Don’t take more than you need: wrangling wasted water on the Western Slope

Erin Light, center, and Shanna Lewis in a pasture with a mule while checking on the Meeker Ditch on July 11. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch, which she determined was wasting water.
Erin Light, center, and Shanna Lewis in a pasture with a mule while checking on the Meeker Ditch on July 11. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch, which she determined was wasting water.

MEEKER – The mule in a pasture east of Meeker along the White River seemed happy to see Erin Light, a state division engineer, and Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner, when they went to take a look at the amount of water flowing through the Meeker Ditch on July 11.

Lewis, who grew up on a Colorado ranch, praised the mule’s beautiful, deer-like coloring and said they’d become friends on her frequent visits to check the ditch.

But the warm equine reception the two enforcers of Colorado water law received differed from the response they sometimes get from ranchers in Division 6, which encompasses the Yampa, White and North Platte river basins, especially when they are visiting a ditch because they think its operator is diverting more water than they need through their head gate.

“I would say I’m more telling than I am curtailing,” said Light, who has been the division engineer based in Steamboat Springs since 2006. “There have only been a few situations where I’ve actually said, ‘That’s it. We’re curtailing you.’ And they’re very obvious situations where they’ve got a lot of water going down the tail end of their ditch, where you can’t argue that this isn’t waste.

“Where the problem becomes in determining waste is that I can go out to a piece of land and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got 6 inches of water on this land. There’s ducks swimming around. This is wasteful,’” she 
continued. “You can go to the landowner or the irrigator and say, ‘This is waste,’ and they’ll stare you right in the face and say, ‘The hell it is.’”

Division and state engineers working for Colorado’s Division of Water Resources, as Light does, are the only officials who have the authority to determine if waste is occurring on an irrigation system. And their primary response is to curtail wasteful flows at the head gate.

But determining if there is waste in a ditch is a case-by-case exercise. It’s site specific and time sensitive, and it can take time to understand how someone manages their ditch.

There’s no state definition of waste or written guidelines, but in the end it’s a fact-based analysis focused on how much water is needed to irrigate so many acres.

An allowance is also made for customary inefficiencies on a ditch system. Water leaking out of an old ditch, for example, is not considered waste. But beyond inefficiency, which is often a physical issue, there is waste, which is usually a water-management issue.

And waste is a much bigger issue on the Western Slope than on the state’s drier eastern plains, where irrigators have long watched for anyone wasting water.

A field flooded with water from the Yampa RIver this year. Erin Light, the division engineer for Div. 6, said this is an example of diverting more water than is necessary.
A field flooded with water from the Yampa RIver this year. Erin Light, the division engineer for Division 6, said this is an example of diverting more water than is necessary.

Free river, or not

In 2014, Light served the Meeker Ditch with a written curtailment order, and she also told the big Maybell Canal on the Yampa River that they had to stop wasting water.

And she did so even though neither river was “under administration,” the term for the body of water being called out by senior downstream diverters, so both were considered in a “free river” condition.

Nor was there another water right that was being injured by either ditch’s diversions.

Just in the past 10 days, Light’s office has informed rancher Doug Monger that water is being wasted in the irrigation system he manages on his Yampa River Ranch three miles east of Hayden.

Monger is a Routt County commissioner, a member of the Yampa-White Roundtable, and a director on the Colorado River Water Conservancy District’s board.

When asked Tuesday, during a break in a daylong strategic retreat at the River District, about Light’s belief that he was wasting water, he responded in a way that she has heard before.

“I don’t know what the hell difference it makes if I’m wasting water or not, it’s going back in the river,” Monger said. “Who the hell cares, if it’s a free river.”

“I know he is wasting water,” Light said Monday of Monger. “And he should be the poster child of what should be done, not what shouldn’t be done.

“About 10 days or so ago, our water commissioner approached a bunch of water users in the ditch system,” she explained. “There are several ditches that combine and co-mingle there.

“They were immediately going, ‘That’s Doug Monger’s responsibility, Doug’s the one controlling that,’ which I take as Doug is the one controlling the head gates,” Light said. “One of our water commissioners, Brian Romig, went to Doug and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here. You’re diverting too much water.’ From what Brian told me, Doug somewhat recognized it. He concurred that he needed to reduce his diversions.”

But Tuesday, Monger was not willing to go that far, saying he understood from the water commissioner only that he was still figuring out how Monger’s ditch works.

