Upper Colorado River flows dwindling
Summit County correspondent
SUMMIT COUNTY – High water levels in Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs helped sustain the booming local summer recreation industry this summer, but there is a downside for Grand County, just to the north, where Colorado River flows have dropped down to levels not seen since at least the drought summer of 2002.
Between Granby and Kremmling, some gauges are measuring flows as low as 20 cubic feet per second, leading Trout Unlimited (TU) to raise an alarm. The cold water fisheries conservation group is concerned that the low flows could harm trout populations in the prolific fishery, and claims that the state is not trying to meet its obligation to maintain minimum stream flows.
“I didn’t realize this was so dire,” said Mely Whiting, attorney for TU’s Western Water Project. “We’re getting calls from ranchers who are also TU members. They’re saying that if they take their entire allotment, the river will be completely dried up,” Whiting said.
The only thing sustaining fish populations at this point is voluntary cooperation from some of the large ranch owners in the area, Whiting explained.
Summit County fits into the picture because water from the Blue River system, via Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs, is currently being used to meet downstream demands, especially the crucial Shoshone water right. That means more available water in the Upper Colorado, above Kremmling, for diversion to the East Slope via the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
But operation of the Colorado-Big Thompson project is partially governed by a U.S. Senate document that requires the Bureau of Reclamation to operate the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in a way that maintains a live stream and satisfies irrigation needs. According to Whiting and other officials in Grand County, that is currently not happening. Grand County Commissioner James Newberry was on his way to Washington, D.C., Thursday to discuss the situation with top Bureau of Reclamation officials.
Also on Thursday, Denver Water started releasing about 50 cfs from the Williams Fork Reservoir Thursday, boosting flows from the confluence of the Colorado downstream to Kremmling. But upstream toward Granby, the river is as low as it’s ever been, according to Skylark Ranch manager Wes Palmer.
While water levels in the Colorado are healthy below the confluence with the Blue, there is a gap in the flows upstream, between Kremmling and Granby, resulting from the diversions to the Front Range. Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) biologists said the flows are far from ideal for trout.
“The low flows are stressful, no doubt,” said Billy Atkinson, CDOW’s Steamboat based aquatic expert. Atkinson said fish will start to “stack up” in deeper pools of cold water, where they are more susceptible to pressure from anglers. He hopes fishermen will exercise self-restraint during the spell of low flows.
“I hope they’ll be ethical and that they don’t just pound them,” Atkinson said. The situation could be worse, he added, explaining that, with nighttime temperatures cooling off, he’s not too worried about the river reaching harmful temperatures.
Kirk Klancke, with the Winter Park West Water and Sanitation District, said the low flows in the upper Colorado River can mostly be attributed to Front Range demand. He said the state-owned water rights, held by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to meet minimum flow requirements, are junior to other rights currently being used.
“Maybe someday in our lifetime we’ll see those CWCB flows make a difference,” Klancke said. But he did say that some of the state’s water rights are senior to some other diversions, including water being used to irrigate golf courses in Grand County, and he wondered why the CWCB wasn’t asserting its right to at least that portion of the instream flows.
The bottom line, said Klancke, is there just isn’t enough water in the river to satisfy all the competing demands. And he pointed out that both Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy have plans to significantly increase diversions from the headwaters of the Colorado.
“When a rancher can’t draw water off the river to irrigate, you’re looking at economic impacts, and it affects the culture and heritage of the area, too,” Klancke concluded.
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