Big water may flush Fryingpan’s woes away
August 22, 2007
BASALT Two public agencies plan to boost water releases from Ruedi Reservoir high enough next month to flush thick red mud that has clogged the lower Fryingpan River since an Aug. 6 flood.The Colorado Division of Wildlife will ask the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to ramp up water releases to 800 cubic feet per second for a day or so during the week of Sept. 10, said Sherman Hebein, DOW’s senior aquatic biologist for the Northwest Region.”This is not an emergency but it would be nice to do something about it,” Hebein said. “If it sits there it will be harder to move later.”Seven Castles Creek pushed tons of the area’s signature red dirt along with rocks and debris into the river after a cloudburst. The debris field altered the course of the river by pushing it away from Frying Pan Road and against the opposite cliff face.The lower Fryingpan River, above Basalt, has flowed a milk chocolate color ever since and the middle Roaring Fork, below its confluence with the Pan, has been affected as well.Federal agencies coordinated efforts last week to increase flows from Ruedi as part of a program to help endangered fish on the Colorado River near Grand Junction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needed extra water from one of five participating mountain reservoirs. The decision was made to rely on Ruedi water in hopes that it would flush the debris to the Colorado River, where it would dissipate.The river’s flow increased to 300 cfs, but the mud proved stubborn. “It’s not moving much of the stuff,” Hebein said. The soil has a lot of calcium sulfate, which tends to harden like cement as it sits.There are two schools of thought on how to proceed. One option is to wait for a flushing flow until spring, when flows would be higher in natural conditions. Although there are artificial conditions on the dammed Fryingpan, the Bureau of Reclamation typically increases flows in spring to increase the reservoir’s capacity – assuming the snowpack is at or around average.The second option is talking advantage of the man-made conditions and flush the river now.”There is water available for a large flow,” said Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Kara Lamb. The agency is aware of the situation and is willing to help once it receives a formal request from the state wildlife division, she said.While there is no emergency, Hebein said the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers face “a chronic case of the dwindles.”The bug population will dwindle, fish habitat will dwindle and “at some point” trout populations will dwindle if there isn’t improvement in the water quality, he said.Here’s the problem, as described by Hebein: The fine sediment from the mud works its way into the spaces between peddles and rocks and smothers insects and their eggs.Bug populations are low at this time of year but mayfly and caddis fly hatches are occurring now and various hatches happen throughout the year. If no action is taken, the sediment will continue to clog spaces throughout the winter. Bugs will eventually re-colonize the affected stretches, but that could take time without a good flush.Hebein said some trout were likely killed in the initial flood of mud, especially browns, which hide on the bottom in adverse conditions. He doubted significant numbers of fish were killed. He’s more concerned about the effects on their habitat.That’s why he prefers a flushing. Even a flow of 800 cfs might not be enough to do the job. “There’s a lot of mud up there,” Hebein said.He is mindful of the effects on fishing in the premier trout waters of the upper Fryingpan. At 800 cfs, about 29 percent of the stream is “wadeable,” he said. At the Fryingpan River’s current flow of 300 cfs, 52 percent is wadeable.The high water wouldn’t last long. It would be increased in 150 cfs increments starting Monday, Sept. 10, and would peak at 800 cfs for a day or so, then be ramped back down. The 800 cfs was selected because it could allow continued fishing, won’t flood private property but could provide the beneficial flush, Hebein said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.