It’s lower down the gushing waterway’s span, however, on a 19-mile stretch north of Silverthorne toward Green Mountain Reservoir, that state officials said the gold medal tag had to be pulled this past March. While perhaps no shock to those who best know the area’s waters — many already avoid that segment for lack of comparative success — the local emphasis has been on exploring if regaining that billing as one of the state’s top fishing destinations is even possible.
“When we removed that gold medal designation, it got the attention of a lot of people, which was part of my intention,” said Jon Ewert, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Part of it is truth in advertising, and the other effect is that it would draw some attention to that stretch of the river.”
To possess a gold medal, a waterbody needs to offer 60 pounds of trout per acre and a dozen fish at least 14 inches or longer in that same space. But through some mix of unnatural streamflows, insufficient bug populations for fish to eat and temperature variability, those 19 miles have produced no better than half those quantity requirements since as far back as 2001.
A regional stakeholder group has been meeting quarterly to trade data and hypothesize what may have ultimately turned the tide on the classification. So far it’s still uncertain.
“It’s a great mystery,” said County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, who is a member of the quarterly Blue River meetings. “There are a lot of possibilities and one is that it’s a water quality issue, but no one has identified that, and there’s been some effort to see if there’s something in the water that we’re not aware of that’s bad.”
What is clear is that the number of rainbow and brown trout that used to populate the segment are no longer there, and those that remain are underweight.
“Fish, they just don’t thrive there,” added Stiegelmeier. “And they get pretty beat up, because they’re caught and released, caught and released.”
Water quantity, meaning outflows from Denver Water-managed Dillon Reservoir, are almost certainly a factor in all of this, but how to overhaul that is even trickier. Based on annual snowpack and peak periods of melt, the agency pushes water out into the Blue River to avoid overflow, but is also unable to lend more than present totals so it can still meet the demands of Front Range water needs.
In a related quality issue, what is funneled out is often colder than ideal temperatures for fish because it originates from lower in the reservoir, rather than at various depths as with more modern dam designs. Trout thrive at between 54 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and what comes out of Dillon Reservoir is typically closer to about 46.
Discussions persist about possibly retrofitting Dillon Dam, which opened at the end of 1963, with an updated, staged-release structure like that of Grand County’s Wolford Reservoir. That project, completed in 1995, includes a tiered system that can combine water from three different depths to better manage temperature downstream.
The primary obstacle, though, is that such a renovation could cost up to $10 million, and no one knows yet from what source the funding might arise.
That’s if it would even help address the challenges in the Blue River at all.
“It’s definitely an idea that has merit, but the problem is it’s millions of dollars in an infrastructure project that nobody’s stepping up and volunteering to pay for,” Ewert explained. “And number two, it’s essentially an experiment because we don’t know for sure if that would be the fix. We’re certain that it wouldn’t hurt it, but … it’s a pretty expensive experiment.”
Eventually restoring the gold medal fishing label for the entirety of the Blue River is the group’s goal. Doing so by artificially stocking the deficient stretch is another alternative, but officials note that does nothing more than simply reinstating a name — and at unsustainable costs — rather than straightening out what’s really going on.
“We could do it by just dumping a bunch of fish in there, but that’s really not economically responsible,” said Ewert. “What we want it to do is be a more productive fishery and improve the potential of it, and in the course of accomplishing that it should meet gold medal standards. We have to pool all of our information and figure out what information we’ve got, and is it pointing us in any certain directions before we can figure out what we can do to help this stretch of river … and it’s going to take time.”
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Wolford Mountain Reservoir
Ruedi Reservoir. Photo credit Greg Hobbs
Green Mountain Dam via USBR.
Grays and Torreys, Dillon Reservoir. Photo credit Greg Hobbs.
Williams Fork spill.
Willow Creek Reservoir.
From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via The Los Alamos Daily Post:
Coordinated releases from a series of Upper Colorado River Basin reservoirs began Saturday, June 3, and are anticipated to continue through this week as part of the Coordinated Reservoirs Operations Program.
The US Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River District, Denver Water and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District as owners and operators of upper Colorado River reservoirs have mutually agreed to modify their operations to benefit the endangered fish of the Upper Colorado River Basin.