“I won’t acknowledge it,” Monger said of the allegation that he was diverting more water than he needs. “And if they start coming up with some scenario on it, we can always get our attorney. “

That was the same initial response that David Smith, the primary shareholder on the Meeker Ditch, had when Light curtailed his ditch in 2014.

But since then, and after spending $40,000 in legal and engineering fees, Smith has come around to see Light’s point.

“I would tell you that Erin and I started out on opposite ends on this thing, but both of us have kind of tried to work our way towards middle ground that we can both agree on,” he said.

Smith was busy this week bringing in hay on his well-tended fields along the White River just west of Meeker — the same fields his grandfather irrigated.

“I’ve had some disagreements with her, but Erin is an intelligent gal,” he said of Light, who has a master’s degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University with an emphasis in hydraulics and hydrology. “We’ve worked with her, and we’ve worked with the people that she has here, and at the end of the day it’s helped all of us, and I think we’re all better educated because of it.”

Well-tended fields along the White River west of Meeker irrigated by the Meeker Ditch. The ditch has been directed to divert less water at its headgate than it used to.
Well-tended fields along the White River west of Meeker irrigated by the Meeker Ditch. The ditch has been directed to divert less water at its head gate than it used to.
Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner in Div. 6, inspecting the Meeker Ditch's measuring flume. Lewis suggested it's easy for outsiders to critique how ranchers manage their water, but that there are a lot of factors, and experience, involved that are not always readily apparent.
Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner in Division 6, inspecting the Meeker Ditch’s measuring flume. Lewis suggested it’s easy for outsiders to critique how ranchers manage their water, but that there are a lot of factors, and experience, involved that are not always readily apparent.

Laying down the law

The Meeker Ditch has a water right dating back to 1883 to divert 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water and two other later and smaller rights that allow it to divert 25.95 cfs in all.

The ditch diverts water from the White River just east of Meeker, runs it through Meeker proper, and then to fields west of town. (See map).

In her August 2014 curtailment order, Light said the historic water rights held by the Meeker Ditch represent enough water to irrigate about 1,000 acres, but today only 153 acres are actively being irrigated. And engineers at Resource Engineering Inc. calculated that the Meeker Ditch only needed 6 cfs to irrigate the fields still served by the ditch.

Attorney Kevin Patrick of Patrick, Miller and Noto, a water law firm with offices in Aspen and Basalt, had hired Resource Engineering to analyze the irrigation ditch on behalf of a client who owned commercial property under the ditch.

Since 2004, the property had been intermittently subject to flooding by water leaking from the ditch.

Patrick sent the engineering report and a letter to Light. “The ditch is diverting unnecessary water which is merely being spilled” and “the excessive running of water, over that reasonably required for the reasonable application of water to beneficial use for the decreed purposes and lands, is forbidden” under state law, the letter says.

After investigating the matter, Light found the ditch had been consistently diverting about 20 cfs at its head gate, but was then sending much of the water out of the ditch and down Curtis Creek, Sulphur Creek or Fairfield Gulch, back toward the White River.

Light then curtailed diversions at the Meeker Ditch head gate, which she has the authority to do. And when asked to do so by Smith, she put the curtailment order in writing.

“Colorado statute clearly prohibits the running of water not needed for beneficial use,” Light wrote in her order, dated Aug. 15, 2014.

Light cited a Colorado statute that reads “it shall not be lawful for any person to run through an irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”

And she addressed the issue of water being released from the ditch and back to the river.

“Generally when water is being wasted off the end of the irrigated acreage, through waste gates, or at the tail end of the ditch, the head gate should be turned down to eliminate that waste of water,” Light wrote. “In this case it appears that water is being diverted at too great a rate for the lands that are being irrigated, and the rate of diversion is not being reduced to eliminate waste.”

Light’s stance on enforcing waste has the backing of her boss, State Engineer Dick Wolfe.

A photo from the Resource Engineering report documenting waste on the Meeker Ditch in 2014. Water from the ditch is being turned out into Sulphur Creek, while the main flow in the ditch continues through the pipe above the outfall.
A photo from the Resource Engineering report documenting waste on the Meeker Ditch in 2014. Water from the ditch is being turned out into Sulphur Creek, while the main flow in the ditch continues through the pipe above the outfall.

Use it or lose it?

Both Wolfe and Light served recently on a committee, convened by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado Springs University, that issued a report in February on the widely brandished piece of advice to irrigators to “use it or lose it.”

