as McPhee (Dolores Project), Jackson Gulch (Mancos Project), Ridges Basin a.k.a Lake Nighthorse (Animas-La Plata Project), Lemon (Florida Project), and Vallecito (Pine River Project) provide for a supplemental supply of irrigation and municipal water in all but the driest of years. The delivery of these supplemental supplies assists with keeping flows in many critical reaches of river that historically had little or no flow late in the season due to limited supplies and water rights administration.

Southwest Colorado is also home to two Sovereign Nations and Indian Reservations that were established by treaty in 1868. Under federal law the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Southern Ute Indian Tribe were entitled to federal reserved water rights, which had the potential to create conflicts with Colorado water law and non-Indian water users in the basin. After nearly a decade of negotiations, a consent decree was entered with the water court that settled the tribal claims. The Tribal Settlement included some early dates of appropriation for the tribes, and a water supply from some of the federal storage projects including the Dolores, Animas-La Plata, Florida, and Pine River Projects. This landmark settlement is evidence that both tribal and non-Indian interests can be provided for with water storage and cooperative water management.

More Colorado Water 2012 coverage here.


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