#Snowpack news: McPhee Reservoir boating release likely this season

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

From The Cortez Journal (Jacob Klopfenstein):

The livestock association held its annual meeting at the Cortez Elks Lodge. Local, state and federal officials also spoke at the event, including U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton.

[Ken Curtis] said there is about 300,000 acre-feet of water in the snowpack for the McPhee Reservoir basin. However, but the reservoir will only be able to store about 90,000 additional acre-feet, he said.

“We’re going to get a chance to do a lot of active management,” Curtis said.

With water levels looking good, a recreation spill downriver is likely, but it’s still early, he said. Water officials will have to work hard to manage the above-average snowpack levels this season, he said.

Curtis also discussed the issue of mussels in waterways. The invasive quagga and zebra mussels have infiltrated the Great Lakes and are slowly making their way across the West, he said. Colorado has avoided an infestation, but they have appeared as close as Lake Powell, he said.

If mussels get into waterways on the Western Slope, they could cause costly damage to water infrastructure, such as dams and irrigation equipment, Curtis said.

Recreational boat inspections have been taking place on McPhee Reservoir and House Creek, but funding has decreased for inspections in recent years, he said. Hopefully funding will stabilize soon for the inspections, Curtis said, but in the meantime, access may be limited to recreational areas in 2017.

“We need to raise the insurance one level higher,” Curtis said. “We’re going to close lake access when the inspections aren’t happening.”

McPhee should be open seven days a week, but House Creek will probably only be open four days a week, he said.

Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., which owns Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs, has also considered closing boat access to both those lakes because of the mussel risk.

The U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and Dolores Water Conservancy District are raising money to continue boat inspections at McPhee and House Creek, he said.

The boat inspection program costs about $95,000 per year, and the Forest Service previously covered that cost, Curtis said.

No mussels have been found on boats during inspections at McPhee, but they have been found as close as Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, Curtis said.

Report: Climate Change and the Upper Dolores Watershed, a Cold Water Fishery Adaptive Management Strategy — Mountain Studies Institute

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

“Climate Change and the Upper Dolores Watershed, a Cold Water Fishery Adaptive Management Strategy,” is an extensive three-year analysis done in cooperation with the Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton.

The study used 72 climate models to tease out potential impacts to 46 trout streams in the basin from the town of Dolores to Lizard Head Pass up to the year 2100.

“We know there will be change, the question the study addresses is what kind of change can we expect, the approximate timing, and what are the impacts,” said Duncan Rose, director of the Dolores River Anglers chapter of Trout Unlimited.

When climate scientists ran the models over time, they pointed toward a “feast and famine” scenario, where wet periods with higher temperatures are followed by longer, more intense droughts.

According to the study, between 1949 and 2012, the upper Dolores watershed experienced wet periods with increasingly higher temperatures, followed by dry periods that were longer and more intense.

“We see that pattern developing where each drought gets more intense, and the wetter periods have higher temperatures, which causes increased evaporation and overall net loss of moisture,” Rose said.

If cyclical drought conditions were like 2002, the worst in recent years, and lasted for many years, the result could mean an average of 44 percent reduction in stream flows throughout the upper basin in 50-70 years, according to the study. Low stream flows contribute to higher water temperatures, which if reach above 63 degrees, are detrimental to trout species.

“Trout have survived these cycles for millennia, but the climate conditions may be more intense than what we have seen, so we’re going to have more challenges, particularly on the lower elevation streams,” Rose said.

The study is intended to aid current and future managers of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the San Juan National Forest in sustaining good trout habitat in the basin.

For example, higher elevation streams will be less impacted by the climate predictions. Lower trout streams may be more or less a lost cause, with many perennial streams potentially becoming intermittent or drying up completely.

“That leaves the middle elevation band of streams, where mitigation and stream rehabilitation will do the most good,” Rose said. “It’s an adaptive management model, where we don’t rush in, take it a step at a time and invest limited resources with what climate pattern emerges.”

Protecting trout streams from higher temperatures and lower flows means improving shade, installing instream rocks and trees to create pools where fish can find refuge in lower flows and hot conditions. Streams like Roaring Fork, Scotch Creek, Kilpacker, Burnett, and higher-up stretches of the Dolores Main stem, plus others, would likely benefit the most from habitat improvement in the future.

More regulations may by on the horizon, as a result of the study’s projections, for example, lower bag limits, catch-and-release only rules, barbless hooks, and even rotating some streams into non-fishing status for a year to allow recovery.

The climate models indicate there will likely be a reduction in the 295 miles of trout streams in the upper Dolores Basin in the next 50 to 100 years. More of the fishing spots will be concentrated in the higher elevations, which would result in more people fishing in a smaller area.

