From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Rob Viehl):
Proposed Acquisition of Contractual Interest in Ruedi Reservoir Water for ISF Use on the Fryingpan River and the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River
The Colorado Water Conservation Board will be considering an offer from the Colorado River Water Conservation District, acting through its Colorado River Water Projects Enterprise (“District”) of a short-term lease of 3,500 acre-feet of water that the District holds in Ruedi Reservoir for instream flow (“ISF”) use. The proposal is to use the released water to supplement winter flows in the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir from January 1, 2021 – March 31, 2021; and from April 1 – December 31, 2021, to help meet or reduce shortfalls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s flow recommendations for the endangered fish critical habitat in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River. The Board will consider this proposal at its September 16-17, 2020 virtual meeting. The agenda for this Board meeting can be found at:
Consideration of this proposal initiates the 120-day period for Board review pursuant to Rule 6b. of the Board’s Rules Concerning the Colorado Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program (“ISF Rules”), which became effective on March 2, 2009. No formal Board action will be taken at this time.
Information concerning the ISF Rules and water acquisitions can be found here.
The following information concerning the proposed lease of water is provided pursuant to ISF
Decree: 81CW0034 (Second Filling)
Appropriation Date: 1/22/1981
Adjudication Date: 12/31/1981
Decreed Amount: 101,280 acre-feet
Bureau of Reclamation Contract: 139D6C0101
Contract Use: Municipal use in Colorado River Basin; includes “use of water by . . . piscatorial users, including delivery of water to supplement streamflow. . . .”
Contract Amount: 4,683.5 acre-feet
Amount Offered for Consideration: Up to 3,500 acre-feet.
Proposed Reach of Stream:
Fryingpan River: From the confluence with Rocky Ford Creek, adjacent to the outlet of Ruedi Reservoir, downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River, a distance of approximately 14.4 miles.
15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River: From the confluence with the headgate of the Grand Valley Irrigation Company (lat 39 06 06N long 108 20 48W) downstream to its confluence with the Gunnison River.
Purpose of the Acquisition and Proposed Season of Use:
The leased water would be used to supplement the existing 39 cfs ISF water right in the Fryingpan River to preserve the natural environment, and used at rates up to 70 cfs to meet the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Colorado Parks and Wildlife flow recommendations to improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The leased water would be used to also supplement the existing ISF water rights in the 15-Mile Reach to preserve the natural environment from July 1 – September 30, 2019, and to provide water at rates above the existing decreed ISF rates to help meet or reduce shortfalls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (“USFWS”) flow recommendations for the endangered fish critical habitat in that reach to improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree from April 1 –December 31, 2019.
Water stored in Ruedi Reservoir will be released to the Fryingpan River during the winter time period. The existing instream flow water right is decreed for 39 cfs from November 1 – April 30. The objective of the lease would be to maintain Fryingpan River flows at a rate of 70 cfs to prevent the formation of anchor ice at times when temperatures and low flows could otherwise combine to create anchor ice, which adversely impacts aquatic macroinvertebrates and trout fry.
The 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River provides critical habitat for two species of endangered fish: the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker. This reach is sensitive to water depletions because of its location downstream of several large diversions. It provides spawning habitat for these endangered fish species as well as high-quality habitat for adult fish. Due to development on the Colorado River, this reach has experienced declining flows and significant dewatering during the late summer months, and at times, there are shortages in the springtime. As a result, the USFWS has issued flow recommendations for the 15-Mile Reach since 1989 to protect instream habitat for the endangered fish.
Available information concerning the purpose of the acquisition and the degree of preservation and improvement of the natural environment, and available scientific data is available at:
In response to a warmer and dryer forecast weather pattern, Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 850 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 950 cfs on Thursday, September 3rd, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended flows in the critical habitat reach as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. This target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
Ecuador’s Los Cedros Reserve, one of Earth’s most biodiverse habitats, could be wiped out by mining. A court case could save it — and set a precedent for the planet.
Should nature have rights? That question is being put to the test right now in Ecuador.
In 2008 the South American country made history when its new constitution declared that nature had “the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” It was an unprecedented commitment, the first of its kind, to preserving biodiversity for future generations of Ecuadorians.