The report is called “How diversion and beneficial use of water affect the value and measure of a water right” and is subtitled “Is ‘use it or lose it’ an absolute?”

The 11-page report ends with several declarative statements about waste that give further backing to Light’s approach, and that she might well wish to see chained to every head gate on the Western Slope.

“Water that is diverted above the amount necessary for application to a beneficial use (including necessary for transit loss) is considered waste,” states the report.

“Increased diversions for the sole purpose of maintaining a record of a larger diversion are considered waste,” it says, referring to the practice of diverting toward the full amount of a decree in order to bolster the future potential value of a water right.

And, “Wasteful diversions will either be curtailed, or will not be considered as part of the water right’s beneficial use.”

Wolfe, who recently gave a presentation to the Colorado Ag Water Alliance on the “use it or lose it” report, said that Light is not being overzealous in her enforcement of waste.

“She is not going out and as a division engineer purposely looking and being more assertive or aggressive about trying to find where waste is going on,” Wolfe said. “These are ones that just came to our attention.”

Alan Martellaro, the division engineer for Division 5, has not taken the same approach as Light when it comes to curtailing waste.

“To actually actively go look for waste is not something that’s historically been done unless there’s a call on the stream,” said Martellaro, who is based in Glenwood Springs and whose jurisdiction includes the Colorado, the Roaring Fork, and the Crystal river basins. “It just hasn’t been the mode we’ve ever been in.”

Kevin Rein, the deputy state engineer who also served on the “use it or lose it” committee, said issues vary from division to division.

“In Division 6, in the Yampa-White, we’ve had periods of free river without administration for a long time, because it hasn’t been over-appropriated,” Rein said. “That means not being water short. So very often people were just diverting whatever they wanted because, why not? But she’s really directing herself to getting people to measure their diversions and pay attention to duty of water. I think you choose what’s important in your division. That’s important in her division.”

“Duty of water” is essentially how much water someone needs to grow crops on a certain amount of land, without waste. In the Yampa and White river basins, the duty of water is generally held to be that it takes 1 cfs to adequately irrigate 40 acres of land.

After giving a presentation at a water workshop in Gunnison in June about the “use it or lose it” report, Rein was asked why the state doesn’t go around and curtail people who are over-diverting.

“We do, as resources allow,” Rein said. “It’s simply a matter of looking at our water districts where we, maybe, have one water commissioner and maybe a deputy. Maybe if they each had two or three more deputies, then we could do that.”

Light sounds like she could use some help.

“When it comes down to obvious waste,” she said, “I would say we have a tremendous problem with it. I had a long-standing water commissioner — he was with us for 40 years and grew up a rancher — tell me one day, ‘The problem with irrigators today is they don’t go out and move their sets. They just open the head gate wider.’”

“Sets” refers to how irrigators have set various control points, such as check dams and internal head gates, along their ditches.

“That just blew me away,” Light said. “Here’s a longtime rancher living in the community of Meeker his entire life who is more or less telling me that his co-irrigators … just open up their head gate and don’t move sets anymore. To me, that’s where the inefficiency is. Go out, divert less water, and move your damn sets.”

Erin Light, after being asked to pose for a photo at the headgate of the Meeker Ditch. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch to reduce the amount of water being wasted in the ditch system.
Erin Light, after being asked to pose for a photo at the head gate of the Meeker Ditch. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch to reduce the amount of water being wasted in the ditch system.

Defending Light

After receiving Light’s written curtailment order in August 2014 on the Meeker Ditch, Smith appealed it to an administrative hearing officer, which was a rare move.

Wolfe said the appeal, which was addressed to him, “is the only curtailment order that I am aware of that has been appealed since I have been state engineer.” He’s been state engineer since since 2007 and has been with the Division of Water Resources since 1993.

An attorney for the Meeker Townsite Ditch Co., which owns the Meeker Ditch, told the state that Light was “attempting to restrict the diversion of water down the Meeker Ditch at a time when the White River is not under an administrative call and at a time when no other water rights owner is affected by the diversion.”

At that point, the state stepped in to defend Light’s curtailment order, and Philip Lopez, an assistant attorney general, prepared an answer to Smith’s appeal.

In his answer, Lopez cited a relatively straightforward statute that reads: “During the summer season it shall not be lawful for any person to run through his irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, and for domestic and stock purposes, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”

And he quoted the Colorado Supreme Court in Fellhauer v. People, where it said, “The right to water does not give the right to waste it.”