“There will be more competition for fewer fish, but the good news it will not happen overnight,” Rose said. “We have time to adapt, as long as we are aware of the potential impacts.”

This summer, the Dolores chapter of Trout Unlimited will be installing eight temperature gages on various streams and rivers at different elevations to start monitoring changes and trends.

The Dolores River climate change study cost about $20,000 with $15,000 paid for by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Other groups, including TU, Southwestern Water Conservation District and the Montezuma Land Conservancy contributed funds as well.

For a power point summary of the study go to bit.ly/Troutunlimited

Southwestern Water Conservation District board shuffled

San Juan wildflowers.

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Board President John Porter and Vice President Steve Fearn, representatives of Montezuma and San Juan counties, respectively, were voted off the board by commissioners in their respective counties.

Fearn, a prominent longtime coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, has represented San Juan County on the water conservation board since 1990 and served as vice president since 2007.

But San Juan County commissioners said Fearn’s representation no longer reflects county values, which have changed significantly since Silverton’s mining days to include more recreational interests with respect to water, county attorney Paul Sunderland said…

Commissioners voted to appoint Charlie Smith, part-time Silverton resident and eight-year general manager of the Lake Durango Water Authority, as Fearn’s replacement.

“Commissioners thought Charlie Smith would better represent San Juan County,” Sunderland said. “He has a lot of water expertise, and he’s probably more in tune with the wants of the current board. Historically, San Juan County has been largely dominated by mining interests, and Steve Fearn is very much associated with those interests, but the board’s interests have shifted more toward recreation.”

The fact that the state of New Mexico named Fearn in a lawsuit as a “potentially responsible party” for mine pollution in the Gladstone area was noted in the county’s decision, Sunderland said.

“It’s definitely something we’re aware of, given his ownership interests around Gladstone,” he said…

The board consists of nine members representing Archuleta, Dolores, Hinsdale, La Plata, Mineral, Montezuma, Montrose, San Juan and San Miguel counties. Board directors can serve an unlimited number of three-year terms.

“I want to make sure the county’s views are represented,” Smith told The Durango Herald. “I have an understanding of their water rights, and a lot of work needs to be done to secure those rights and make sure the uses align with what the county envisions.”

Montezuma County commissioners selected Don Schwindt to replace Porter, who was general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District for 22 years and a Southwestern board director for 26.

Schwindt is a director on the Dolores Water Conservancy District board and a critic of the Dolores National Conservation Area, a controversial proposal in Montezuma County to congressionally protect land and water along the lower Dolores…

Porter thinks the proposal, criticized by Montezuma County commissioners, influenced his removal. Under Porter’s leadership, Southwestern Water Conservation District contributed funds to hire a water attorney to rewrite draft National Conservation Area legislation, which Porter thinks was perceived as support for the bill.

“I perceived the funding as an effort so everyone involved knew all the problems, the facts on both sides and could intelligently make a decision,” Porter said. “I think Southwestern’s involvement was perceived by others that we were very much in favor of the NCA legislation. That had something to do with it, and the fact that I’m 80-plus, and my 26 years on the board.”

Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Suckla said the commission chose Schwindt because of his water knowledge, and the conservation area proposal did not play a part in the decision.

“Don has shown ways that he would save water and retain water for farmers and ranchers,” Suckla said. “John Porter is an icon for Montezuma County. He was involved in the management of the lake (McPhee Reservoir), and all the benefits the county has received from that is because of the work he did, but it felt like it was time for new eyes.”

When Porter joined the board in 1990, he said water storage and dam construction were the district’s primary focus, including such projects as Lake Nighthorse. But gradually, the focus broadened to consider recreational water use and water quality.

Porter refers to his tenure as a career highlight, and said the importance of inter-basin relations and dialogue will only increase as time goes on, water supply dwindles and population grows.

“You’re asking someone who’s biased, but I’ve always felt that the Southwestern board tried its very best to represent all interests,” Porter said. “True, the majority of the members, including myself, were and still are agriculture-oriented. Yet to me, as Colorado’s population grows, it’s inevitable that our water supply will be drying up agriculture. And that’s not in our best interest, but I don’t see a way of satisfying municipal needs that we’re going to have without drying up some ag use. Irrigation takes a lot of water, and just that amount converted to municipal use will take care of a lot of families in an urban situation.”

Front Range apple cideries buy up juice from Montezuma County — The Cortez Journal

La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain
La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Local apples were once again pressed into juice for market during a successful pilot project held in a Lebanon orchard last month.

The event, sponsored by the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, processed 800 bushels of apples gathered from local orchards.

“It went really well, we generated 2,200 gallons of raw juice that was sold to hard cider makers,” said MORP manager Nina Williams.

The group is studying the feasibility of using a mobile pressing unit to process apples from the many forgotten local orchards that otherwise let the fruit go to waste.