The constitutional change did not automatically protect nature, but it gave citizens what the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature describes as “the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. The ecosystem itself can be named as the defendant.”
The country could soon make history again when its Constitutional Court hears a case that seeks to apply these rights of nature to a protected forest, known as Bosque Protector Reserva Los Cedros, against large-scale copper and gold mining.
The threat stems from a 2017 change in government policy that allowed mining concessions on 6 million acres of lands, including at least 68% of Los Cedros — part of a hasty attempt to boost the mining sector and compensate for declining oil revenues. Experts say that policy appears to be unconstitutional, which has led to the present showdown.
“Mining in protected forests is a violation of Articles 57, 71 and 398 of the constitution: the collective rights of Indigenous peoples, the Rights of Nature, and the right of communities to prior consultation before environmental changes, respectively,” says ecologist Bitty Roy of the University of Oregon, who has conducted research at Los Cedros since 2008.
A Vital Reserve
Los Cedros is a remote, pristine, 17,000-acre cloud forest in northwest Ecuador and one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
Conservation biologist Mika Peck, of the University of Sussex, describes Los Cedros as “a biodiversity hotspot within a hotspot — and of global importance in terms of conserving our natural history.”
He adds, “the reserve and all it maintains is priceless.”
The reserve has been protected since 1988 due primarily to the work of manager Josef DeCoux and Australia’s Rainforest Information Center.
DeCoux tells me he was one of the “hippies” who moved from the United States to Ecuador in the 1980s to help “save the rainforest.”
He chose well. Not only does Los Cedros protect at least 250 species from extinction, it safeguards four watersheds. That means the court case is not just about preserving a biodiversity jewel; it’s about guaranteeing a livable environment to local people as well as protecting the forest’s own right to remain undisturbed.
A recent letter from 23 international scientists, including Roy and Peck, argued that “the value of this intact watershed is far greater than that of any possible mineral wealth that lies beneath it.”
The remoteness of the reserve was one of the things that pulled me to it a few years ago.
Inaccessible by road, the final ascent up to Los Cedros is a nerve-wracking, two-hour mule ride on a muddy track with sheer drop-offs and awe-inspiring views. Once there you’re immersed in a biological paradise. You can walk among the shaggy, epiphyte-laden trees dripping from the frequent rain showers brought by the low-creeping clouds; listen to the cacophony of some of the 358 bird species that greet the dawn; seek out the six species of cats, including pumas and endangered jaguars; get to know some of the 970 species of moths; or look for 186 species of orchids, one-third of which are endangered. They include several species of Dracula orchids, named for their blood-red petals and haunting faces.
Each day I explored the reserve’s trails — kept short to minimize disturbance to the ecosystem — its uniqueness became more evident. Nearly two dozen species of frogs, almost all endangered — including a species of rainfrog able to change its skin texture and a glass frog known for its transparent abdomen — occupy streams so clean you can drink directly from them. During my visit DeCoux told me he was particularly proud of that pristine resource.
The reserve is also home to the endangered spectacled Andean bear and three species of monkeys, also endangered.
On a morning hike with one of the guides employed by the reserve, I saw a troop of one of those species, the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey, one of the rarest primates in the world, with a population of about 250 individuals. As most of the troop moved on, one monkey hung back to grab and eat some fruit. Although we watched from 30 yards away, it soon started hooting at us and shaking a branch to scare us off.
A clear message that we’d encroached on its personal space.
The Mining Threat Looms
Yet in an encroachment of national and potentially devastating proportions, in 2017 the government put more than two-thirds of Los Cedros under a mining concession to the Canadian mining company Cornerstone Capital Resources, in conjunction with ENAMI, the state’s mining company.
More than seven million acres across Ecuador are now under concessions. Additional concessions cover major portions of Indigenous territory, which threatens not only the people’s livelihoods but their lives. The permits, the majority of which are in the highly biodiverse Andean cloud forests, were issued without consulting the affected communities.
A year ago DeCoux’s legal team succeeded in getting a provincial court to revoke Cornerstone’s mining permit because of the lack of consultation. But that hasn’t stopped the company from continuing to operate, according to Elisa Levy of the mining oversight collective OMASNE (Observatorio Minero, Ambiental y Social del Norte del Ecuador).
