From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):
BASALT – Anglers on the Fryingpan River can expect again this year to see as much as 300 cubic feet per second of water released from Ruedi Reservoir in late summer and early fall to bolster flows in 15 miles of the Colorado River near Grand Junction to benefit endangered fish populations.
Water released from Ruedi flows down the Fryingpan to the Roaring Fork River and then into the Colorado River.
The directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board at a regular meeting March 23 approved a third annual lease with the Ute Water Conservancy District that allows for CWCB to release 12,000 acre-feet of water from Ruedi at a cost of $86,400, or $7.20 per acre-foot.
Ute Water, which provides water to 80,000 people in the Grand Junction area, paid $15.6 million in 2013 to store 12,000 acre-feet of water in Ruedi each year. Ute Water considers its Ruedi water to be a backup supply, but since the water can also be used for environmental and instream flow purposes, it’s willing to lease it on a year-to-year basis to the CWCB.
In turn, the CWCB works with officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the release of the water as part of the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program, which is working to maintain populations of four species of large native fish: the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker, the bonytail, and the humpback chub.
For the third year in a row, state and federal water managers have pledged to release no more than 300 cfs of water from the Ute Water pool in Ruedi, and work to keep all flows in the Fryingpan under 350 cfs in order to preserve the “wadability” of the popular fly-fishing stream.
Flows of about 220 cfs are considered ideal for fly-fishing clients by two local commercial guide services working on the Fryingpan, and flows of about 300 cfs in late 2015 brought complaints of high water to the CWCB from guides and their clients.
But last year, anglers seem to have gone with the steady flow on the Fryingpan of just less than 300 cfs from mid-August to late September, as no formal complaints were lodged with the CWCB, according to Linda Bassi, chief of the agency’s stream and lake protection section.
Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, said last year appeared to have gone OK on the river for wading clients.
“The flow stayed where they said it would and I did not hear any complaints,” Lofaro said via email. “However, I think people do mind, especially if the level exceeds 300. The two fly shops in town would be quick to register concern. So far, it seems to be working.”
Last year, a special meeting was held in the spring to discuss the pending releases of fish water from Ruedi. This year, after having contacted local stakeholders, the CWCB decided the issue could simply be discussed at the regular annual meeting on Ruedi operations held by the Bureau of Reclamation.
As the endangered fish do better with more water in the river, a key part of the recovery effort is keeping flows in the 15-mile reach at least as high as 1,240 cfs in an average year and 810 cfs in a dry year, although the target flow levels are often not met.
The 15-mile reach is depleted by two large irrigation diversions — the Grand Valley Project in DeBeque Canyon and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal in Palisade. Last year during the critical months of August and September, they diverted at a steady rate of about 1,600 cfs, primarily to irrigate alfalfa, according to state records.
That level of diversion leaves about 400 cfs in the Colorado River, but the fish water sent downstream brings the river back toward the 1,000 cfs level.
In 2015, the first year of the lease with Ute Water, the CWCB and Fish and Wildlife released 9,000 acre-feet from the total pool of 12,000 acre-feet owned by Ute Water in Ruedi.
In 2016, after approving a second one-year lease, the two agencies released all of the 12,000 acre-feet, with half of it flowing down the river between Aug. 27 and Sept. 11 and half released between Sept. 25 and Oct. 14.
Fish and Wildlife also has access to other pools of fish water in Ruedi, and all told in 2016 there was 27,413 acre-feet of water released from Ruedi to the benefit of the endangered fish. But Ruedi is not the only source of water for the 15-mile reach.
Green Mountain Reservoir, located in the northern end of Summit County on the Blue River, released 55,390 acre-feet in 2016 for the 15-mile reach, according to Don Anderson, a hydrologist with the recovery program. Wolford Reservoir, north of Kremmling, released 5,766 acre-feet for reach, while Granby Reservoir in Grand County released 5,413 acre-feet and Williams Fork Reservoir, east of Kremmling, released 234 acre-feet.
In all, that’s 94,216 acre feet of water sent down the Colorado River to the 15-mile reach. By comparison, Ruedi holds 102,373 acre feet of water.
The 94,000 acre feet of water sent to bolster flows in the 15-mile reach is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount taken out by the two largest diverters above the reach.
In 2016, state diversion records show that about 1 million acre-feet of water was diverted by the Grand Valley Project and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal, although a portion of that was diverted to make electricity and was immediately returned to the river.
The big diverters on the river, which include the Grand Valley Irrigation Company, the Grand Valley Water Users Association, and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, are, however, paying increasing attention to the 15-mile reach and do work cooperatively on a weekly conference call with officials at Fish and Wildlife and CWCB to manage flows.
The irrigators also have been working to improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems and are more willing than in past years to approve late-season releases of surplus water held in Green Mountain Reservoir, according to Michelle Garrison, a water resources specialist at the CWCB.
“So there is progress being made,” Garrison said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News on coverage of rivers and water in the upper Colorado River basin.