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Water fight could ultimately benefit fishermen

Jeremy Heiman

In the long run, fishermen on the Fryingpan River could be positively affected by the outcome of a water fight between the Western Slope and the Front Range.

But only if Western Slope interests win out.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District has filed a formal objection to the amount of Colorado River water being diverted to the Front Range by way of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.

Success of the Colorado District’s objection could speed the recovery of endangered fish populations in the Colorado River near Grand Junction, by providing more water in the river during spring runoff. But it’s anybody’s guess how long that would take.

Past efforts to aid the endangered fish have meant water has been released in the fall from Ruedi Reservoir. These releases, considered disruptive and dangerous by fishermen, can be expected to continue every year unless the endangered fish recover sufficiently. The endangered fish include the Colorado pikeminnow (formerly the squawfish), the razorback sucker and two other species.

The Colorado District’s objection to the amount of water being diverted to the Front Range is supported by a hydrologic study commissioned by the district. The study indicates the Colorado-Big Thompson project could reduce the amount of Western Slope water being diverted to the east by 40,000 to 50,000 acre feet annually – and still deliver plenty of water to Front Range customers.

That amount of water, if left on the Western Slope, would significantly improve the Colorado River ecosystem and hasten the recovery of the endangered fish, according to the study.

The Colorado District, in an Oct. 6 letter, asked the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado State Engineer to look at the way the Colorado-Big Thompson Project is being run. Colorado District representatives objected to the project’s operator, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, using Colorado River water before fully using its water rights from the South Platte Basin.

They also objected to the Northern District allowing Front Range consumption of Colorado River water free of charge at certain times.

“We’re not talking about shorting any water users on the Eastern Slope,” said Chris Treese, a spokesman for the Colorado District. “This is water that can be replaced by Eastern Slope supplies.”

But Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said his organization is entitled to all the water it is diverting, and more. The Northern District is authorized to take 310,000 acre-feet annually, and has averaged 228,000 acre-feet in recent years, he said.

The Northern District doesn’t always take all the South Platte water it’s entitled to because of significant mechanical changes that must be made to switch from Western Slope water to Eastern Slope water, Wilkinson claimed. The Northern District, he said, has not been able to use its entire entitlement of South Platte water in some wetter-than-average years. But the Northern District claims a right to all the Colorado River water anyway.

“They’re asking us to take away existing yield that we’ve had a historic right to, and use that for bypass flows for the benefit of endangered species,” said Brian Werner, a spokesman for the Northern District.

The regulations that govern the 16-year-old federal program to preserve the endangered fish in the Colorado River indicate the project should never “impair the yield or reliability of existing projects,” Werner argued.

“What they’re asking does, in fact, impair the yield and reliability of our project,” he said.

He said the Northern District can’t afford to give up any part of the 228,000 acre-feet diverted in an average year, and he noted that it’s 82,000 acre-feet less than his district is entitled to.

“That’s 82,000 acre-feet that more often than not stays on the other side of the mountain,” he said.

The Northern District serves Northeast Colorado from Boulder to the Kansas line and north. It operates the Colorado-Big Thompson project under contract to the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the project’s infrastructure.

The Bureau also has an interest in the success of the recovery program for the four endangered fish, and is required by law to protect them.

The Colorado District sent its letter only after contacting the Northern District repeatedly about the issues, said the Colorado District. The Bureau of Reclamation has said it needs time to respond.

The amount of water under discussion would return to the Colorado River a portion of the spring runoff’s flushing flows, which have been diminished by diversions, Treese said.

“That would help the entire ecosystem of the Colorado River, as well as the rafting industry,” he said. These flushing flows clear out sediments accumulated during slower flows, helping to prepare gravel spawning beds for trout. An excessive amount of silty sediment also smothers the bottom-dwelling insect larvae that provide food for fish and other aquatic life.

“What you’re doing is returning the river to a natural state, with a high spring flow,” Treese said.

Western Slope water consumers such as agriculture and towns wouldn’t benefit directly from the improved spring flows, Treese said, because their greatest needs are at other times. But all water users have a stake in the recovery program for the endangered fish, he stressed.

“Only with the success of the recovery project can we be assured that we won’t have federal interference in human uses,” Treese said.

If the Colorado District is successful in getting the diversions reduced, releases from Ruedi Reservoir near Basalt probably won’t be affected in the short term, Treese said. The water under discussion is strictly spring runoff water, while releases from Ruedi augment water supplies for the endangered fish in the fall.

But in the long term, Treese said, when these fish become better established, the need for fall releases should be reduced.


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