“They have built roads to the edge of the reserve,” she says, “and broken new trails in Los Cedros” — actions that compromise the integrity of the presently intact ecosystem.
ENAMI appealed the provincial court’s decision, and in May the Constitutional Court decided to hear the case under rights of nature, probably by the end of the year.
The latest development was “very good news indeed,” DeCoux wrote in a blog post. Without rights people perceive forests, rivers and oceans as objects to be used; but with rights they become subjects to be valued on their own terms.
The case matters not just for Los Cedros — it could set precedent for the entire country.
Two of the Constitutional Court judges, Ramiro Avila and Daniela Salazar Marin, issued a written statement on May 18 that acknowledges the biodiversity of Los Cedros and explicitly mentions that it is the home of the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey and the endangered spectacled Andean bear. They further argue that the case will allow the court to rule on the “content” of the rights of nature, and to “develop parameters to set the limits of protected forests and the scope of responsibility for the state to monitor and follow up on mining concessions.” (Translated from Spanish.)
The Call to Protect
Habitat loss, now exacerbated by climate change, is the leading cause of extinction around the world. With the high number of endemic species in Los Cedros, and their small range, allowing mining exploration to continue will undoubtedly result in extinctions. In a research paper published in 2018 in the journal Tropical Conservation Science, Roy and others argue that permanently protecting Los Cedros, the last uncut forest in western Ecuador, is necessary to ensure lower-altitude flora and fauna can migrate freely to the higher altitudes found to the north, where Los Cedros borders the enormous 450,000-acre Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.
Peck echoes that conclusion. “The move to rule in favor of Bosques Protectores such as Los Cedros is vital to ensure protection of vital natural habitats, and the species they maintain, in a world that is going to undergo major climatic shifts,” he says. “Natural habitat is key to maintaining ecosystem services that buffer these changes and allow species to migrate and survive.”
Those species remain ever-present in my mind.
The sound I most remember from Los Cedros is the eerie call of the pastures frog: a high, slow electronic bleating that reverberated back and forth over the ridge — as if to warn that all this could be lost. Reserves like Los Cedros make up one-third of the protected lands in Ecuador, so a ruling in favor of rights of nature here would be a bold move that would protect other forests from mining and ultimately allow the establishment of new conservation corridors.
If ever there was a time for bold moves that will surely make history, it is now.
Peck calls a ruling in favor of the Bosques Protectores “the only rational response in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss.”
Levy is encouraged that the case will be heard under rights of nature, but remains cautious. “We don’t want to be too optimistic,” she says. “We know what’s at stake.”
For more on Los Cedros and the threat of mining in Ecuador, watch this video from the Rainforest Action Group:
In response to a cooler weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 900 cfs on Saturday, August 29th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended flows in the critical habitat reach as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. This target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
This scheduled release change is subject to changes in river flows and weather conditions. If you have any questions, please contact Susan Behery (email@example.com or 970-385-6560), or visit Reclamation’s Navajo Dam website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/nvd.html.
The Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon has many people praying for rain. But the very thing that could douse the blaze, which has burned 32,000 acres as of Tuesday, has some experts concerned it also could create problems for downstream endangered fish.
A heavy rain could wash dirt — no longer held in place by charred vegetation — and ash from the steep canyons and gullies of the burn area into the Colorado River. Scorched soils don’t absorb water as well, increasing the magnitude of the flood. And the heavy sediment load in the runoff could suffocate fish. A similar scenario played out in 2018 when thousands of fish were killed by ash and dirt that washed into the Animas River from the 416 Fire burn area.
Downstream from the Grizzly Creek Fire, beginning in DeBeque Canyon, is critical habitat for four species of endangered fish: humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail and razorback sucker.
“Yes, we are very concerned about a fire in that kind of terrain that close to critical habitat. There’s just no question,” said Tom Chart, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “There’s a probability we could have an effect all the way down into the 15-mile reach.”