As to the matter of Light, or any other division engineer, not being able to curtail waste if there is not a call on the river, Lopez wrote “the division engineer has the authority to curtail [the Meeker Ditch’s] wasteful diversions at any time pursuant to [state law], regardless of whether or not the White River is under administration.”

Lopez did concede, though, that the water rights held by the Meeker Ditch still allowed it to divert water, as long as they did so “without waste.”

That’s an important distinction for Smith, who insists that he wasn’t technically curtailed, only that he can’t waste water when diverting.

“She hasn’t curtailed me to the amount of water that I can use,” Smith said. “All that Erin tells me is that whatever amount of water I have in the ditch, that she doesn’t want us wasting any water.”

Light has a different take.

“We curtailed them,” Light said. “We issued an order to stop wasting. They hired an attorney. They hired an engineer. It went to the hearing officer. They don’t waste anymore.”

The hearing officer in the case denied the ditch’s appeal, indicating it was a matter for water court. But Smith declined to go there.

“We kind of came to a working agreement that we were going to try to work with it, but as far as the laws, there was never a test case,” Smith said.

That may be, but on July 11, when Light and Lewis measured the flow in the Meeker Ditch, it was running at 6 cfs, not 20 cfs as it often used to.

The diversion structure for the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River east of Maybell. The ditch has been working to reduce diversions after the division engineer found it was diverting more water than it needed.
The diversion structure for the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River east of Maybell. The ditch has been working to reduce diversions after the division engineer found it was diverting more water than it needed.

The Maybell Canal

Light has also curtailed another irrigation ditch in Division 6, the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River near Maybell, which she found was similarly diverting more water than it needed.

The canal diverts water from the Yampa into a head gate located in a canyon on the edge of Little Juniper Mountain, about 30 miles west of Craig. (See map).

The Maybell Canal has a senior water right for 42.2 cfs that was adjudicated in 1923 and appropriated in 1899. It also has a junior right for 86.8 cfs that was adjudicated in 1972 and was appropriated in 1946.

The waste on the Maybell Canal was brought to Light’s attention by one of her water commissioners who’d visited the ditch. Light then verbally instructed the canal’s manager to stop wasting water. Mike Camblin, manager of the Maybell Irrigation District, wasn’t happy when he got the curtailment order from Light, but he’s now working to secure funding to make $197,000 worth of improvements to the irrigation system.

On July 13, the Yampa-White-Green basin roundtable approved a $108,000 grant of state funds to help fix several issues on the ditch system. One of those improvements is a modern, automated “waste gate” a mile below the head gate.

Camblin said such a remote-controlled system won’t work at the head gate, which is higher up in the canyon without cell phone service and prone to being washed out by high water.

But he is willing to use the automated gate to reduce sending more water than necessary out the bottom of the ditch, where the water returns to the Yampa River.

The arrangement for the new gate does not entirely please Light, however. She insisted that Camblin agree to send someone up to the head gate within three days after receiving information from the new automated gate that they are over-diverting.

An agreement to that end has been worked out and is poised for adoption, both Light and Camblin said.

“The whole goal is to not only help Erin out but to make us better at what we do,” Camblin told his fellow roundtable members on July 13.

In an interview this week, Camblin said, “At times we were probably taking more water than we need, but that’s what this whole process is about, to cut that down.” He said he is forging a productive working relationship with Light.

“I think it all comes down to communication, especially with Erin and the water commissioners,” he said. “If they get to know us and how our ditch can run better, and we allow them to do that, and we communicate, we can solve a lot of problems.”

Water diverted into the Maybell Canal enters a flume a mile below the headgate and crosses the Yampa River. A remote-operated outlet is to be installed just above the flume in an effort to reduce diversions into the ditch.
Water diverted into the Maybell Canal enters a flume a mile below the head gate and crosses the Yampa River. A remote-operated outlet is to be installed just above the flume in an effort to reduce diversions into the ditch.
The Maybell Canal, towards its end, below the town of Maybell, on July 13, 2016. The ditch is working to waste less water by reducing diversions from the Yampa River.
The Maybell Canal, toward its end, below the town of Maybell, on July 13, 2016. The ditch is working to waste less water by reducing diversions from the Yampa River.

Watch that stick

Dan Birch, the deputy general manager at the Colorado River Conservation District and a member of the Yampa-White basin roundtable, is supportive of the improvements that Camblin is trying make on the Maybell Canal.

