High Fryingpan water flows are vexing anglers

An angler on the Fryingpan River, in the flat section not far below the reservoir, with a flow of 250 cfs. Releases from Ruedi for the benefit of endangered fish in the Colorado RIver near Palisade have brought the river up to 300 cfs.
An angler on the Fryingpan River, in the flat section not far below the reservoir, with a flow of 250 cfs. Releases from Ruedi for the benefit of endangered fish in the Colorado RIver near Palisade have brought the river up to 300 cfs.
A USGS graphic showing the increase in flows in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir from Aug. 11 to Aug. 13, 2016. The flows were increased 50 cfs from 250 to 300 cfs.
A USGS graphic showing the increase in flows in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir from Aug. 11 to Aug. 13, 2016. The flows were increased 50 cfs from 250 to 300 cfs.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

BASALT – Flows in the lower Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir were increased on Friday afternoon to about 300 cubic feet per second, much to the dismay of professional and private anglers who prefer a flow of no more than 250 cfs.

“We get cancellations at 250 and up,” said Warwick Mowbray, owner of Frying Pan Anglers in Basalt, during a meeting Thursday night in Basalt’s town hall on flows in the Fryingpan. “People say ‘We can’t wade.’”

Releases from Ruedi were increased Friday in order to send more water to the “15-mile reach” of the Colorado River between Palisade and Grand Junction for the benefit of endangered fish species struggling to survive in the river below several big irrigation diversions.

But the water released from Ruedi and sent down the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers to the 15-mile reach at the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erodes the quality of the trout-fishing experience on the lower Fryingpan, according to Will Sands, manager of Taylor Creek Fly Shops in Basalt and Aspen.

“Over 250 cfs changes the dynamic of the environment of the river for hatches and the abilities of the visiting angler,” Sands said. “It hits 300 and we start getting cancellations.”

Rick Lofaro, director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, seconded the concerns of the professional anglers.

“When you have additional water coming down, it challenges wading and changes the character of the river,” he said, likening higher flows in the Fryingpan to paying for a backcountry powder tour only to find no fresh snow. “I think there is a big difference between 250 and 300 from an accessibility and wade-ability level.”

The conservancy commissioned a study in 2014 that showed fly-fishing contributes $3.8 million to Basalt’s economy.

Thursday’s meeting in Basalt was called by officials from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service, and about a dozen citizens showed up to discuss likely releases from Ruedi for the balance of the summer.

Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation who manages Ruedi Reservoir, said releases below the reservoir would likely be around 300 cfs into September, but could be as high as 350 cfs if there is a call for more water from irrigators in the Grand Junction area.

Since July 18, flows in the lower Fryingpan have been running steadily at around 245 cfs, a sweet spot for anglers.

Jana Mohrman, a hydrologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, manages a pool of water in Ruedi that can be released to keep enough water in the 15-mile reach.

She works toward meeting seasonal flow levels — now 1,240 cfs — in the Colorado River near Palisade by directing “fish water” to that point on the river from a variety of upstream reservoirs, including Ruedi, Wolford and Green Mountain.

This week, flows in the Colorado River near Palisade had dropped to the point where several fish passages designed to allow native endangered fish to swim upstream toward Rifle were not functioning due to low water levels.

“I’m using Ruedi to get my fish passages open,” Mohrman said.

As such, she directed the Bureau of Reclamation to release another 50 cfs from Ruedi starting Friday. That was on top of the 140 cfs of “fish water” that was already being released, which was in addition to about 110 cfs of routine releases from the reservoir.

The crest of the dam across the Fryingpan River that forms Ruedi Reservoir, which can hold 102,373 acre-feet of water.
The crest of the dam across the Fryingpan River that forms Ruedi Reservoir, which can hold 102,373 acre-feet of water.

Fish water

Mohrman’s pool of “fish water” in Ruedi equals about 15,000 acre-feet of water. But she can also use, for the second year in a row, about 9,000 acre-feet of water owned by the Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction and leased to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for use in the fish-recovery program.

On Wednesday, during a weekly conference call of regional reservoir managers and irrigators, Mohrman was pressured by irrigators in the Grand Valley to release more water from Ruedi along with water they were releasing for the fish from Green Mountain Reservoir, which serves as a back-up supply water for the Grand Valley.