The Colorado River’s so-called 15-mile reach, near Grand Junction, is home to those four species of fish. This stretch often has less water than is recommended for these fish by Fish & Wildlife mainly because of two large irrigation diversions that pull water from the river to irrigate Grand Valley farms: DeBeque Canyon’s Grand Valley Project, which takes water from the river at a structure known as the Roller Dam, and the Grand Valley Irrigation Canal, which takes water from the river near Palisade.
Between these diversions and the confluence of the Gunnison River is a problem spot where water managers constantly work to bolster water levels through upstream reservoir releases. According to Chart, there is currently a total of about 250 cubic feet per second being released from Ruedi, Wolford and Granby reservoirs for the benefit of fish in the 15-mile reach.
With hot, dry weather, a weak monsoon season and the ongoing diversions for irrigation season, which continue into the fall, current river conditions are already stressful for the fish, Chart said. Water managers say they have seen fish using fish ladders to swim upstream and downstream of the 15-mile reach in search of deeper, cooler water.
“As far as concern about the ecological health of the 15-mile reach right now, we are very concerned about conditions there right now,” Chart said. “Native fish do move out of those dewatered stretches in search of better conditions.”
A debris flow on top of these already-challenging conditions could be devastating for fish populations.
“The potential with the Grizzly Creek Fire could be as bad as it gets if we get a rainstorm on top of a low baseflow,” Chart said. “You pray for rain, but at the same time this would be a tough time to get a flow of ash and retardant off the burned area.”
Burned area assessment begins
The U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team has done a preliminary assessment of the severity of the soil burns to determine where debris flows would most likely occur, according to Lisa Stoeffler, deputy forest supervisor for the White River National Forest.
Areas of concern include Dead Horse Creek, Cinnamon Creek and No Name Creek, among others. More than an inch of rain in an hour — or a quarter-inch in 15 minutes, as occurs in a fast-moving thunderstorm — could trigger a debris flow, the BAER team found.
But this initial assessment, Stoeffler said, is mostly focused on potential impacts to Interstate 70, and water and power infrastructure, not on impacts to the aquatic environment.
“We may look at environment later on, once we have a final footprint of the fire,” she said. “The BAER process is really looking at things that we would need to address because it would cause an emergency-type situation.”
When the Grizzly Creek Fire first broke out, the city of Glenwood Springs switched its municipal water source from Grizzly and No Name creeks, which are near the burned area, to the Roaring Fork River.
“We are concerned about the ash and debris entering the water system and the costs we are going to incur because of this,” said Hannah Klausman, public information officer for Glenwood Springs.
Solution is dilution
Since preventing the dirty runoff from reaching the river would be difficult, if not impossible, in the steep, rocky terrain, the best bet, Chart said, would be tapping into upstream reservoir water to flush sediment and ash.
In other words: The solution to pollution is dilution.
The Roaring Fork River, which flows into the Colorado at Glenwood Springs, also would help dilute the ash and sediment before it got to the 15-mile reach. Some of it would probably settle out before it got there anyway. But that would do little to help native fish populations closer to the burn area. Although not listed as endangered, other species such as flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub also could be impacted.
“We get concerned about the endangered fish the most, but it’s really the entire native fish community we need to be paying attention to,” Chart said.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District has some water in Wolford and Ruedi reservoirs that could potentially be used for a flushing flow. But it would take careful coordination between reservoir operators. And it could be a complicated juggling act to figure out how to accommodate all the different demands for that limited water supply, said River District chief engineer John Currier.
“I think we stand ready to try and figure out how to do something,” Currier said. “It will be a topic of discussion sooner rather than later.”
Managing the impacts of the burned landscape on the fish will be ongoing long after the fire is extinguished.
“I think this is going to be an issue for years to come,” Chart said. “That landscape is going to take a long time to heal.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 26 edition of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily.
From email from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Erin Light via Scott Hummer):
Right in step with the unprecedented year of 2020, the Yampa River is going on call for the second time in three years. And once again, the structures located at the bottom of the system do not have enough natural flow to meet their diversion demands.
We, the Division of Water Resources, are currently protecting reservoir water released from Elkhead Creek Reservoir for the protection of the endangered fish species. The amount of reservoir water currently being released for the Endangered Fish Recovery Program is 75 cfs. This in turn requires that there is 61 cfs at the Yampa River at Deerlodge Park gage station. The flow this morning is hovering around 50 cfs which means reservoir water is being diverted by water users upstream.