“I think Mike’s really trying to do the right thing, and I think he wants to take a look at ways he can manage his diversions better,” Birch said. “I certainly don’t think he’s diverting just for the sake of diverting.”

Birch also cautioned against using a stick to beat back waste.

“You can’t go into a situation and say, ‘Hey, you guys are wasting water, I want you to reduce your diversions,’” Birch said. “You really have to be prepared to go into that situation and say, ‘Hey, look, here’s something that we’re seeing here. Let’s have a conversation. I’m interested in exploring what we might do to improve flow in the river.’”

But Light feels the Maybell Canal needed to be prodded into action.

“What has partially pushed the Maybell Canal to go the direction they have is us really putting our foot down that we’re not going to allow this waste to continue,” she said. “Again, the waste is so blatant. They were diverting about 54 cfs at the head gate, and we estimated about 18 cfs going out the tail end. It’s like, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”

Birch was asked directly if he thought the Maybell Canal would be making its proposed improvements without Light’s enforcement actions.

“That’s a fair question, and my immediate response is probably not,” he said.

While Light has been able to work with both Smith and Camblin, she knows she’s raising the hackles of ranchers in the Yampa and White river basins.

“I don’t think the irrigation community wants to be told they’re wasting,” she said. “I’d love to do more as far as waste, but I do have to tread lightly.”

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 Sunday, July 24, 2016

Wild River – The Yampa: Dave Showalter Nature Photography

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.
Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Click here to go to the website for the cool photography and story. Here’s an excerpt:

Wild River. What comes to mind? It’s a trick question because there aren’t many wild rivers. The Yampa River, which begins as a trickle from melting snow high in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness is the only remaining wild river in the Colorado River watershed. The Yampa flows freely to the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado River, so the Yampa has a big role if we’re ever to reach some measure of stream flow sustainability in a watershed that runs from Wyoming’s Wind River Range to the Gulf of California – it doesn’t make it that far today. Colorado’s thirsty Front Range cities that surround Denver are calling for transmountain diversions from the Colorado River watershed – importing 195,000 acre feet for growing cities and 260,000 acre feet for irrigation. I wonder, does irrigation include growing Kentucky Blue Grass to be installed and watered forever? An acre foot is as it sounds, one acre that is one foot deep. Drought is the new normal, rivers are over allocated, people are flooding in, and there’s this one wild river in northwest Colorado. Logically we must have the courage to let the Yampa run free.

#ColoradoRiver: CPW hopes public can understand its efforts at Elkhead Reservoir — Craig Daily Press #COriver

Elkhead Reservoir
Elkhead Reservoir

From The Craig Daily Press (Patrick Kelly):

The tournament is hosted by CPW, and it is offering over $6,000 in prizes, but the effort is part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery program.

To prevent further federal involvement, the recovery program was formed in 1988 to provide endangered species act compliance and keep water development projects closer to the local level.

Three states — Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — along with a multitude of federal agencies and private organizations formed the recovery program to help improve fish populations of the endangered humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker and ponytail.

The program’s actions are dictated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but it still provides an important buffer between state and federal government.

If the program fails and is dissolved, an individual who draws water from the Yampa River would have to justify their use and provide evidence that their use does not impact endangered fishes — a task the recovery program currently completes.

Sherman Hebein, CPW’s senior aquatic biologist for the northwest region, said his organization is hosting the tournament at Elkhead and offering serious prizes because it is important to engage the public in the effort to control non-natives.

Elkhead Reservoir is home to nonnative northern pike and smallmouth bass, making it a popular fishery for anglers from across Colorado.

But the same nonnatives that attract anglers to the reservoir eat the four fish the recovery program is trying to save.

“The objective of this tournament is to suppress these fish, smallmouth bass and northern pike, to reduce the impact of those fish on the Yampa River,” Hebein said.

Hebein said protecting these fish easily approaches philosophical debate but genetic diversity is an important thing to protect.

“A lot of people ask what’s so important about these four fish species… don’t they live somewhere else?” he said. “These fish don’t live anywhere else… These fish are the true natives of the Colorado River Basin… If we don’t recover them here, they won’t be anywhere else.”

Until humans have a better understanding of DNA and what makes us tick, it is crucial to preserve all iterations of life, Hebein said.

“Until we can figure that out, we really need to conserve the DNA of all these living organisms because we don’t know how to make it,” he said.

But some are still opposed to a tournament that would potentially reduce the fishery in Elkhead Reservoir.

