Native Americans and Conservationists Collaborate to Return Vital Flow to the #RioGrande — National Geographic

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

From National Geographic (Sandra Postel):

The first time I saw the channel of the Rio Grande completely dry, I was stunned. Here was the second largest river in the Southwest, which flows through three U.S. states and Mexico, and instead of water between its banks there were tire tracks. And I wasn’t standing at the tail end of the river, but rather on a bridge in central New Mexico, in the Rio Grande’s middle reach. For a freshwater conservationist, it was a sad sight.

Even worse, it was not an aberration. Each year, portions of the Middle Rio Grande dry up when its flows are diverted into irrigation canals for delivery to farmers in the valley. A few miles of the channel might dry up for a couple of weeks, or, if the monsoon rains are disappointing and irrigation demands are high, the dry stretch might extend thirty or more miles for much of the summer. Either way, for a time the river is no more.

So earlier this year when I learned about an innovative idea spearheaded by Audubon New Mexico to return some flow to the Rio Grande at its driest time of year, I felt a surge of hope for the river and the life it supports—from native fish like the Rio Grande silvery minnow to birds like the Southwestern Willow flycatcher, both federally endangered and dependent on the Rio Grande for habitat.

Audubon New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based non-profit conservation organization, had reached out to Native American tribes in the Middle Rio Grande Valley with a proposition: if the tribes transfer to Audubon a portion of their allotted water from the San Juan-Chama diversion project, which brings New Mexico’s share of Colorado River water into the state, Audubon would ensure that the water benefits the Rio Grande and seek funding for habitat restoration on tribal lands.

The idea struck a positive chord with a number of the tribes, and a unique partnership was born. Two pueblos, Isleta and Sandia, decided to donate their water, while Cochiti and Santa Ana agreed to a transactional transfer. Before summer, the 400 acre-feet from the four tribes was augmented by a nearly equal donation of surplus water by the Club at Las Campanas, a private Santa Fe golf club, bringing the total volume of water to benefit the Rio Grande to nearly 800 acre-feet, or more than 260 million gallons (980 million liters).

“We will increase flow in the river channel for a 35-mile stretch for nearly 24 days,” said Julie Weinstein, Audubon New Mexico’s Executive Director, in a statement earlier this month. The organization worked closely with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to determine the best sites to deliver water back to the river to maximize ecological value.

The Rio Grande’s corridor through New Mexico supports over 200,000 waterfowl and 18,000 greater sandhill cranes. It provides the largest number of contiguous breeding territories for both the endangered flycatcher and the threatened Yellow-billed Cuckoo in their entire range.

With over 80 percent of the wetland and riparian habitat gone along the river in New Mexico, sustaining and rebuilding habitat is crucial. As part of this collaboration with Audubon, the Pueblo of Santa Ana is planting trees and restoring habitat along the river.

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

Hermosa Creek: Improved cutthroat trout habitat

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout
Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

From The Durango Herald (Pam Bond):

The San Juan National Forest hired Durango contractors G2 and AJ Construction to complete 500 feet of streambank stabilization in preparation for reintroduction of native Colorado River cutthroat on a stretch of the creek where non-native fish have been removed.

“It’s important to conduct these operations at times when we have low flows and no fish,” said Clay Kampf, fisheries biologist for the San Juan National Forest Columbine District. “We started at the headwaters of each tributary and worked our way downstream to make sure there were always other fishing opportunities.”

Under the direction of Kampf, Grady James, equipment operator with AJ Construction, spent September maneuvering rocks and logs into place to reinforce streambanks and create small waterfalls and deep pools. The goals were clean water and a diversity of habitat for all seasons.

“When the creek takes a corner, and an unstable bank erodes, sediment washes into the water and impacts the ability of fish to survive in many ways,” Kampf said. “Corners are high-stress points so we place large rocks there to protect the banks during higher flows.”