The entire Yampa River system is under administration for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that if the reservoir water was not in the system the structures at the bottom of the system would have no water and we would be instituting what one might consider a standard or more typical call that would encompass the entire Yampa River and its tributaries. Additionally, the water users on the mainstem of the Yampa River between Elkhead Creek and its confluence with the Green River should not have to bear the brunt of the entire Yampa River being short of water simply because their structure is located within the Critical Habitat Reach (the protected reach for the Endangered Fish).
Actions have already been put in place to institute the call and as of 12:00 PM today, the Yampa River and all of its tributaries are considered under administration. The Calling Priority right (or most junior water right that may divert at this time) is located at the Craig Station Power Plant with an administration number of 37149.00000 (this water right has an adjudication date 9/1/1960 and an appropriation date of 9/17/1951). This Calling Priority may change as the call progresses. In order to follow the call you may visit the following website: https://dwr.state.co.us/Tools/AdministrativeCalls/Active?submitButton=Submit&SelectedWaterDivisionId=6
If you have a water right junior to the above listed priority and you are diverting water, please cease your diversions unless your diversion can operate under a decreed augmentation plan or substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer. Also, if you are the owner of a pond, you are required to bypass all out of priority inflows.
If you have any questions or concerns please feel free to contact me or your water commissioner.
Erin Light, P.E.
Division Engineer, Water Division 6
New emails detail drained ponds, salvaged fish and a tense relationship with the Department of Homeland Security.
During the fall of 2019, the Department of Homeland Security began pumping large amounts of water from a southern Arizona aquifer to mix concrete for the Trump administration’s border wall. The aquifer is an essential water source for the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, so when the pumping escalated, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials watched helplessly as the water levels at several ponds — the main habitat for the endangered fish at this Sonoran Desert refuge — dropped “precipitously.”
In what Bill Radke, who has managed the refuge for two decades, called “life support” actions, staff was forced to shut off water to three of the ponds to minimize broader damage. As a result, biologists had to salvage endangered fish from the emptying ponds. It was “like cutting off individual fingers in an attempt to save the hand,” Radke wrote in an email to staff.
Since its creation in 1982 the 2,300-acre refuge’s sole mission has been to protect the rare species of the Río Yaqui, including endangered fishes like the Yaqui chub and Yaqui topminnow, and other species, such as the tiny San Bernardino springsnail and the endangered Huachuca water umbel, a plant that resembles clumps of tubular grass. Through a series of artesian wells connected to an aquifer, the refuge has kept ponds filled in this fragile valley for nearly 40 years.
Under normal circumstances, a significant construction project like a border wall would be required to go through an extensive environmental review process as dictated by the National Environmental Policy Act. The Department of Homeland Security says it operates under the spirit of NEPA and solicits public comment. But with environmental laws — including NEPA, the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act — waived for the border wall, the refuge lacks any legal protection, either for itself or the endangered species in its care. So wildlife officials have tried to work with the department, sending hydrological studies and providing recommendations about how to reduce water use near the refuge — information that the Department Homeland Security has repeatedly claimed it takes into consideration.
But as emails recently obtained by High Country News through a Freedom of Information Act Request show, Homeland Security consistently ignored the expertise of Radke and his team. The emails, which were sent from August 2019 to January 2020, chronicle months of upheaval at the refuge and dysfunctional communication between Fish and Wildlife and Homeland Security. During crucial moments, Homeland Security kept wildlife agency staff in the dark as land managers and hydrologists worked to anticipate damages.
“What we are seeing in these FOIA documents confirms a pattern with CBP and DHS that goes back 15 years,” said Randy Serraglio, Southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Matthew Dyman, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman, stated that “DHS and CBP have and continue to coordinate weekly, and more frequently on an as needed basis, to answer questions concerning new border wall construction projects and to address environmental concerns from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” Nevertheless, documents confirm that border wall construction caused groundwater levels to plummet and harmed endangered fish at the refuge.
