#Snowpack/#Runoff news: McPhee releases reach 4,000 cfs in the Dolores River

Photo via the Sheep Mountain Alliance

From The Telluride Daily Planet (Justin Criado):

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation just finished a controlled, peak release from the McPhee Reservoir that reached 4,000 cubic feet per second over the past weekend. The ramp down began Sunday, starting at 800 cfs per day until Thursday, May 11.

“This is a really exciting time on the Dolores River because of a combination of high carry over storage in McPhee Reservoir and a good snowpack has resulted in a fairly large managed release from McPhee Reservoir,” said Celene Hawkins of the Colorado Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “Every seven to 10 years it happens that we’ll have as much water in the system that we’ll have this year. It’s a really important opportunity to manage those flows for the ecology downstream of McPhee Dam.”

She added that 4,000 cfs is the fastest the river has flowed since 2005. As of Monday, the river was at about 3,400 cfs, she said.

As the nature conservancy’s Western Colorado Water Project Manager, Hawkins is monitoring the impacts of the release throughout the whole river system. She is also the co-chair of the Dolores River Native Fish Monitoring and Recommendation Team, which aides the Dolores River Conservancy District.

“We’re doing a lot of monitoring around the release and particularly around this larger peak release to better understand what’s feasible within existing water supplies,” she said.”

Hawkins led a flyover tour of the Dolores River — from the McPhee Reservoir in Dolores to Bedrock in the West End of Montrose County — Monday afternoon. The LightHawk volunteer flight left from Durango’s Animas Air Park and was piloted by Jim Grady, who flew a pair of curious journalists around in his 1953, red-and-white Cessna 180.

Hawkins explained there are three monitoring sites: one in the Dove Creek region and two in the Slickrock area of the Gypsum Valley and near Bedrock. Monitoring includes analyzing the impacts the release has had on downstream ecology, including vegetation and animals. The monitoring isn’t a simple process, Hawkins said, as it will take multiple years to fully collect data and turn it into practical action items, if necessary. She added there are some immediate results of the release such as plains being flooded from the excess water, and later down the system, receding waterlines as a result of the ramp down.

“A big purpose of that release was to do sediment flushing and habitat maintenance,” she said…

“I was on the river during the peak release. It was the highest I had seen it,” said Hawkins, who traversed the river between Bradfield and Slickrock. “It felt like a celebration. People were looking out for each other.”

During the flyover, the Dolores River curved and curled through the Earth’s patchwork quilt of forest, farmland and free-living.
Rafters and kayakers could be spotted in almost every area of the river, appearing more like multicolored specs than anything else…

Organizations like the nature conservancy and the Dolores River Conservancy District work with various stakeholders, including recreational groups like the Dolores River Boating Advocates (DRBA).

“DRBA has been working really hard on the release this year; both communication to boaters and also communication with water managers to help shape the management of the release,” Program Coordinator Amber Clark said.

Hawkins added farm irrigation systems will most likely not be affected by the release.

“We have worked very closely with the water managers and the water users out of McPhee Reservoir to make sure that they will have their full supplies this year,” she said.

The flight lasted just over two hours and featured more than just views of the raging Dolores. Houses and barns looked like mini Monopoly pieces with their red and green roofs. At one point, several elk could be seen bathing in an isolated lake just south of Bedrock. Aerial views of the Ponderosa Gorge and Paradox Valley revealed several changes in colors throughout the rock walls; from tans to browns to reds, including greens from the area’s flora.

@CFWEwater: Southwest Basin Tour June 13-14, 2017

Click here for the inside skinny about the tour from the Colorado Foundation for Water Education:

Join the Colorado Foundation for Water Education for the Southwest Basin Tour, hosted in Colorado’s beautiful San Juan mountains June 13-14.

Tour attendees will visit sites up and down the San Miguel River, from Telluride to the confluence with the Dolores River, hearing from local water managers, city officials, conservation groups and business leaders about water management, economic development and collaborative restoration projects. Share a unique educational experience with other tour participants, which will include members of the Colorado legislative interim Water Resources Review Committee, and get an in-depth look at how the Southwest Basin Implementation Plan is being put into action.