They were awarded a $42,400 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to test the idea.

For two days in October, Northwest Mobile Juicing, out of Montana, set up in the Russell apple orchard in Lebanon. The unit can press, pasteurize, and package the juice for market.

For the pilot, the raw juice could only be sold to hard cider companies for fermentation. Additional permits are needed to sell pasteurized apple juice.

“We proved we can get if off the trees for sale to the hard cider market,” Williams said. “If the demand is there we can work through the regulations to sell local juice as well.”

Several orchard owners realized some profits from the project, and were paid 10 cents per pound for apples still on the tree.

A dedicated crew of twenty MORP volunteers spend 300 hours picking the apples in the weeks prior to the pressing. In all, nine apple orchard owners were paid $3,500 for their apples.

One local cider maker and four from Boulder and Denver bought the raw juice. A semi-truck was loaded with the juice for a night run to Front Range cideries.

“They were impressed with the quality,” Williams said. “The juice was a blend of local heritage apple varieties.”

Apple mash produced was hauled off by local livestock owners for feed.

MORP said they broke even on the trial run, and are studying how best to set up a local pressing facility.

“We learned that there is a lot of labor and infrastructure involved besides just the pressing equipment,” Williams said.

Commercial apple operations require warehouses, shipping docks, refrigerated cold storage to store apples, and heavy equipment such as trucks and forklifts.

MORP has been documenting once popular heritage apple varieties from the days when the area was a thriving fruit market more than 100 years ago.

They have brought many of them back to life through careful grafting and propagation techniques, and are encouraging local farmers to plant heritage apple orchards.

“Our big goals is to bring back this genetic diversity to keep heritage apples from going extinct, and to get it so people can have these trees again,” said MORP orchardist Jude Schuenemeyer. “Trees that worked here for over 100 years are really well adapted to this place.”

A recent victory for MORP was the rediscovery of the rare Colorado orange apple in a Cañon City orchard in 2012. For the last several years, local orchardists have been grafting and cultivating this near-extinct apple known for its fine flavor, hardiness, storage qualities, and cider-making potential.

There are dozens of abandoned apple orchards in the county that still produce a good crop, but have a limited market. The juice market is seen as ideal because the apples do not have to be perfect and the ones that fall on the ground can be used as well.

“One of our goals is to get local orchards back in shape by hosting workshops this winter on pruning and orchard management,” Williams said.

For more information go to http://www.montezumaorchard.org

Dolores River: @CWCB_DNR instream right calls out Groundhog Reservoir diversion until November 1

View to southwest, looking down on Groundhog Reservoir. Photo via dcasler.com.
View to southwest, looking down on Groundhog Reservoir. Photo via dcasler.com.

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The call was initiated to satisfy in-stream flow rights below McPhee Dam of 78 cubic feet per second, but local water managers say the water will never get there.

In-stream flow rights are administered by the water board to preserve the natural environment in state rivers to a reasonable degree. They are a priority water right senior to some, but junior to others.

A call is made to maintain a water right’s priority in the Colorado system of prior appropriation, commonly referred to as “first in line, first in right.”

Because of the call initiated this month, a man-made ditch diverting water from Little Fish creek and Clear creek to Groundhog was shut off, allowing the creeks to flow naturally into the Dolores River via the West Fork.

Marty Robbins, District 32 water commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources, said the call caused water administrators to enforce Groundhog’s one-time fill system that legally allows the reservoir to only fill from Nov. 1 to May 1. Groundhog Reservoir, owned by the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., typically diverts the streams into the reservoir year-round.

“Just because it has been done before, does not mean it can when there is a call,” Robbins said. “These calls may happen more regularly.”

On Nov. 1, the reservoir will go back on priority for filling, and the diversion ditch will be reopened, officials said.

The administrative call sends the creek water into the upper Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir, managed by the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

But Dolores Water Conservation District general manager Mike Preston says the extra water will stay in the reservoir and not flow through the dam to the lower Dolores River.

“McPhee’s water rights are senior to that in-stream flow right, and we have a storage right that allows for refill,” he said.

The in-stream flow water right on the Lower Dolores River is intended to preserve habitat for native fish, including the round-tail chub, bluehead sucker, and flannelmouth sucker. Federal and state biologists have reported that an increase in flows below the dam is needed to improve native fish habitat.

But the unexpected call by the state for delivery of in-stream water rights had an unintended consequence of threatening trout elsewhere, said Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla.

The diversion ditch from Clear Creek to Groundhog Reservoir supports trout population, he said, but they became doomed when the water was cut off.

“Explain to me how water can be diverted for native fish, but is allowed to hurt trout?” he said.