The Coordinated Reservoir Operations (CROS) program was established in 1995 as part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. The purpose of the Coordinated Operations is to enhance spring peak flows in a section of the Colorado River upstream of Grand Junction, Colo. Determined to be critical to the survival of four endangered fish species: the Humpback Chub, Razorback Sucker, Bonytail and the Colorado Pikeminnow. The higher peak flows remove more fine sediment from cobble bars that serve as spawning habitat for the endangered fish. In years with sufficient snowpack, surplus inflows to the reservoirs can be passed downstream to benefit these fish without impacting reservoir yields or future beneficial water uses.
Coordinated Reservoir Operations were most recently conducted in 2016, 2015 and 2010. In 2011 and 2014, wet conditions caused streamflows in certain areas of the basin to approach or exceed levels associated with minor flooding, so CROS was not performed. In 2012 and 2013, reservoirs did not have surplus inflow to contribute due to extremely dry conditions.
Managers of the reservoirs completed a conference call June 2, agreeing to voluntarily run the program this year. Planned reservoir operations as of June 2 are described below. Release and flow amounts are approximate. Most reservoirs will step up releases over the next several days, hold at a constant rate for 3-7 days, and then wind down releases.
Green Mountain Reservoir, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, will increase releases from 418 cubic feet per second (cfs) to powerplant capacity of around 1400 cfs. Releases from Green Mountain include inflows bypassed by Dillon Reservoir, operated by Denver Water, that will be increased by approximately 100 cfs during CROS.
Denver Water also operates Williams Fork Reservoir, which is releasing 200 cfs. Releases will likely increase to approximately 600 cfs over the coming week to bypass increasing inflows.
Willow Creek Reservoir, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, is releasing 90 cfs. Releases will increase this week to roughly 600 cfs by curtailing pumping operations to Granby Reservoir and bypassing those inflows instead.
Wolford Mountain Reservoir, operated by the Colorado River District, is passing inflows of 350 cfs. Outflows will be increased to around 600 cfs for approximately five days.
Ruedi Reservoir, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, is releasing 182 cfs and will increase releases to approximately 600 cfs over the next few days.
The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) will incorporate these planned reservoir operations into their streamflow forecasts. Based on weather forecasts and planned reservoir operations, flows in the Colorado River near Cameo (upriver of Palisade, Colo.) are anticipated to be approximately 14,000 – 17,500 cfs, June 7 through June 12, with the highest flows Thursday or Friday June 8 or 9. Flows in the forecasted range are still below defined “bankfull” and flood stages for the area.
More detailed information about forecasted streamflows in the Colorado River basin are available from the CBRFC website at http://www.cbrfc.noaa.gov. A map-based interface allows viewing of hydrographs detailing recent, current and anticipated flows.
For more information, contact Don Anderson, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, at 303.236.9883, email@example.com, Michelle Garrison, Colorado Water Conservation Board, at 303.866.3441, ext. 3213, firstname.lastname@example.org or James Bishop, Bureau of Reclamation, at 970.962.4326, email@example.com.
The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program is a cooperative partnership of local, state and federal agencies, water developers, power customers and environmental groups established in 1988 to recover the endangered fishes while water development proceeds in accordance with federal and state laws and interstate compacts.
Through both natural and man-made activities, the area’s waterbodies will ramp back up to seasonal heights this week. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration anticipates the Colorado River and its primary Summit County tributaries will reach their highest 2017 levels this Wednesday, June 7.
The volume-based flow rates, measured as cubic feet per second, on North Tenmile Creek, for example, will rise from about 600 to 900 cfs and the Blue River north of Dillon should grow in the next two days by another couple hundred cfs from its present 600. To offset forthcoming supply, Denver Water, which owns and oversees Dillon Reservoir, stated that it plans to up flows from Dillon Dam into the Lower Blue River from its Monday total of 380 cfs to 600 no later than Tuesday morning, and between 1,400 and 1,800 cfs by the end of the week.
“The snowpack up on the mountain, it’s now warmed up and is starting to come off,” said Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, a public policy agency that closely monitors the region’s major waterway. “It’s fast water, but shouldn’t flood anybody out. All streams will be quicker-paced than people are used to, but the flooding is not the danger.”
North of Silverthorne, additional releases at Green Mountain Reservoir also allow the Bureau of Reclamation to increase power plant capacity and generate more electricity. Those levels could reach approaching 1,400 cfs from the current 418.
