Protection of fish may aid river users |

Protection of fish may aid river users

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Rain is proving to be a short-term savior to the local rafting industry, and some fellow river users ” the ones with fins ” may help bail out boaters over the longer term.

Aided by the need to protect endangered fish farther downstream, a diverse group of water interests may reach a final agreement Tuesday on a way to keep flows high enough in the Colorado River to support the local rafting industry. Dave Merritt, chief engineer for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, voiced confidence Monday that an accord would be reached after a tentative agreement was negotiated Friday for responding to recent problems at the Shoshone hydroelectric plant in Glenwood Canyon.

“I think we’re converging on a solution,” he said.

The power plant, owned by Xcel Energy, shut down June 20 after a supply pipe ruptured. As a result, the plant is expected to be out of commission for months or more. It has been unable to make use of a senior water right “call” that traditionally has kept the Colorado River flowing high enough to support a strong rafting economy throughout the summer.

Last week, rafting outfitters appeared before the Colorado River District board in Glenwood, saying if flows through the canyon fell below 1,000 cubic feet per second, it could shut down a Glenwood Springs industry that provides 72,000 trips per season. Another 50,000 make private trips through the canyon.

River flows were above 1,400 cfs a week ago but had been falling fast. However, Merritt said recent rain provided a reprieve, keeping flows adequate for rafters.

To help assure flows throughout the summer, though, water interests are citing the additional need to meet requirements related to endangered fish recovery in the Grand Junction area.

Despite entities’ interest in helping rafters, there have been concerns about releasing water for uses ” especially recreational uses ” without a call on the river. For example, Denver Water, which operates Williams Fork Reservoir, has worried that the state engineer could argue that such a release isn’t a beneficial use, and prohibit it from refilling its reservoir to replace the water.

But Merritt said water entities also have obligations to maintain adequate water flows to support four endangered fish in a 15-mile reach of water downstream. Those include the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail and humpback chub. By pursuing the goal of maintaining at least 810 cfs for these fish, the groups would provide adequate upstream flows for rafters, Merritt said.

The proposed agreement would make use of water from Williams Fork, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Green Mountain Reservoir and the river district’s Wolford Mountain Reservoir.

Other key players include irrigators in the Grand Valley who depend on Green Mountain water to last throughout the growing season, which extends into October, Merritt said.

There’s some risk to them in Green Mountain water being released earlier, but Merritt believes the irrigators and others involved in the negotiations want to make things work. There’s a lot at stake, particularly from the standpoint of the endangered fish program, he said.

“Folks have got too much invested in this. We all have to cooperate,” he said.

Gary Hansen, who has an ownership in the Blue Sky Adventures and Glenwood Canyon Rafting outfitting companies, welcomed the news that an agreement appeared to be almost finalized.

He said companies such as his in the Glenwood, Vail and Aspen areas probably employ about 1,500 people combined at high season, and many of them are college students earning money for school.

“It’s a lot of people who rely on this summer business,” he said.

He said he appreciates the efforts of river district officials in protecting water levels not only for commercial and private boaters, but for the fish in the river.

“It’s for the total picture, the health of the river. I really appreciate those guys keeping an eye on it,” he said.