Last year, 24,412 acre-feet of water was released from Ruedi to the benefit of the fish recovery program and a similar amount is likely to be released this year. In all, Ruedi can store 102,373 acre-feet of water.

Of that, about 41,000 acre-feet is owned by various entities, and can also be released upon demand in a dry year. Should that occur, flows in the Fryingpan could rise still higher, and not just because of the fish-recovery program.

“These demands on the reservoir are only going to grow,” said Miller of the Bureau of Reclamation. “This isn’t going away.”

The lower Fryingpan River on Thursday, Aug. 11, flowing at about 250 cfs.
The lower Fryingpan River on Thursday, Aug. 11, flowing at about 250 cfs.

Conflicting priorities

Dan Turley, a homeowner in the Fryingpan River Valley and an avid angler, asked Mohrman if the endangered fish program was a higher priority than the recreational economy of Basalt.

“This is not a trivial inconvenience,” Turley said of flows in the Fryingpan going up to 300 cfs. “It makes the river not viable to fish for a great majority of people.”

And Turley said it’s not just about Basalt’s economy.

“A lot of people from Aspen come down here and fish,” he said. “They are staying at The Little Nell. This is a big deal.”

“It’s always been considered,” Mohrman said, referring to the local fly-fishing economy and a targeted flow of 250 cfs in the Fryingpan. “And we have always said we would try to maintain 250. But we also have to recover these fish, and we’ve built all these structures to try and get them up to Rifle to get back into their natural habitat. And that is a higher priority than the 250 target.”

The goal of what’s called the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Program is to maintain populations of four species of large fish native to the Colorado River, the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail, and humpback chub.

If the program fails to maintain viable populations of native fish, diverters in the Colorado River basin could be faced with extensive environmental reviews of their diversion’s effects on the endangered fish — something regional water managers want to avoid.

As long as the fish populations are stable or growing, the recovery program provides blanket environmental protection. Trouble is, Mohrman said the fish are not doing all that great as they are being preyed upon by non-native fish in addition to struggling with low river levels.

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.
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.

Bypass pipeline?

Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County commissioner who has focused during her tenure on water issues, attended Thursday’s night meeting.

She raised the idea of a pipeline or flume that would allow water to be released from Ruedi without flowing down the river itself.

“We’ve always talked a little bit about should there be a separate flume or waterway for the Ruedi releases so they are not destroying the Fryingpan,” Richards said.

She also said that Pitkin County and Basalt had voiced concerns in the past about releasing “fish water” from Ruedi and making Basalt a “sacrificial lamb for water needs elsewhere in the state.”

At the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting, Mohrman said she would work with irrigators and reservoir managers to see if more water can’t be released from reservoirs other than Ruedi.

“I’ll try and cut it back as the Green Mountain Reservoir ups its releases and our fish passages stay open,” she said. “I understand your very serious concerns.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water.The Daily News published this story on Saturday, August 13, 2016.

#ColoradoRiver: Aspinall Unit operations update #COriver — 1,000 cfs in Black Canyon

Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn
Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn

From email from Reclamation (Eric Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be decreased from 2000 cfs to 1800 cfs on Wednesday, August 10th. July inflows to Blue Mesa Reservoir ended up being less than predicted and August inflow forecasts are also declining. The April-July runoff volume finished the season at 89% of average. The current content of Blue Mesa Reservoir is 757,000 acre-feet which is 91% full.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. Flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for August through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1000 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 800 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

#ColoradoRiver: Lake Mead still shrinking, but lower consumption offers glimmer of hope — Las Vegas Review-Journal


From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (@RefriedBrean):

The reservoir that supplies 90 percent of the Las Vegas Valley’s drinking water bottomed out at 1,071.61 feet above sea level on July 1, its lowest level since May 1937, when the lake was filling for the first time behind a newly completed Hoover Dam.

Though the surface of the lake has ticked back up by about 2 feet since then, it remains 5 feet lower than it was at this time last year and 43 feet lower than it was in early August 2012.

But the news isn’t all bad.

The amount of water being drawn from the Colorado River for use in Nevada, Arizona and California is on track to hit its lowest level in more than 20 years, a sign that conservation efforts and temporary cuts by river users are having an effect, at least on the demand side of the ledger…

If the current federal projection holds, the three lower basin states will combine this year to consume less than 7 million acre-feet of Colorado River water for the first time since 1992…

That’s a “symbolically important milestone,” said author and long-time environmental journalist John Fleck, because the region’s population has grown by roughly 7 million people since the last time consumption was this low…

Even with reduced consumption, there will still be more water taken out of the river this year than there is flowing into it.