Estimating that 40 percent of the winter’s snowpack still remains above Dillon, Denver Water is comfortable increasing the flows from Dillon Reservoir into the Lower Blue River that ultimately head to northern Arizona’s Lake Powell. That result is threefold, preventing wasteful overflow of the reservoir, maintaining ideal recreational heights on the lake, as well as fulfilling the demands of Lower Basin states based on senior water rights.
“Our experts are monitoring conditions carefully with the goal of ending runoff season with a full reservoir,” Matt Wittern, Denver Water Summit County liaison, wrote by email. “That way, we’re able to meet our customers’ needs while providing locals and tourists alike with valued summer recreation activities that have a positive impact on the local economy.”
Where spring runoff has been something like average—and where it hasn’t
Spring runoff of the Yampa River likely peaked on May 14 this year as it flowed through northwestern Colorado. That makes it an anomaly in the precipitation-dripping mountains of the West.
In most other locations, the peak runoff—the time when the largest volume of water in rivers occurs as winter’s snow melts—more normally occurs in early June after temperatures finally warmed. This year looks to be more or less normal, despite a trend to earlier runoff in many locations during the last several decades.
“The Yampa did have an early runoff, and that was the result of the warm temperatures and below-average snowpack,” said Ashley Nielson, senior hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, when interviewed last week by Mountain Town News. The Yampa, she noted, will probably rise again in the next week or so, if not to the same high mark.
But elsewhere, the show is now, not a month ago. Peak runoff of the Green River was expected this week or next. It originates in the Wind River Range of west-central Wyoming. Unlike the Yampa, that basin still has a significant snowpack. That was also reported to be the case in Jackson Hole, at the headwaters of the Snake River. The snowpack there was 181 percent of average in late May, not a record but “up there,” in the words of one water official cited by the Jackson Hole News&Guide.
Peak runoff in the upper Colorado River at its headwaters along the Continental Divide in Colorado was also expected to occur in early June.
Winter had wild swings: barren until late fall, then torrents of snow in December and January. Temperatures were unseasonably warm in February and almost hot in March. It looked like an early runoff everywhere. Then May turned cold and snowy.
What explains the Yampa’s aberrant behavior? Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Denver, said the peak snowpack in northwestern Colorado arrived about a month earlier than usual. That snowpack around Steamboat Springs occurred on March 12, compared a more typical April 10.
Instead of mid-May for the Yampa, he says that rafters floating through Dinosaur National Monument more often experience the highest water flows of the year in early June.
Flows in the Animas River through Silverton and Durango have had some “pretty wild swings,” Wetlaufer says. The Arkansas River has been slow to get started with runoff.
The Snake River of Wyoming and Idaho has a very different story than the Yampa, with around 200 percent of snowpack this year. The Snake originates in Jackson Hole and picks up water from the Big Wood River, which originates in the Sawtooth Mountains above Ketchum and Sun Valley, before joining the Columbia at the Idaho-Washington border.
“My takeaway is that this year is pretty normal” in terms of timing, says Bruce Anderson, the senior hydrologist at the Northwest River Forecast Center, in Portland, Ore. It was cooler and wetter in spring, but the big story was the amount of precipitation that fell during winter. “We are hugely above normal for precipitation.”
In the Tahoe-Truckee area of California’s Sierra Nevada, the snowpack was among the deeper ones on record after three bad drought years and then a so-so winter in 2015-16. Snowfall this winter was not a record, but it was a record for total precipitation. Being somewhat lower and closer to the coast than Colorado, the Sierra Nevada gets more rain during winter. This year it got a lot of rain.
Colorado, too, had rain on snow, which is not unprecedented. But it happened frequently this winter. The result was telling for travelers on I-70 who crossing Vail Pass.
“In general, there was less snow than you would expect,” says Klaus Wolter, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder.
Were those rain on snow storms of this past winter a result of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions? Wolter told Mountain Town News that thinks this is “probably partially climate change.”
Wolter, whose focus is empirical climate research, using statistical methods to solve climate problems, is reluctant to pin climate change on much of what we have seen this year. True, he says, one storm during May left 42 inches of fresh snow in the foothills above Boulder, a storm unprecedented since the 1920s. As extreme as that storm was, proving causality is difficult, he says.
A scientist in Oregon also shared the difficulty of proving causality. John Stevenson of Oregon State University told the Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum that it’s “really difficult to judge any one year” to be a result of rising global temperatures.