Steve Smith, Craig local and longtime Elkhead angler, had a sign posted in protest of the tournament at the turn off to the launch ramp.

“This is one of the closest lakes that we can fish,” he said. “It’s been holding it’s own for crappie or pike or bluegill but now they want to eliminate or lower the number of smallmouth or pike.”

Despite their differences, Smith and CPW officials were able to interact with respect. Smith understands that CPW has objectives to complete and CPW officials understand Smith’s passion for his hometown fishery.

Hebein said CPW is not out to kill the fishery, like many locals believe.

“We’re here to turn this lake into a far better fishery but to do that we have to suppress the numbers of big predators,” he said.

Hebein and CPW spokesman Mike Porras both said that without their efforts, Endangered Species Act compliance would be out the window and federal intrusion into local affairs would be even greater.

“Every water user would be compelled to deal with a Section 7 consultation with the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) on how their use of water would not impact the endangered fish,” he said. “That’s a lot of work and a lot of paperwork and that’s the reason behind why the recovery program has been such a valuable thing.”

Out of all the anglers interviewed by the Craig Daily Press on Saturday, only one was from Craig, and a gentleman from the Denver area joined him

The rest of the fishermen were from Grand Junction, Eagle or Rifle.

The tournament ends on June 19 with daily prizes for smallest, biggest and most fish caught. Catching a fish with a tag enters anglers into a raffle for big prizes, with the top prize being a new boat.

“The sooner that we can recover the endangered fish, the sooner we can have some more freedom,” said Hebein. “I’d like to encourage everyone to think about the recovery program and the value it has presented in everyone’s lives. How can we get together, recover the fish and move on from there?”

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

#ColoradoRiver: Elkhead Reservoir, non-native predatory fish, endangered fish, sport-fishing #COriver

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

From The Craig Daily Press (Patrick Kelly):

…the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s latest high-priority objective — reducing or eliminating nonnative predators from Elkhead Reservoir — has local fisherman in an uproar.

Elkhead Reservoir, which averages 130,000 people visiting during recreation days per year, is home to nonnative northern pike and smallmouth bass, making it a popular fishery for anglers from across Colorado.

But the same nonnatives that attract anglers to the reservoir are a threat to the four fish the recovery program is trying to save — the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker…

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recover Program Director Tom Chart said right now, the program’s biggest obstacle is managing nonnative fish, which prey on endangered fish and prevent populations from thriving.

“The greatest threat that we are dealing with right now is these nonnative, predatory fish,” he said.

Chart said that after ramping up attempts to control nonnatives living in the river, it has been become increasingly clear that source populations must be dealt with.

Elkhead Reservoir
Elkhead Reservoir

“Elkhead, unfortunately, I understand is a prime fishing location for some of the locals out there, but the amount of escapement of smallmouth bass and northern pike (into the Yampa River) is just intolerable,” he said.

Longtime fisher and Craig resident Burt Clements said he understands that under federal law the fish need to be recovered, but he doesn’t think Elkhead is the problem and rather than eradicating nonnatives, other approaches should be the priority.

“Until they start a real stocking program in the upper Yampa with adult pike minnow, they probably will not recover them in the Yampa River,” he said.

In 2015, the program spent about $1 million on recovery projects in the Yampa River, according to recovery program deputy director Angela Kantola. Efforts did include shocking nonnative fish in the Yampa.

“That total certainly exceeds $1 million when support activities (outreach and program management) for Yampa Basin projects are included,” Kantola wrote in an email.

To address the root of the nonnative problem — Elkhead Reservoir — the recovery program is installing a net on the reservoir to help prevent spillage of predatory nonnatives into the Yampa where the endangered fish live and thrive.

The cost of installation, which is scheduled for this fall, is estimated at $1.2 million. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is contributing $500,000 and the rest of the funding comes from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on behalf of the recovery program.

The program also is recruiting civilians for assistance.

A nine-day fishing tournament offering prizes totaling about $6,000 is scheduled to recruit anglers for the purpose of purging the lake of pike and smallmouth.

The tournament begins Saturday and ends June 19. The boat ramp will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. but anglers are welcome to stay on the reservoir overnight. If a participant catches a tagged fish, they are entered in a drawing for the top prizes, including a brand-new boat.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Senior Aquatic Biologist Sherman Hebein said the initial plan was to lower water levels in the lake and poison the fish population with rotenone. However, that approach turned out to be unpopular and unfeasible.