This fall’s water level was only about three to five cubic feet per second, which offered an opportune time to conduct improvements, but the project was designed for a wide diversity of flows. While spring flows of up to 40 to 50 cfs in the East Fork of Hermosa Creek threaten habitat by eroding the banks, very low flows in winter also endanger the fish.

“Keeping water moving in winter keeps it from freezing, which has been the biggest limiting factor for long-term cutthroat survival,” Kampf said. “Constricting the channel and creating small pour-overs increase the winter flow levels.”

Buried logs are effective for stabilizing banks where the stream splits and creates shallow stretches that offer spawning habitat in the spring. But where the creek had divided into multiple channels, rocks were used to divert water back into the main channel to keep flows steady.

Encouraging vegetation is also important for stream stabilization. When the heavy equipment scooped up grass and forbs to make way for placement of rocks and logs, its giant claw replanted the native vegetation with the skill of a seasoned gardener.

“We retain any disturbed vegetation and replant it nearby,” Kampf said. “We avoid disturbing any established willows, which in this stretch are about five to 10 years old.”

North American beaver (Castor canadensis)
North American beaver (Castor canadensis)

Kampf also hopes nature’s furry engineers will return to the area and help with recovery.

“There were beavers, but they moved upstream and downstream during disturbance from the project,” Kampf said. “If the beavers return and flood the area, they will create additional overwintering and larger pools for the cutthroat.”

The Forest Service will closely monitor the project area for three years, keeping an eye out for noxious weeds. Volunteers with the Durango Chapter of Trout Unlimited will help the agency later this fall to plant additional native grass and forb seeds and alder/willow cuttings along the banks to further revegetate the area.

“Our goals are to improve water quality and mimic natural features that will aid in the conservation of the Colorado River cutthroat, which will, in turn, improve recreational fishing,” Kampf said.

Proposed Hermosa Creek watershed protection area via The Durango Herald
Proposed Hermosa Creek watershed protection area via The Durango Herald

Larimer County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife coordinate Greenback cutthroat trout release

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout
Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

From the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Pamela Johnson):

Specialists with the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife carried 269 greenback cutthroat trout in backpacks — protected in small plastic bags filled with water — about 2.5 miles to a section of Sand Creek.

There, they placed the fish in the waters and let them swim free — an effort to reintroduce Colorado’s state fish into its native region, the Platte River Basin, and to study whether they will thrive in a unique stream versus non-native brook trout…

The greenbacks made their way onto the endangered species list until, several decades ago, researchers discovered what they thought were a population of this species. Efforts to revive and reintroduce the species led to the fish being downgraded to a threatened species by 1978.

But genetics, which have improved in the past 15 years, proved experts wrong. These fish were not genetically pure greenback cutthroat trout.

A colony of fish in Bear Creek near Colorado Springs, however, was discovered within the past five years and is believed to be the only one left in the state.

Genetic testing by researchers from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, University of Colorado and Colorado State University compared these fish to samples that were collected in the 1860s and preserved at the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard Museum and proved that they were in fact, pure greenback cutthroat trout, Kehmeier explained.

Fish biologists have since been conserving and growing the population of this fish to put them back into their native habitat.

Populations have been introduced into Zimmerman Lake on top of Cameron Pass and Rock Creek in South Park and now into Sand Creek on Larimer County’s Red Mountain Open Space. This fall, more will go into Sand Creek, a small 3-mile stretch that is sustained by spring inputs and rainfall, as well as into Herman Gulch in Clear Creek.

Larimer County had hoped to reintroduce the greenback cutthroat trout into Sand Creek and included that as a goal in its plan for the open space.

And recently, the timing was right because there were extra fish available at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife hatchery near Salida.

So, together, the county and state agencies put fish into the middle third of Sand Creek.

But first, they delivered an electrical shock to the one-mile middle section of the stream and removed all the nonnative brook trout to create a setting in which to study the fish. (The 875 trout they removed were donated to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Center for lunches and dinners.)