Dolores River: History of the Hanging Flume

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Bob Silbernagel):

In May, 1891, Nathaniel Turner — manager of the firm that had recently completed the hanging flume in Dolores Canyon — optimistically told the Grand Junction News that the flume was operating just as intended to mine for gold.

“Washing (of gravel and rock) has been in progress for the past 10 days,” the newspaper reported, based on information from Turner, “and everything looks promising for a speedy and profitable return to the company.”

Turner’s prediction proved incorrect, however. Gold production wasn’t as great as hoped, and Turner’s company was in constant financial turmoil.

Turner wasn’t the only one to tout the promise of the wood-and-steel engineering marvel that clings to the rock high above the Dolores River. A year earlier, the national Engineering and Mining Journal had been equally enthusiastic.

“This work will show how easy it is, when backed up by enterprising capital, to bring water … to points which were always thought to be inaccessible,” the Journal said in May 1890. “The total cost will be about $75,000 when finished, and it is expected to be completed within a few months.”

But the Journal was also wrong. The actual cost was between $165,000 and $175,000. And it required more than a year before the flume was partially completed. Turner’s company built seven miles of flume, and planned to construct another three miles to reach the northernmost of the company’s five mining claims along the Dolores River. Instead, it only reached the southernmost of those claims, and never went farther.

The five mining claims were filed from 1883 to 1885 by the Lone Tree Mining Company, a group of Salt Lake City investors. Lone Tree engaged in conventional placer mining on one claim, using limited water from nearby Mesa Creek.

In 1887, Lone Tree sold its claims to the Montrose Placer Mining Company, which consisted of investors from East St. Louis, Illinois. The company was managed by Turner, a somewhat mysterious figure who had reportedly gained experience in hydraulic mining in California.

Turner decided hydraulic mining was the best way to utilize the claims, and conceived the idea for a canal and flume to bring abundant water from the San Miguel River for the task.

Placer mining involves washing sand and gravel in sluice boxes so that the heavier gold is left behind. Hydraulic mining is an industrial variation in which water is shot through a nozzle at high pressure onto the face of a cliff or gravel deposit, washing away tons of gravel, rock and dirt that is run through a large–scale sluicing system.

The Montrose Placer Mining Company constructed seven miles of flume in 1890 and 1891. Another three miles of canal carried the water from the San Miguel River to the wooden flume.

Pine lumber was logged in the La Sal Mountains of Utah, and cut into large planks. At least 18 wagon trails were built to carry materials to locations on the rim of Dolores Canyon, where they could be lowered to the workers below.

Workers were suspended by ropes to mark the grade the flume was to follow, and some were likely suspended while drilling holes for the thick bolts that were drilled into the rock to anchor the flume. Later, the workers used a cantilevered derrick attached to the end of one section of flume to construct the next section.

The problem for Turner’s company wasn’t the flume. It was the ore.

The gold recovered from the hydraulic washing proved to be too fine to be collected in appreciable amounts in the sluicing operations. The hydraulic mining in 1891 continued at least into July, but it’s not clear how long it went on after that.

A year after Turner’s optimistic proclamation, the U.S. General Land Office informed the Montrose Placer Mining Company that it still owed money for one of its five claims. Apparently, Lone Tree Mining had not made the final payment on the claim.

Montrose Placer Mining Company was unable to pay. Turner left the company in disgrace. But in 1893, when the company was sold at a sheriff’s sale, Turner reappeared to purchase it. He formed the Vixen Alluvial Gold Mining Company.

In 1897, Vixen obtained $21,000 in additional financing. Turner and the company apparently intended to complete the final three miles of the flume and begin hydraulic mining on the other four claims. But that never occurred.

The entire system was lost in a court judgment in 1899, then sold again in 1900, this time to a new company called the Montrose Mining Company, whose investors were actually from the Front Range.

The new company filed documents saying it worked its claims for four weeks in 1903, but quit because it ran out of water.