As a result, the record low set on July 1 is unlikely to stand for long. Federal forecasters expect Lake Mead to start 2017 about 6 feet higher than it is now, then dip downward again into record territory in April, before bottoming out next June or July at about 1,063 feet above sea level…

Though Lake Mead’s decline is expected to continue for the next two years at least, forecasters say the reservoir is likely to contain just enough water on Jan. 1, 2017, and Jan. 1, 2018, to avoid a first-ever federal shortage declaration that would trigger mandatory water reductions for Nevada and Arizona…

Mack said the voluntary cuts and conservation gains made already by cities, farms and water agencies in Nevada, Arizona and California are at least partially responsible for keeping Lake Mead just out of shortage territory. And more cooperative cuts are coming.

By the end of the year, officials in Nevada, Arizona and California hope to finalize a landmark deal outlining a series of voluntary water reductions designed to prop up Lake Mead and stave off deeper, mandatory cuts for Arizona and Nevada.

Arizona would shoulder most of the voluntary reductions, but the tentative deal marks the first time California has agreed to share the pain if the drought worsens.

As it stands now, California is not required to take any cuts to its 4.4 million acre-foot share of the Colorado, which is the largest annual allotment among the seven states that share the river.

Basalt: Reclamation to Host Public Meeting for Ruedi Operations

Sunrise at Ruedi Reservoir October 20, 2015. Photo via USBR.
Sunrise at Ruedi Reservoir October 20, 2015. Photo via USBR.

From email from Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

The Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled the annual public meeting for Ruedi Reservoir Water Operations.

August 11: Basalt Town Hall, 101 Midland Avenue, Basalt, Colo., 7 to 8:30 p.m.

The meeting will provide an overview of Ruedi Reservoir’s 2016 projected operations for late summer and early fall, which are key tourist seasons in Basalt. The meeting will include a public question and answer session.

For more information, please contact Tim Miller, Hydrologist, Eastern Colorado Area Office, by phone or e-mail: (970) 962-4394, or tmiller@usbr.gov.

Dolores River: Balancing streamflow forecast and boating releases from McPhee

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

A sporadic 12-day boating release from McPhee dam into the Dolores River in June was hampered by uncertain runoff forecasts after a late-season snowfall, reservoir managers said at community meeting Tuesday in Dolores.

Boaters faced on-again, off-again announcements of whitewater releases from the dam, which complicated their plans for trips down the river. It was the dam’s first whitewater release since 2011.

A 22-day rafting season was forecast as possible in March when snowpack registered at 130 percent of its median normal. A two-month dry spell erased the advantage, and the release was adjusted to five to 10 days of boating for late May. The forecast then dropped to a three-day release in early June, and after it was confirmed days later, hundreds of boaters flocked to the Dolores as it filled below the dam.

“Small spills are the most difficult and tricky to manage,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages the reservoir.

But on the fourth day, managers said they realized the volume of river inflow was more than the reservoir could handle, and the dam release was extended nine additional days.

“The second spill was highly under-utilized,” said boater Kent Ford, who added that the lack of notice “killed a lot of multi-day trips.”

Vern Harrell, of the Bureau of Reclamation’s office in Cortez, attributed the uncertainty to the narrow margin of runoff expected to exceed reservoir capacity.

The runoff forecast has a margin of error of 10 percent, “and this year, the spill was within that 10 percent,” Harrell said.

Decisions about dam releases rely on forecasts from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, which depends on Snotels that measure snowpack in the Dolores Basin.

When there is possibility for a small spill, managers don’t have the tools to give a lot of notice, Harrell said, so decisions are made day-to-day based on river inflow and reservoir levels.

“By May, all the Snotels are melted out, and we are in the blind,” he said.

In small spill years, managers said they err on the side of caution when announcing the number of days available for boaters. They want to ensure that the reservoir remains full, but they don’t want to end a dam release prematurely.

“We have to be careful we don’t leave boaters stranded on the river,” Harrell said.

Ken Curtis, an engineer with Dolores Water Conservancy District, said the priority is to fill the reservoir, and if there is excess water, it is managed for a boating release.