IN OCTOBER 2019, RADKE wrote to Fish and Wildlife staff that “the threat of groundwater depletion” at the San Bernardino Refuge had gone from “concerning” to a “dire emergency.” Subsequent emails detail the refuge’s difficulty in obtaining water usage estimates from DHS contractors for an accurate risk assessment. Fish and Wildlife officials sent the department a hydrology analysis to raise an alarm and requested a five-mile buffer around the refuge for well drilling.
According to the emails, though, the Department of Homeland Security did little in response. “I was disappointed today to see first hand that DHS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not abide by the (most recent) October 16, 2019, Fish and Wildlife Service request to minimize water withdrawal from the aquifer that supports all wetlands on San Bernardino NWR,” Radke wrote. “Instead contractors made plans to drill even closer to the refuge, drilling their second new well 480 feet east of (the refuge).”
CBP spokesman Dyman maintains that construction contractors honored the buffer request. But emails show otherwise: At least one well was drilled less than 500 feet from the refuge boundary; it was abandoned only after it didn’t produce water. And Fish and Wildlife soon learned that even more well locations were being considered near the refuge, according to emails. Homeland Security also continued to pump large volumes of water from a private landowner whose well is just 1.5 miles from the refuge.
Around the same time, pond levels in the refuge dropped. In a series of emails in late November, Radke grew increasingly frustrated. On Nov. 22, he wrote to agency employees, “Our refuge water monitoring is already showing harm to our aquifer during months when the refuge has always demonstrated an increase in groundwater levels. We have ponds dropping precipitously (as much as a foot already) that have never gone low during the winter months — not ever.” Fish and Wildlife had warned Homeland Security that this would happen, but no apparent action was ever taken. “I do not know what reaction to expect from DHS or (the Army Corps of Engineers) to our continuing requests for them to minimize or mitigate impacts to the refuge,” Radke wrote, “but so far our requests have been consistently met with indifference.”
ON DEC. 12, RADKE CALLEDthe water withdrawals for the border wall “the current greatest threat to endangered species in the southwest region.” By that point, refuge staff had begun to track the impact themselves; there was little else they could do. The monitoring became “an overwhelming priority that diminishes our ability to adequately meet other important objectives, obligations and due dates,” Radke wrote.
By January, the impact on the ponds was obvious. According to a Fish and Wildlife memo, swings in water pressure and depth were clearly documented. The report noted that these changes “began to occur as water was used off refuge for border wall construction.” Earlier emails speculated that the situation would only grow more dire at the refuge during the sweltering summer months, when evaporation both from the ponds and the water being pumped would use even more of the precious desert resource.
In an email, Dyman told High Country News that Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “are working closely with the construction contractor on estimated water usage requirements for barrier construction in Arizona as well as working with San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge to mitigate the impacts of groundwater use for the project.” Beth Ullenberg, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, confirmed that the refuge is working with Homeland Security. The agency “has identified that larger capacity pumps are now needed in order to maintain pond levels and appropriate pond outflows,” Ullenberg wrote. She said the contractor is purchasing and will install the new pumps at the refuge.
Those pumps came too late for at least three ponds and according to a document obtained by Defenders of Wildlife, as recently as May water pumping near the refuge was still having a direct and detrimental impact to the refuge. Environmental groups say a pattern of secrecy, lack of communication and failure to coordinate with land managers at the border continue to endanger other biodiverse regions, such as Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where they intersect with border wall construction.
“(The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol) have consistently ignored the input of land managers and landowners and other stakeholders along the border with regard to these construction projects,” Serraglio said, “and it has resulted in serious damage time and time again.”
Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a major victory for conservation groups, a federal judge ruled that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act covers unintentional but avoidable avian deaths.
No law degree is required to get the gist of the ruling U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni handed down on Tuesday. Sure, the decision—the latest blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken environmental laws—is marbled with the typical Latin and legalese. But beginning with its opening nod to the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Caproni’s ruling in the Southern District of New York makes it plain that the Interior Department’s interpretation of the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) isn’t merely flawed—it’s flat-out wrong.
The decision strikes down a 2017 legal opinion issued by Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s top lawyer, which claimed the MBTA did not prohibit “incidental take,” a term for the unintentional but foreseeable and avoidable injury or killing of birds, often through industrial activity. For decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has used the threat of potential prosecution under the MBTA to convince companies to take steps to prevent killing birds, such as covering oil waste pits or marking power lines to make them more visible to birds in flight.