“What we decided was to actually get the public to assist us with our efforts through a tournament,” he said. “I’m prepared to give away prizes, significant prizes, to get the public involved in this project.”

Despite the hefty prizes, local fishermen are boycotting the tournament.

Craig resident Steve Smith said he has been fishing Elkhead Reservoir since it was opened and he can’t support a “kill tournament.”

“It’s like the WildEarth Guardians and the coal mines,” he said. “This is us going against the government.”

Smith said reducing the fishery at Elkhead would have a negative economic impact on Craig.

“Craig will lose some revenue because fisherman won’t come from all over,” he said. “The lake, as it was for the last few years, has been a destiny lake where people come to fish.”

Allen Hischke, another Craig local, expressed concerns about what he sees as intrusive and unnecessary and government involvement. His thoughts are that Elkhead should be left alone.

The recovery program’s nonnative fish coordinator Kevin McAbee said providing Section 7 compliance is where most of the general population should recognize the importance of the program.

“The success of our program is the Endangered Species Act compliance mechanism for all of these water development projects,” said McAbee. “If we didn’t work together to recover these fish then every time that water development wanted to take place anywhere in the Colorado River Basin, it was going to be a fairly contentious endangered species act consultation,”

Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid said he supports the local fishermen and hopes for a reasonable compromise ensuring a successful recovery and the preservation of Elkhead’s fishery.

#Runoff news: Flaming Gorge Dam to Increase Water Releases Tuesday — USBR

razorbacksucker

From email from Reclamation:

Spring snowmelt runoff in the Colorado Rocky Mountains has triggered the spawning and emergence of endangered razorback sucker fish populations in the Green River downstream from Flaming Gorge Dam, Utah. Larval emergence in the river was observed on May 28, 2016.

To assist the survival of this endangered fish population, Bureau of Reclamation officials will gradually increase water released from Flaming Gorge Dam from the current flow of 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 8,600 cfs beginning Tuesday, May 31, 2016. The rate of release will reach 8,600 cfs on Friday, June 3, 2016, and will remain at that flow rate until further notice. However, Reclamation officials anticipate the release to remain at this rate for only 7 to 14 days beyond June 3.

At the highest rate, Flaming Gorge reservoir will release approximately 4,600 cfs through the Flaming Gorge Dam powerplant, allowing power generation to reach its full capacity of approximately 150 megawatts. Another 4,000 cfs will be released through the dam’s bypass tubes to reach the total of 8,600 cfs.

Projected peak flow on the Green River at Jensen, Utah, resulting from the combined flows of Flaming Gorge Dam releases and the Yampa River, will be approximately 22,000 to 24,000 cubic feet per second. These projections are close to flood stage and Reclamation officials urge caution while recreating or farming along the Green River during the next few weeks.

Scientists monitor critical habitat to detect the first emergence of razorback sucker larvae as a “trigger” for this type of release by Reclamation in cooperation with the State of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. A major purpose of the higher release is to transport as many larval fish as possible into critical nursery habitats located in the floodplains along the Green River, downstream of the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers. The increased releases from the dam, combined with the Yampa River flows, will provide the maximum possible flow of water to transport the larval fish.

Reclamation consulted with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources concerning possible impacts of the releases to the rainbow trout fishery below the dam. While releases during this period will make fishing the river more difficult, no adverse impacts to the fishery are expected.

Meanwhile, Granby Reservoir should fill and spill this year. Here’s a report from Lance Maggart writing for the Sky-Hi Daily News:

Things look to be shaping up nicely in terms of water levels for 2016. The Colorado River District recently hosted a “Grand County State of the River” meeting at Mountain Parks Electric in Granby. During the meeting representatives from the Federal Bureau of Reclamation informed attendees their prediction models indicate Granby Reservoir will physically fill again this year, sometime around the second week of July at which point those administering the water flows will begin bypassing additional water downstream.

Officials expect the massive reservoir to spill slightly, around 1,700 acre-feet of water, right at maximum flow times. Bureau of Reclamation representatives said that if Granby does spill they anticipate moving the excess water through the outlet works for the reservoir’s dam.

So far 2016 has been a fairly average year in terms of precipitation. Reservoirs along the eastern slope of the continental divide are mostly full and transmountain diversions will likely be diminished because of storage levels in places like Horsetooth and Carter Lake Reservoirs.

Willow Creek Reservoir, a relatively small reservoir located just a few miles directly west of Granby Reservoir has seen high levels of runoff already and officials anticipate pumping roughly 40,000 acre-feet of water from Willow Creek into Granby Reservoir this summer. Because of storage limits water from Willow Creek Reservoir is already being bypassed downstream.