The first release, on July 21, involved putting yearlings that were about 5 inches long into one section of the water.

The second release, in September, will put fish into a section of the river in which brook trout still exist as well as the stretch that was recently stocked. These 1,000 fish will be 1-month old.

Then, biologists will study the population for years to come and see how the greenback cutthroat trout survive. And in about three years, time will reveal whether the fish not only survive but also are able to reproduce and thrive.

The latest “Water Matters” newsletter is hot off the presses from the #Colorado Water Trust

On July 7th, we closed our headgate that takes water from the Little Cimarron for irrigation. The water in the above photo will now bypass our headgate and return to the river. Photo via the Colorado Water Trust.
On July 7th, we closed our headgate that takes water from the Little Cimarron for irrigation. The water in the above photo will now bypass our headgate and return to the river. Photo via the Colorado Water Trust.

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

The Little Cimarron and McKinley Ditch

Exciting news from the Gunnison Basin this month! A few weeks ago, the Water Trust implemented a unique project aimed at exploring the effectiveness of water conservation tools and voluntary measures to protect Colorado River Compact entitlements.

You may recall that in 2014, the Colorado Water Trust purchased a portion (5.8 cfs) of the McKinley Ditch to restore late summer flows to the Little Cimarron, while keeping agricultural land in production. Earlier this year, the Water Trust received approval from the Upper Colorado River Commission for a Pilot Program project for our water.

Under the project, McKinley Ditch water was used to irrigate approximately 195 acres of pasture grass from April through July 6th. We’re pleased to report that the pilot project was implemented as planned, and on July 7th, we ceased irrigation for the rest of the season. Water is now being returned to the river for the remainder of the irrigation season.

Water conserved by this pilot project will help improve habitat conditions, and ultimately will benefit both the Little Cimarron and Colorado Rivers. We are excited to be a part of this Pilot Program and are hopeful the study results will lead to a more secure future for Colorado’s rivers.

New measures could reduce Glen Canyon Dam’s impact on the Grand Canyon — a bit — The High Country News

Before and after photos of results of the high flow experiment in 2008 via USGS
Before and after photos of results of the high flow experiment in 2008 via USGS

Here’s a report from Cally Carswell writing for The High Country News. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:

If the San Juan River were a freeway, Glen Canyon Dam would be a 50-car pile-up. It forces the river to back up and spread out for dozens of miles. As the river morphs into Lake Powell, the sand in its current settles out. A rock overhang at Grand Gulch where boaters once lounged is now buried more than 30 feet deep.

Before the dam killed the current, the San Juan carried all of this silt to the Colorado, which spit much of it through the Grand Canyon, replenishing hundreds of sandbars. These expansive blonde beaches, which form in eddies, are river runners’ favorite campsites, and they provide backwater habitat for fish. But today, about 95 percent of the sediment that once washed through the canyon sits at the bottom of Lake Powell, and the sandbars have shrunk: The Colorado erodes them, but doesn’t build them back up.

This is one of the problems the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act was supposed to correct. It directed federal officials to figure out how to manage the dam in a way that did less harm and even protected the national park’s assets. In addition to threatened sandbars, three of eight fish species native to the Grand Canyon have disappeared since the dam went up, and two are endangered.

But can altering dam operations really help the river when the dam itself imperils it? Scientists have explored this question since 1992, and their research informs the Bureau of Reclamation’s draft management plan for the dam’s next 20 years, released earlier this year. Conservationists are optimistic that it will yield improvements downstream, but only small ones. “You’re really just trying to make the best of a bad deal,” says Utah State University watershed sciences professor Jack Schmidt…

But there might be other ways to help fish, Kennedy says. Chub spawn almost exclusively in the toasty Little Colorado, then move into nearby parts of the mainstem Colorado, where their growth is inhibited by chilly water. The water does warm as the river twists further from the dam, but though it should be good habitat, few chub live in these downstream reaches.