It was especially difficult to forecast runoff into the reservoir this year, he said, because much of the late-season precipitation came as rainfall.

“In May, we called off the spill because we were not reaching our reservoir elevation,” he said. “Then the forecasters bumped us up by 30,000 acre-feet,” enough for a small spill.

At the end of a five-day release, the forecast center showed a dip in river inflow, “so we started to shut the gates, but the river inflow was hanging in there,” and the spill was extended several days.

Managers acknowledged that they were rusty managing the release. They’d faced many dry winters that hadn’t filled the reservoir, and the unusual winter of 2015-16 complicated the matter.

Sam Carter, president of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, said boaters and the reservoir managers cooperate on potential spills, and this year was a learning experience.

Arkansas River Basin: “Those releases help keep the rafting industry afloat” — Alan Ward

Twin Lakes collection system
Twin Lakes collection system

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

After a wet spring, summer has been relatively dry, and drought conditions are creeping back into Colorado, particularly over the Rocky Mountains in the center of the state and the Rio Grande basin.

River flows have dropped, so Reclamation and Pueblo Water are running water from accounts in upper reservoirs to Lake Pueblo. This serves two purposes: Creating space for imports next spring and providing water for the voluntary flow program that extends the commercial rafting season.

Finding the additional space in Clear Creek, Twin Lakes and Turquoise reservoirs was problematic this year, because reservoirs still were full from a very wet 2015. Twin Lakes filled early with native water and delayed imports from the Western Slope.

The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project has delivered more than 58,760 acre-feet so far, about 90 percent of what had been expected when allocations were made in May.

The Southeastern District, which determines allocations, will adjust agricultural deliveries, because cities already had requested less water than they were entitled to receive.

Pueblo Water imported about 13,500 acre-feet of water, about 92 percent of normal. Part of the reason was the lack of free space at Twin Lakes, and part was due to maintaining long-term limits since storage space was scarce anyway, said Alan Ward, water resources manager.

Pueblo Water will lease more than 21,700 acre-feet of water this year because of the potential storage crunch earlier this year.

Even so, Pueblo Water had 49,133 acre-feet of water in storage at the end of June, which was down from last year, but 17,600 acre-feet more than was in storage at the end of May. Most of the gain came in the upper reservoirs, and is now being sent to Lake Pueblo, where it is needed for leases and to make space, Ward said.

“Those releases help keep the rafting industry afloat,” Ward said.

@USBR Releases Draft Environmental Assessment for Tri-Districts Long-Term Excess Capacity Contracts

Colorado-Big Thompson Project east slope facilities
Colorado-Big Thompson Project east slope facilities

Here’s the release from Reclamation (Buck Feist):

The Bureau of Reclamation has released the Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposed Tri-Districts Long-Term Excess Capacity Contracts for public review and comment.

The Draft EA evaluates environmental impacts associated with Reclamation’s proposed approval of 40-year excess capacity storage, exchange, and conveyance contracts between Reclamation and East Larimer County Water District, Fort Collins-Loveland Water District, North Weld County Water District (collectively referred to as Tri-Districts).

“Excess capacity contracts are very important,” said Eastern-Colorado Area Manager, Signe Snortland. “These provide a needed benefit of water management flexibility, so Districts are better equipped to address drought, changes in municipal demand, and temporary changes in the watershed affecting water quality.”

Tri-Districts have annually requested annual excess capacity contracts to mitigate poor water quality conditions in the Cache La Poudre River due to increased particulate matter due to the High Park and Hewlett wildfires in 2012. The long-term contracts would allow Tri-Districts to utilize excess capacity in Horsetooth Reservoir for storage, exchange and conveyance of the Tri-Districts’ water supplies for delivery to the Soldier Canyon Water Treatment Plant. Each district would execute a separate contract with combined total exchange and storage contract volumes not to exceed 3,000 acre-feet (af).

The Draft EA is electronically available at http://www.usbr.gov/gp/ecao/nepa/cbt_tridistricts.html.

Comments on the Draft EA can be sent to: tstroh@usbr.gov; Terence Stroh, Bureau of Reclamation, 11056 West County Road 18E, Loveland, CO 80537; or faxed to 970-663-3212. For additional information or to receive a printed copy of the Draft EA, please contact Terence Stroh at 970-962-4369 or tstroh@usbr.gov. Reclamation requests comments on the Draft EA on or before August 5, 2016.