Because of the high water levels anticipated for Willow Creek Reservoir and the rest of the Three Lakes Colorado River Collection System officials do not expect to pump any water up from the Windy Gap Reservoir, located west of Granby on US Highway 40 and downstream from Granby Reservoir.

Existing directives from the US Secretary of the Interior require at least 75 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water be released from Granby Reservoir throughout the summer. The Bureau of Reclamation will maintain releases of 75 cfs from Granby Reservoir through October this year as part of the ongoing Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

The Routt County Commissioner’s pony up $5,000 for Yampa River study

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey
Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

The last time the community funded a Yampa River management plan, in 2004, it was all about balancing the health of the town stretch of the Yampa with recreation. More than a decade later, plans are underway for a new river management plan, and this time, there is more emphasis on protecting the health of the river to help ensure ample water for the community in times of drought.

“In part, this is an update of the 2004 plan. But it’s more of a streamflow management plan, where we’ll be looking for target flows that support aquatic life and water quality,” city of Steamboat Springs Water Resources Manager Kelly Heaney said Tuesday after meeting with Routt County officials. “It’s almost like a drought resiliency plan for the river.”

And the new study will take in a longer stretch of the river — from the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area downstream to the city’s wastewater treatment plant west of town.

The Routt County Board of Commissioners agreed Tuesday to earmark $5,000 in its 2017 budget for a contribution toward a 50 percent local match of a $51,875 grant to fund the new management plan. The grant is part of $1 million allocated to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in accordance with one of the measurable objectives in Colorado’s landmark 2015 state water plan…

The [Colorado Water Plan] set the goal of covering 80 percent of a list of locally prioritized rivers with new stream management plans by 2030.

Heaney told the BOC that, with this grant, the Yampa will be among the first in the state to be the subject of such a study.

There is a plan underway on the Crystal River (upstream from Carbondale), Aspen and Pitkin County have begun work on a plan for the Roaring Fork and plans are in the works for the Colorado River and the San Miguel on the western side of the San Juan Mountains, Heaney reported.

“We’re kind of like pioneers, along with them,” she said.

Heaney said the Colorado Water Trust, which has, in the past, facilitated efforts to secure supplemental summer flows for the Yampa in drought years such as 2002 and 2012, will participate in the study. In 2002 and 2012, Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed a voluntary ban on fishing on the town stretch of the Yampa, because the shallow flows were too warm to hold desirable levels of dissolved oxygen for trout.

Water temperature and dissolved oxygen will be a part of the new river study, which will include a streamflow management plan meant to manage for target flows that support both aquatic life and water quality, Heaney said.

“We’re working with the Colorado Water Trust to get us to a place where we have a sustainable plan,” Heaney said.

The Water Trust will undertake a legal analysis of the city’s water rights and advise on different strategies to make the best use of them, she said. For example, strategies could include securing storage contracts, stream improvement projects and re-timing flows through wetlands.

Carpenter Ranch as a laboratory for conserving water — Steamboat Today #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Here’s an in-depth look at a fallowing experiment on the Carpenter Ranch in the Yampa Valley from Tom Ross writing in Steamboat Today. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

Beginning in 2015, the Nature Conservancy committed four hay fields comprising 197 acres at the Carpenter Ranch to a multi-state pilot project conceived to determine how irrigated hay fields in the region would respond to being temporarily left fallow in order to leave more water flowing in the Yampa River. The stronger summer flows would support habitat and help to replenish the vast reservoirs of the Southwest that supply water to cities in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.

The ranch is among five pilot sites in Colorado and five in Wyoming to make up the Colorado River System Conservation Program.

The Conservancy’s Yampa River Project Director Geoff Blakeslee told Steamboat Today in August 2015 that the water project essentially involves a water transfer plan that could someday allow ag water users to be compensated for temporarily taking water off their land to be used elsewhere.

“It’s very much an exploratory project,” Blakeslee said last year. “We’re doing what we call a split-season fallowing of four fields on Carpenter Ranch just to help with information gathering — what are the impacts to the ranch? What are the impacts to the river?”

It’s understood that the short-term consequences may be a smaller hay harvest that could support fewer cattle. But there are also benefits in the program that flow to the ranchers.

The $11 million program to conserve water is funded by water providers in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.” -- via The Mountain Town News
The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.” — via The Mountain Town News