Scientists think that could be because there aren’t enough bugs to eat there. Aquatic insects lay their eggs at river’s edge, and when the water level drops, as it does daily when water releases fluctuate with hydropower demand, the stranded eggs shrivel and die.

The plan proposes to eliminate flow fluctuations on spring and summer weekends, when electricity demand isn’t quite as high, in hopes of keeping eggs wet and boosting insect numbers. More food might help chub populations colonize and prosper in the river’s lower reaches.

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

In #Colorado we go the extra mile to save cutthroats #HaydenCreekFire

Aerial photograph of Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery. Photo via Western State Colorado University.
Aerial photograph of Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery. Photo via Western State Colorado University.

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Some 200 of the unique cutthroat trout were removed from Hayden Creek

State wildlife officers on Wednesday rescued rare cutthroat trout from a creek in the Hayden Pass fire burn area, quelling concerns about their possible extinction because of the blaze.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife says many of the rare fish — with genetic links to the iconic, pure greenback cutthroat trout — were taken from the fire zone to an isolation chamber at the Roaring Judy Hatchery near Gunnison.

Officials were worried ash and sediment from the Hayden Pass fire would wash down into the lower prong of Hayden Creek, where the fish live, strangling their oxygen and food supplies. However, videos taken from the rescue mission show wildlife officers removing several of the trout from the stream.

The trout that live in the creek share a unique genetic anomaly with a cutthroat found in the Smithsonian Museum and said to have been taken from Twin Lakes near Leadville in 1889, CPW says.

Fire commanders say the trout mission on Wednesday resulted in the netting and removal of 200 fish. One of the firefight’s main objectives has been to protect the fish as much as possible.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout
Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

How Hydroelectric Power Kills Insects, and Why That Matters — Pacific Standard

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam -- Photo USBR
A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

From Pacific Standard (Nathan Collins):

…United States Geological Service biologist Theodore Kennedy and his colleagues point out, the danger to ecosystems could go beyond an immediate threat to fish populations. In particular, no one’s really looked at the consequences of hydropeaking, in which dam operators release more water through the dam during the day to produce more electricity when it’s most in demand. Like the underlying electricity demand, the hour-to-hour changes in river flow are enormous. In some places, river flows change by as much as a factor of 10 over the course of the day, leading to a cycle of drying and re-wetting along the shore of a river. That creates intertidal zones more akin to what you’d see at an ocean beach than a typical river.

The dry phases, Kennedy and his team point out, could be very bad for mayflies, caddisflies, and other insect species that birds and fish rely on for food—in particular, it could be very bad for their eggs. To test that idea, the researchers first collected mayfly and caddisfly eggs from Utah’s Green River, downstream of the Flaming Gorge Dam, and tested them under hydropeaking-like cycles of wet and dry. Very few survived.

To see how much impact hydropeaking had in the real world, however, the researchers turned to citizen scientists—specifically, river rafters on the Colorado River downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam. Each night, rafters collected insects at various points along the river. Combining that data with a model of hydropeaking’s effect on river flow at those points, the team was able to estimate the effects hydropeaking had on insects.

The results: While different species responded to hydropeaking differently, insects that lay their eggs right at the river’s edge, such as mayflies, had all but vanished from the Colorado River. Midges, which lay their eggs in somewhat broader areas, were most abundant at places where hydropeaking had the smallest effect on water levels. A follow-up study of 16 rivers in the Western U.S. confirmed that hydropeaking had a strong negative impact on insect biodiversity.

Whether or not you care about insects themselves—and many people don’t—the authors point out that healthy insect populations are essential for species that we do care about. “For instance, recent food-web and bioenergetics studies demonstrate that in the popular Lees Ferry sport fishery downstream of the Glen Canyon Dam, the maximum size and growth of rainbow trout are limited by the abundance and overall small size of their invertebrate prey,” Kennedy and his team write.

The lack of insect biodiversity also makes for unstable fish populations—an issue that fisheries managers need to take into account.