Ruedi releases aid fish that only a mother could love
They aren’t exactly cuddly creatures. One is the fish world’s equivalent of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Another looks out of place, with a porpoiselike beak protruding from a sleek body.
“These aren’t the cute, cuddly things like a grizzly cub,” said Debra Felker, information and education coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
Cute or not, four endangered species of fish are the focus of one of the biggest recovery programs under way in Colorado through the federal Endangered Species Act. And the Roaring Fork Valley is playing a big part in that effort.
Ruedi Reservoir is releasing more spring runoff, and the Fryingpan River is flowing higher than it has in 11 years to try to improve the plight of the fish.
Releases from Ruedi’s dam hit 600 cubic feet per second Monday and were expected to peak at 800 cfs by today. The river will flow at that high level for an unspecified time. To put it in perspective, typical spring water releases boost the Fryingpan River to only about 400 cfs.
The higher level has paddlers excited about rare opportunities to run the Fryingpan, and it has some homeowners slightly nervous about rising water levels.
Both groups can thank the pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker and bonytail for the situation. Those four natives of the Colorado River haven’t fared well since humans started building dams, impeding their instinctive migration to spawning grounds. Non-native fish like smallmouth bass and northern pike prey on the natives, crowding them out of their habitat.
“There’s just not enough room in the river,” Felker said.
The pikeminnow and humpback chub have been on the endangered species list since its creation in 1973. The bonytail was added in 1980; the razorback joined in 1991.
Tom Czapla, a biologist with the recovery program, said it’s important to help those native fish survive because the ecosystem needs them to stay in balance.
“When something like this happens, it’s not good for the system,” he said.
So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying help the endangered fish as best it can.
Water from the Ruedi, Dillon, Green Mountain, Williams Fork and Wolford Mountain reservoirs has been procured to try to mimic flooding near Grand Junction that’s been part of the Colorado River habitat for millions of years.
Through a coordinated program, the five reservoirs boosted their water releases starting last weekend. Ruedi is bypassing all the water that is flowing into it from the upper Fryingpan Valley, said Kara Lamb, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the reservoir. The high flows could continue for up to two weeks but will be cut short if runoff slows.
The coordinated reservoir release program can only occur when snowpack is at or above average. That ensures the reservoirs will still fill even if water is released for the endangered fish. Ruedi is expected to fill to capacity this year around July 4.
Lamb said Ruedi could contribute nearly 21,000 acre-feet to the fish program this year. Complicated water agreements dictate how much water from Ruedi can be used. An acre-foot would cover a football field to a depth of 1 foot. It supplies two families of four people with water for one year.
This is only the third year in a decade that the release of water could help the four hapless fish. Drought conditions from 2000 through 2004 were tough on the recovery effort, according to Czapla. He and his colleagues hope this year starts a streak of above-average snowpack and high flows on the Colorado River.
The high water levels benefit the endangered fish in two ways, Czapla said. First, the “flushing flood” cleans out gravel beds in the river channel so the macroinvertabrates the fish eat can thrive, and it improves spawning grounds. Second, high water levels force water into backwater areas where the current isn’t so strong and the fish can hang out.
But the biggest benefit might be the problems the higher flows create for the non-natives, Czapla said. Small-mouth bass, for example, need lower flows to spawn and thrive.
The success of the recovery program is tough to gauge, Czapla admitted. There are self-sustaining populations of the humpback chub and pikeminnow, a lunker that can grow to be 6 feet long. Razorback suckers and bonytails are being stocked.
Recovery program officials hopes the water releases improve habitat on the 15 miles of the Colorado River between Cameo and Grand Junction, a stretch that’s particularly important for spawning.
While federal officials will carefully watch the effects on that stretch, a local conservation group, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, is measuring how higher releases from Ruedi affect the trout fishery on the Fryingpan River, according to education director Tim O’Keefe.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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