The property was sold one more time, but there is no evidence that any work on the mining claims was conducted after 1903. The flume and mining claims were abandoned by 1904, although settlers and ranchers had already begun scavenging wood from the easily accessible portions of the flume.

A century after the flume was abandoned, an effort began to preserve it. The nonprofit Interpretive Association of Western Colorado, working with the Bureau of Land Management, and with assistance from a Colorado State Historical Grant, the JM Kaplan Fund and John Hendricks of Gateway Canyons Resort, contracted for studies of the flume’s construction and its history. In 2012, 48 feet of the flume were rebuilt, using construction techniques similar to those used in 1890 and 1891.

The flume is listed on the National Register of Historic Structures and is the longest historic structure in Colorado.

Information for this column came from “History and Background of the Hanging Flume,” by Alpine Archaeological Consultants of Montrose; “Flume Work of the Montrose Placer Mining Company,” The Engineering and Mining Journal, May 17, 1890; Interpretive Association of Western Colorado; and from Zebulon Miracle, curator at Gateway Canyons Resort.

#Runoff news: McPhee scheduled releases into Dolores River

Dolores River near Bedrock

From CanoeKayak.com (Eugene Buchanan):

The Dolores River Monitoring and Recommendation team recently agreed on a plan to release water from the dam, which involved input from water managers, boaters, scientists, environmental groups, federal lands agencies, and local governments.

Surplus water is expected to spill from the McPhee Dam from April 13 until mid-June, with 45 to 60 days of flow planned at 2,000 cubic feet per second. Water managers plan to release an even larger burst of water, expected at 4,000 cfs, during three days in late May (May 19-22). Scientists say the extra water will flush extra sediment downstream and create better habitat for native fish.

“That’s a great flow level, something we haven’t seen in years,” says local rafter Sean McNamara. “Bring on Snaggletooth!”

Despite the extra water, water managers say all water allocations will be met, including those for agricultural use.

#Runoff news: Big McPhee spill this season into the Dolores River

Ponderosa Gorge, Dolores River. Photo credit RiverSearch.com.

From The Durango Herald editorial board:

This year’s spill from McPhee Reservoir will be lengthy. Snowfall was particularly good this year. But a steady release is not what appeals to boaters. Better to vary the flow from high to medium levels to give river runners different experiences in the canyon…

A big Dolores spill does not occur often (the most recent of any size was in 2008), thus there are good reasons for making the most of it this year. Expect the river, ecology and terrain to be subjected to its dynamism.

Sediment movement with different flows is important as the river adjusts its pools and eddies while refreshing itself. And to what degree an underground aquifer will replenish depends on higher flows.

While Southwest Colorado will enjoy making the most of the Dolores, there are plenty of uncertainties about how to fund other water projects needed for a state population expected to double by 2050 (requiring an estimated 560,000 acre feet of water).

Both conservation and more efficient water uses are in the equation, but project funding is elusive. Severance taxes provide the bulk of the funding for the Department of Natural Resources, but energy extraction is not providing a predictable revenue source.

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross:

Flows on the Yampa River this week more closely resembled conditions typical of mid-July than mid-April, and federal scientists who keep an eye on the entire Colorado River Basin are now predicting that flows in the river, which runs through the heart of downtown Steamboat Springs, will trend below average through mid-summer.

“The headwaters of the Colorado River main stem and the San Juan Basin are currently forecast to receive near average runoff volumes, while the Yampa and White river basins now have forecasts for below average April-July runoff volumes,” hydrologists at the Colorado Basin River Forecast in Salt Lake City predict.

The Yampa was flowing at 309 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat Springs at midday on April 13. That’s below the median for the date of 440 cfs. But this isn’t likely to be a replay of 2012 when the river peaked unusually early for the season at 1,570 cfs on April 27.

There is still 38 inches of snow on the West Summit of Rabbit Ears Pass, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Based on weather forecasts, the River Forecast Center expects the Yampa in Steamboat to spike to just over 400 cfs Friday, April 14 in the wake of temperatures pushing 70 degrees on Thursday, then retreat to below 230 cfs by April 21.

