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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. on Tuesday retreated from its boating ban at Narraguinnep Reservoir and agreed to allow some hand-launched, non-motorized watercraft.
The revised ban still includes motorized and trailered boats, including jet skis. Such watercraft can carry water from infected lakes in the engines, bilges and ballasts, according to the MVIC.
The specific list of nine non-motorized boats that are allowed on the lake include kayaks, canoes, rafts, belly boats, windsurfer boards, sailboards, float tubes, inner tubes and paddle boards.
“The board is in agreement on allowing those crafts,” Gerald Koppenhafer, president of the MVIC board, said on Tuesday.
Totten Lake, which is owned by the Dolores Water Conservancy District, also recently banned boating, but is also expected to allow the specific list of non-motorized boats, general manager Mike Preston said on Tuesday.
“The intention of our board is to be consistent with MVI and allow the exempted watercraft,” he said…
The boating ban triggered an outcry from the boating community, and generated complaints to the Montezuma county commission. Dozens of comments for and against the policy were posted on The Journal’s Facebook page.
McPhee Reservoir allows all types of boating, but trailered and motorized watercraft can only enter the lake through two boat inspection stations at the McPhee boat ramp and the House Creek boat ramp. The list of nine, hand-launched boats can launch from anywhere. Funding is available for boat inspection stations at McPhee but not other area lakes.
Irrigation companies and lake managers are trying to prevent the invasive mussel from entering Colorado waterways. Once a lake becomes contaminated with the mussels, they cannot be eliminated and cause damage to irrigation infrastructure, including dams, municipal systems and power plants. Mitigating a mussel contamination year-to-year also dramatically increases operation costs.
A decision is pending on how to prevent a mussel contamination at Groundhog Reservoir, which also is owned by MVIC.
The Dolores Water Conservancy District board voted unanimously on Thursday to close Totten Lake to all boating to prevent contamination by non-native quagga and zebra mussels…
The Totten closure follows a boating ban on Narraguinnep Reservoir, enacted last week by the privately owned Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., which also cited the mussel threat.
“To prevent a mussel contamination, and to be consistent with MVIC’s decision, the board voted to prohibit all boating on Totten,” said DWCD general manager Mike Preston.
The boating ban on the two lakes is for all non-motorized and motorized, and includes kayaks, canoes, stand-up boards, windsurfers, oar boats, rafts and jet-skis. Fishing at the popular lake will be allowed from the shore.
“There was a lot of debate on our board about possible exceptions, but the board decided that to be clear, and best protect our irrigators, the ban will be to all boating,” said MVIC manager Brandon Johnson.
A boating closure order for Totten is being drawn up in cooperation with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which manages the fishery. A locked gate on the boat ramp will be installed soon. Narraguinnep already has a locked gate installed. Violators at Totten and Narraguinnep will be issued tickets by Parks and Wildlife and the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office.
Boat inspection stations are effective at preventing a mussel contamination in lakes. But there is no funding for inspection stations at Totten or Narraguinnep, so managers say their only other option is to close them to boating because the contamination risk is too great.
The Dolores Water Conservancy District is also tightening up boating access on McPhee this year to better prevent the mussels from entering the regional irrigation reservoir.
Boating is still allowed at McPhee because there is funding for boat inspections. But access for motorized and trailered watercraft is only allowed during the season through two boat inspection stations at the McPhee and House Creek boat ramps.
When the stations are closed, newly installed locked gates will prevent lake access. In the past, boats could still launch when the inspection stations were closed.
To accommodate boaters who return to the ramps after the boat stations are locked, one-way spike strips will be installed this season to allow boaters to exit the lake after hours.
“We made that concession to prevent boaters from becoming stranded on the lake,” said McPhee engineer Ken Curtis.
McPhee managers adopted the state standard for preventing the mussel that requires trailered and motorized boats to be inspected, but allows non-motorized, hand-launched craft to enter the lake anywhere without inspection.
In general, non-motorized kayaks, canoes, rowboats, stand-up boards, and windsurfers pose less of a risk or contaminating a waterway with mussels.
However, mussels on a boat from an infected lake can be transported to another waterway.
All boats and their motors should be cleaned, drained and dried before entering a waterway and after leaving a waterway.
MVIC also owns Groundhog Reservoir, and is considering closing it to boating. A decision is expected soon.
The permanent boating ban went into effect Tuesday, said Brandon Johnson, general manager of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., which owns the reservoir.
“We can’t afford to get the mussel in there because of the damage they cause to our infrastructure,” he said. “We had to take drastic action against this threat because we’re in the irrigation business, not the recreation business.”
Mussels from infected lakes, including Lake Powell, can travel in standing water of boats and contaminate other lakes, clogging pipes, valves and canals.
“If they get in there, we can’t deliver water to our stockholders, costs will increase to mitigate them, and they will get into side rolls and pipes,” Johnson said.
The Narraguinnep ban is for all boats, motorized and non-motorized, and includes jet skis, fishing boats, row boats, kayaks and canoes. Colorado Parks and Wildlife would enforce the ban and issue tickets.
Whether paddle boards and windsurfing would be allowed is not clear. “The board decided on a boating ban,” Johnson said. “Whether those two are boats is up to the enforcement agencies.”
MVIC also owns Groundhog Reservoir and is evaluating whether it will close that lake to boating, Johnson said.
Boating could possibly continue at Narraguinnep if there were a boat inspection program, he said, but the irrigation company cannot afford it.
“Recreation is the responsibility of Colorado Parks and Wildlife,” Johnson said.
Parks and Wildlife operates local boat inspection programs, including for McPhee Reservoir, to check for the mussel and decontaminate boats.
But CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski said the agency does not have the funding to add more boat inspection programs.
“We’re scrambling for funding for the lakes where we do have inspection stations. They are costly to operate,” he said…
McPhee Reservoir is also restricting access to the lake beginning this year to prevent a mussel contamination. Boat ramps at McPhee and House Creek will be gated, and trailered boats can launch only when boat inspection stations are open.
The McPhee boating restriction does not include hand-launched, non-motorized boats such as canoes, kayaks, rafts, windsurfers and paddle boards. Non-motorized, hand-launched boats are free to launch anytime from anywhere on McPhee. However, all boat owners should make sure to clean, drain and dry all boats before and after entering any waterway to avoid invasive species contamination.