“That’s one of the challenges we run into in the science world where people say, ‘Oh, it’s climate change.’ We’re not at the point where we can take any one random event and say it’s climate change.”
That said, his 2015 study concluded that the point each spring when half of the water year’s streamflow had run off was occurring an average 1.9 days earlier per decade.
But more extreme events are happening with greater frequency, said Mark Davidson, director of conservation initiatives with The Nature Conservancy. He pointed out that the Big Wood River has had two 100-year floods in the last 15 years.
Warm temperatures in the Ketchum and Sun Valley area were 6 to 13 degrees warmer than normal for early May, producing a flood in the Big Wood River that peaked on May 8. It was regarded as the largest in 101 years of recorded history, reports the Idaho Mountain Express.
But more warm weather was producing another surge in early June that threatened to surpass that peak of a month before, the newspaper reported last week.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:
A cash-based incentive offered by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board encouraging anglers to catch northern pike at Green Mountain Reservoir resumes this year on May 25. Initiated in 2016, the reward program encourages anglers to participate directly in ongoing efforts to remove the illegally introduced predators from the reservoir.
CPW biologists say the presence of the predatory fish in Green Mountain is a significant concern. In addition to the potential impacts to fish in the reservoir, if they escape and take up residency downstream in Gold Medal sections of the Blue and Colorado rivers, sportfishing opportunities for trout could see negative consequences. If the predatory fish eventually reach federally listed critical habitat in the Colorado River, they would prey upon the state’s endangered native fishes – the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker and bonytail.
“Northern pike are aggressive predators with big appetites and if their population continues to grow in Green Mountain Reservoir, that will likely have profound impacts to local fisheries in the future,” said CPW’s Jon Ewert, aquatic biologist from Hot Sulphur Springs. “This is beneficial in several ways. Anglers can catch a predatory fish and earn some money, it helps us protect fishing here, and helps with our native fish recovery efforts as well.
According to the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, the presence of predators like northern pike and smallmouth bass in native fish critical habitat significantly increases the difficulty of delisting the endangered fishes.
“We all have an interest in making sure our waters are managed appropriately and we encourage the angling public to stay involved,” said Ewert. “We had excellent response last year, and we expect anglers will be eager to take advantage of this opportunity again this year.”
To participate, anglers must bring their northern pike to the Heeney Marina along with their driver’s license and fishing license.
CPW will keep fish heads for analysis, returning the body of the fish to the anglers. Anglers not wishing to keep northern pike can donate their catch to the Marina for later distribution.
Anglers are encouraged to catch and keep as many smallmouth bass and northern pike as they desire, unless special regulations are in effect on specific waters.
For more information, contact CPW’s Hot Sulphur Springs office at 970-725-6200, or Heeney Marina at 970-724-9441
To report illicit stocking or any other illegal wildlife activity anonymously, anglers can call Operation Game Thief at 877-265-6648.
[Brad] Udall, a distinguished climate researcher, was on hand as the keynote speaker for the 24th annual Summit County State of the River meeting hosted by the Blue River Watershed Group and Colorado River District. The yearly gathering to discuss the season’s snowpack, local reservoir operations and health of the headwater region’s water bodies was highlighted by Udall’s research on how rising temperatures are a contributing factor to significant reductions in river flows.
The study, conducted with Jonathan Overpeck, a renowned hydrology expert and the director of the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment, points to climate change today producing below-average flows out of the Colorado River. From 2000 to 2014, it resulted in 19 percent less water than the 100-year average, despite relatively consistent precipitation levels, as also ultimately occurred during the most recent winter after some slow beginnings.
“As many of you know, we started out the year in a very poor way and all of a sudden it went like gangbusters in almost the whole Rocky Mountain region in December into January,” said the Colorado River District’s Jim Pokrandt. “Then the spigot turned off.”
Those massive snowfalls in December and January created hope of an especially strong water year, but an abrupt drop-off thereafter soon resulted in below-average totals approaching April. As of May 1, snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin was only just ahead of a typical year following disappointing precipitation in the months of March and April. The late-April snowstorms rescued what would have otherwise been a below-average snowpack.
Across the state, totals are now in line with average years, but it’s a matter of arguing over what could have been. Udall thinks his research definitively shows the culprit.