It’s a different story on the Elk River, which flows into the Yampa west of Steamboat. Contrary to the trend on the Yampa, the Elk was flowing well above average Thursday at 1,080 cfs, compared to the median 641 cfs…

The historic average peak flow for the Yampa is 3,070 cfs at the Fifth Street Bridge. The river peaked at 3,550 cfs on May 5, 2015, and at 3,430 cfs on June 9, 2016.

One of the heaviest runoffs this decade was in 2011, when the river peaked at 5,200 cfs on June 7. The highest recorded peak flow was 6,820 cfs on June 14, 1921, in an era when there were fewer dams upstream from Steamboat.

Agribotix Assists The Nature Conservancy with Dolores River Survey

Dolores River watershed

From Agribotix (Tom McKinnon):

For several years The Nature Conservancy and its many partners have been studying the Dolores River ecosystem downstream of the McPhee Dam while working with water managers to improve the river’s health. It is well known that “taming” rivers, i.e. reducing or eliminating normal spring flooding, has major impacts on the flora and fauna. This year abundant snow and an abnormally warm spring have forced the Dolores Water Conservancy District to pull the lanyard on the spillway to keep the reservoir from flooding. The releases will start at around 800 cubic feet per second and will eventually reach 4000 cfs later in the spring.

All this is great news for people who care about healthy rivers. While not quite as powerful as a normal spring flood, the enhanced flows will clean sediment out of pools for fish and scour the riverbank and restore some of the flora, such as cottonwoods, to its more natural state.

To assess the changes, biologists and fluvial geomorphologists have been surveying the pre-release state of the river ecosystem. In our ongoing support efforts for The Conservancy, Agribotix volunteered to conduct aerial surveys of four sites downstream of the dam.

Agribotix founder, Tom McKinnon, flew the surveys along with Teresa Chapman, a GIS specialist at TNC. They flew both RGB and near IR cameras and returned the results as stitched mosaics at 5 cm ground sampling distance. The field mission went off without a hitch, except for a powerful spring storm that had southwestern Colorado in its sights. Fortunately the team was able to complete the final flight just minutes before the rain arrived. We’ll be headed back later in the summer for the post-release survey.

#Runoff news: Melting #snowpack = start of whitewater season on the Dolores River, 2,000 cfs McPhee release planned this season

Ponderosa Gorge, Dolores River. Photo credit RiverSearch.com.

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Flows on the upper Dolores River above McPhee Reservoir were at 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) as of Sunday.

Below McPhee Dam, a 60-day whitewater release is planned, with initial ramp-up of 400 cfs per day starting on April 11. By April 16, rafting flows will reach 2,000 cfs, and stay there for 30 days.

In the third week of May, managers will release flushing flows of 4,000 cfs for several days to provide ecological benefits to the river. The high flows mimic a natural spring hydrograph, and benefit the river by scouring the channel, redistributing cobbles for fish spawning and improving pool habitat for native fish species. Flood-plain inundation also helps generate native vegetation growth by spreading seeds beyond the main channel.

After the spike in flows, the river will return to 2,000 cfs for the Memorial Day weekend, with ramp-down of 400 cfs per day expected in early June…

Natural flows at Slick Rock Canyon
Even without the dam release, low-elevation snowmelt has already boosted river flows on the Slick Rock to Bedrock section to 600 cfs and higher, enough for a canoe, kayak or small raft. The popular 50-mile section features Class II and III rapids in remote red-rock canyon country…

The main Lower Dolores River boating run stretches for 100 miles through winding, red-rock canyons interspersed with rapids ranging from Class I to Class IV, including the famed Snaggletooth Rapid at mile marker 27. The Lower Dolores River is considered one of the premiere multiday boat trips in the nation when it has enough water to run. No permit is required.

In the past, when there was a whitewater release, McPhee Reservoir managers targeted 800 cfs for as long as possible below McPhee Dam. But after hearing from boaters in the past few years, the release level was adjusted to the preferred 2,000 cfs flow whenever possible.