Brandon Johnson, manager for the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., said the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s administrative “call presents issues at Groundhog we were not anticipating.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board also made administrative calls for in-stream flows rights on other rivers in the state to establish that the rights exist and to reveal if any water users are out of priority, officials said. The calls were made after irrigation season so they would be the least disruptive.

The additional water flowing into McPhee as a result of the call will be divided among allocation holders in 2017, Dolores Water Conservation District officials said.

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

Mussel risk at McPhee could limit boat access — The Cortez Journal

Mcphee Reservoir
Mcphee Reservoir

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

A plan is being considered by local, state and federal agencies to close the McPhee and House Creek boat ramps with locked gates during times when boat inspectors are absent. The new management strategy would go into effect in 2017.

Currently, there are no gates at the boat ramps, and trailered boats can launch after hours when boat inspection stations are unattended.

“It is important to fill the inspection gaps, because the problems and expense of mussel contamination are severe,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages irrigation at McPhee reservoir…

Their presence causes damage and vastly increases maintenance costs long-term. They negatively impact the lake’s sport fishery by filtering the water and competing for food.

McPhee is considered an at-risk lake for the mussels because of its proximity to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both of which are heavily contaminated with the mussel…

Locals know about the problem, and understand the importance of draining and drying their boats, Preston said.

“The worry is a visitor arrives with an infected boat that slips through. It just takes one,” he said.

DWCD, the Bureau of Reclamation, San Juan National Forest, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife signed a memorandum last week to share long-term costs and management for the proposal to improve the McPhee boat inspection program. The program currently costs $85,000 per year to run.

McPhee’s two boat inspection stations typically analyze between 8,000 and 12,000 trailered boats per year since 2009, and the numbers have increased in the past two years.

This year at McPhee, the number of boats needing decontamination went up 40 percent, managers said.

The new plan would limit access for the public such as for boaters wanting to put on early in the morning, or late evening, before and after the boat inspection stations are open. Access during shoulder seasons would also be reduced because inspections stations are open less.

Zebra and Quagga Mussels
Zebra and Quagga Mussels

Dolores River: Balancing streamflow forecast and boating releases from McPhee

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

A sporadic 12-day boating release from McPhee dam into the Dolores River in June was hampered by uncertain runoff forecasts after a late-season snowfall, reservoir managers said at community meeting Tuesday in Dolores.

Boaters faced on-again, off-again announcements of whitewater releases from the dam, which complicated their plans for trips down the river. It was the dam’s first whitewater release since 2011.

A 22-day rafting season was forecast as possible in March when snowpack registered at 130 percent of its median normal. A two-month dry spell erased the advantage, and the release was adjusted to five to 10 days of boating for late May. The forecast then dropped to a three-day release in early June, and after it was confirmed days later, hundreds of boaters flocked to the Dolores as it filled below the dam.

“Small spills are the most difficult and tricky to manage,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages the reservoir.

But on the fourth day, managers said they realized the volume of river inflow was more than the reservoir could handle, and the dam release was extended nine additional days.

“The second spill was highly under-utilized,” said boater Kent Ford, who added that the lack of notice “killed a lot of multi-day trips.”

Vern Harrell, of the Bureau of Reclamation’s office in Cortez, attributed the uncertainty to the narrow margin of runoff expected to exceed reservoir capacity.

The runoff forecast has a margin of error of 10 percent, “and this year, the spill was within that 10 percent,” Harrell said.

Decisions about dam releases rely on forecasts from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, which depends on Snotels that measure snowpack in the Dolores Basin.

When there is possibility for a small spill, managers don’t have the tools to give a lot of notice, Harrell said, so decisions are made day-to-day based on river inflow and reservoir levels.

“By May, all the Snotels are melted out, and we are in the blind,” he said.

In small spill years, managers said they err on the side of caution when announcing the number of days available for boaters. They want to ensure that the reservoir remains full, but they don’t want to end a dam release prematurely.

“We have to be careful we don’t leave boaters stranded on the river,” Harrell said.

Ken Curtis, an engineer with Dolores Water Conservancy District, said the priority is to fill the reservoir, and if there is excess water, it is managed for a boating release.

It was especially difficult to forecast runoff into the reservoir this year, he said, because much of the late-season precipitation came as rainfall.

“In May, we called off the spill because we were not reaching our reservoir elevation,” he said. “Then the forecasters bumped us up by 30,000 acre-feet,” enough for a small spill.

At the end of a five-day release, the forecast center showed a dip in river inflow, “so we started to shut the gates, but the river inflow was hanging in there,” and the spill was extended several days.

Managers acknowledged that they were rusty managing the release. They’d faced many dry winters that hadn’t filled the reservoir, and the unusual winter of 2015-16 complicated the matter.

Sam Carter, president of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, said boaters and the reservoir managers cooperate on potential spills, and this year was a learning experience.