“It doesn’t take a lot to figure this out,” he said. “It’s due to higher temperatures. This does not bode well for the future.”
Colorado recorded its hottest March on record based on 123 years of data, at almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal. Whether you believe it comes down to the unseasonable heat — or what may be causing it — the fact is the snow rarely arrived to Summit County during that month.
The science is more complex than warmer temperatures simply preventing precipitation from transforming into snow, though conditions also need to be right for that to happen. The hydrologic cycle dictates that the atmosphere holds on to 20 percent more water for every 5 degree increase in temperature. Evaporation, where liquid is turned into vapor, is taking place as the thermometer rises as well. A similar process happens with plant life that prevents water molecules from ever touching the ground, and — also combined with a lengthening growing season due to climate change — eventually less water is forming in our major waterways.
That all said, these types of water levels on the Colorado River are not unprecedented, with the 15-year drought between 1953-67 as a similar period. Those lower flows were based on a lack of precipitation, though, not heightened temperatures as they are presently. Add in growing demands on the river in what several speakers last week called “a pretty good water year,” with precipitation historically flat as well as swelling populations, and suddenly we’re staring down the subsequent depletion of a stock used in Colorado for drinking, recreation, crop irrigation and export to several other western states rooted in federal law.
“We’re in a long-term situation where demand on the resource exceeds the supply,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District.
Udall remains optimistic we can still dig our way out of this hole, to put water levels on crucial western rivers like the Colorado back where they should and need to be. It will require a concerted effort, he said, to reduce greenhouse gases through a paradigm shift away from past methods that are outdated, and by way of current technologies. The longer we wait, he added, the bleaker our water future will be.
“It’s warming,” Udall said of the climate in his closing remarks. “We’re the cause. It’s serious. We’re sure, and we can fix it.”
Brown & Caldwell, a construction consulting firm, reviewed the estimate the town received from Moltz Construction in 2016. The estimated cost of $53 million for the new water plant was a surprise to the council during their October budget retreat, causing them to table a final decision. Staff from Brown & Caldwell stated at the January council meeting that the Moltz estimate was thorough and only had slight variances from their own.
“Without water, without sewer, without fire, police, etc., without infrastructure, this community stops. This is, I think, the fundamental purpose of government, is to provide this type of infrastructure,” said Tim Casey, a member of the town’s water task force.
In order to pay for the plant, Breckenridge is working with the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The organization is giving the town a 20-year loan with an estimated interest rate of less than 2 percent, said Brian Waldes, the director of finance for the town. Water rent for the town will continue to rise at the previously scheduled rate of 5 percent per year. Waldes said that the town is not anticipating any additional increases. The money from water rent funds will be used to pay the water plant loan.
The plant, which will be located north of the town off of Highway 9, will have a restroom that is accessible from the recreation path located in the area. There will also be a station to fill water bottles.
James Phelps, the interim director of public works, said that the delay in final approval from the council set back the construction timeline for the new plant. Right now the town is working on getting the required permits, a process that could take six months. Phelps said that preparation for the water plant should start around June. The plant will likely be finished in 2020…
Planning for the new plant was largely about getting ahead of water demand for the town. Breckenridge’s current facility, the Gary Roberts Water Treatment Plant, was built in 1971. With only one source of water, the town is vulnerable to drought or other natural disasters. If the plant breaks down, the town would be without an alternative water source.
“We’re discreet. In other words, we’re not hooked into any other town’s … water system,” Waldes said. “If our water system goes down for whatever reason, be it a natural disaster or mechanical failure, there’s no other water plant that can help us.”
Phelps said that once the new water plant is complete, it will enable the town to shut down the Gary Roberts plant temporarily for repairs and general maintenance.
As the demand for water grows with the population, Kim Dykstra, the director of communications for Breckenridge, said that water conservation is still one of the town’s main goals. Phelps added that the new plant could allow the town to expand its service areas to homes that have been getting water from wells, potentially taking dependency away from a water source that may eventually run dry.
Casey also mentioned that because the plant takes water from a diversion of the Blue River, it leaves water in the river, which is another environmental benefit.
The plant comes from years of planning from both the task force as well as the from the feasibility study. But the town was able to build the plant due to past council members obtaining water rights as far back as 1883, Phelps said. It helped to keep the town steps ahead.