“The water managers have made a huge effort to listen to the boating community,” said Sam Carter, of the Dolores River Boating Advocates.

For updates on the whitewater release schedule, go to http://doloreswater.com/releases/ The next update will be April 5. Once the spill begins, regular updates will occur on Mondays and Thursdays.

Dolores River Canyon near Paradox

Meanwhile, the higher flows are an opportunity for scientists to study river ecology. Here’s a report from Jim Mimiaga writing for The Cortez Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

Biologists with Colorado Parks and Wildlife will do fish counts on native and non-native populations, and conduct habitat improvement measures.

The Nature Conservancy, Fort Lewis College and American Whitewater will be studying geomorphology, benefits of flushing flows and recreational boating conditions…

“We have a lot of opportunity this year for fish sampling and monitoring,” said Jim White, a fish biologist for Parks and Wildlife, during a presentation Thursday at the Dolores Water Conservancy office.

His team will be studying population health of three native fish in the Lower Dolores: the roundtail chub, flannelmouth sucker and bluehead sucker.

One of their objectives is to measure the non-native small-mouth bass population, then work toward reducing them. Small-mouth bass are a threat to native fish, preying on their young and competing for food sources.

“We want to find out how widespread small-mouth bass are, especially if they are established in Slick Rock Canyon,” White said.

The bass have developed a stronghold upstream from Slick Rock Canyon to Snaggletooth Rapid. But the high runoff year has opened up an opportunity to try and take out small-mouth bass, White said. In mid-July, Parks and Wildlife plans a flush of 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) for 3-4 days from its fish pool reserves within McPhee Reservoir to disrupt the small-mouth bass spawn…

Parks and Wildlife manages a 32,000 acre feet “fish pool” in McPhee Reservoir for minimum base flows releases below the dam.

During a whitewater release, the fish pool is not debited, White said, giving fish biologists more flexibility in how to use it. They will tap into 2,600 acre feet of the reserve for the bass-removal flush.

Channel scour
The Nature Conservancy is sending a team of researchers to the Lower Dolores for 10-15 days, said Colorado chapter representative Celine Hawkins.

Their work plan includes studying sediment transport and flood-plain inundation, which is needed to widely distribute native seeds. They are especially interested in the impact 4,000 cfs peak flows will have on scouring the river channel…

The Nature Conservancy will be using drones to take aerial photos of the Lower Dolores before and after peak flows to track changes and compare them to past years.

They are focusing monitoring efforts at Disappointment Creek, Dove Creek Pumps, Big Gypsum Valley and Bedrock.

Students at Fort Lewis College will be conducting ecological monitoring on the river as well, including on the alluvial groundwater aquifer…

2016 study results on Lower Dolores
Colorado Parks and Wildlife shared results of a 2016 fish study on the Dolores River.

A cold-water fishery sampling below the dam showed two-thirds brown trout and 16 percent rainbow trout.

Algae due to infrequent flushing flows is abundant in the 12 miles of stream immediately below the dam. There is a concern it could have a negative impact on fish.

In June, the 20-mile Ponderosa Gorge section (Bradfield Bridge to Dove Creek pump house) was surveyed. Of the 180 fish caught, 73 percent were brown trout, and roundtail chub was the second-most abundant. No small-mouth bass were found in the gorge.

Sampling at the Dove Creek pump station showed roundtail chub were holding steady, in part because they are an adapted pool species. Bluehead and flannelmouth suckers were in relative low abundance, and depend more on a ripple environment. In 1992, fish sampling showed much higher numbers of native fish species, the study noted.

“The impact of flushing flows in (2016) was evident, and backwaters looked cleaner,” according to study results.

The past two years, Parks and Wildlife has been stocking bluehead suckers in the Lower Dolores. The fish historically relied on Plateau, Beaver and House creeks for spawning areas, but the dam and reservoir altered the river so suckers cannot reach those ephemeral streams. In 2016, 4316 bluehead fingerlings were released downstream of the Dove Creek Pump house. In 2013, a pit-tag array recorded one flannelmouth traveled 264 miles.

Dolores River watershed