Under Jorjani’s opinion, even mass killings of birds—such as the 2010 BP oil spill, which killed an estimated 1 million birds and resulted in a $100 million fine against the company under the MBTA—would not be punishable if killing birds wasn’t the intention. Guided by that interpretation, the FWS has opted not to investigate cases of incidental take, and even counseled companies and local governments that they need not take steps to protect birds.
Caproni eviscerated that reading of the law. “It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime,” she wrote. “That has been the letter of the law for the past century. But if the Department of the Interior has its way, many mockingbirds and other migratory birds that delight people and support ecosystems throughout the country will be killed without legal consequence.”
he ruling is a major win for six environmental groups and eight states whose three consolidated complaints argued that the law clearly makes it illegal to kill, hunt, capture, or attempt to capture a bird or egg without a permit “by any means or in any manner.” Caproni agreed, ruling that Interior’s position was “simply an unpersuasive interpretation of the MBTA’s unambiguous prohibition on killing protected birds.” The judge also rebuked Jorjani for issuing an opinion without tapping the expertise of federal wildlife officials. “There is no evidence of input from the agency actually tasked with implementing the statute: FWS,” she wrote.
Conservationists were thrilled at the judgment’s forceful endorsement of their position. “The ruling is completely unambiguous on every count. Every rationale the government gave to try to uphold this rollback of the MBTA, the judge shot them all down,” says Erik Schneider, policy manager for the National Audubon Society, which was among the plaintiffs. “The experts had no bearing on [Jorjani’s opinion]. It was a political decision made without their input.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, another plaintiff, said in a statement that the ruling “recognizes the critical importance of protecting our precious wildlife and upholding the rule of law. We hope the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service learn their lesson and renew their commitment to acting in the best interest of the public.”
People on both sides of the case expect the administration to appeal. “Three circuit courts have already weighed in supporting the opinion underlining the MBTA rule,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance—an association of oil and gas companies that lobbied for ending enforcement of incidental take—in an email. “One district court ruling from New York will not be the final word.”
Sgamma’s reference was to other MBTA cases prior to Jorjani’s opinion. Interior cited those earlier rulings as evidence that courts hadn’t settled whether the law covers incidental take and that prosecuting accidental bird deaths was therefore legally dubious. But Caproni found that line of reasoning unconvincing. “Interior’s argument vastly overstates circuit disagreement and blurs the actual boundaries that have been drawn,” she wrote. “Tensions between the circuits certainly exist, but they are not of the magnitude or kind Interior presents.”
Caproni’s decision is a significant blow to Interior’s effort to enshrine Jorjani’s opinion in a formal rule, which would make the allowance of incidental take more difficult for a later administration to reverse. Part of the justification for such a reversal could come from the department’s recent draft environmental impact statement on the proposed rule, which says it is likely to push some bird species onto the endangered species list.
An Interior spokesperson declined to say if the department would continue work to finalize that rule despite the court decision, instead offering an emailed statement: “Today’s opinion undermines a common sense interpretation of the law and runs contrary to recent efforts, shared across the political spectrum, to de-criminalize unintentional conduct.”
Interior also declined to say how the ruling would affect day-to-day enforcement of the MBTA by the FWS. Gary Mowad, who spent 25 years with the FWS and was deputy chief of enforcement, says the agency should return to investigating industrial threats to birds and engaging companies to reduce those threats. “I hope that the Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service take the special agents off the leash and let them do their jobs,” he says. “What I fear is that the service always has the ability to establish enforcement priorities, and they may still make this type of mortality a low enforcement priority.”
To buttress Tuesday’s victory, conservationists want Congress to step in and spell out even more clearly that the MBTA does not apply only to killing birds on purpose. The Migratory Bird Protection Act, which has passed a House committee but hasn’t yet received a vote in the full chamber or a companion bill in the Senate, would affirm that the MBTA prohibits incidental take. It also would set up a permitting program whereby companies would be protected from legal action as long as they adopt industry best practices to limit harm to birds. “Congressional action could potentially build on this victory,” Schneider says, “and help provide even greater stability going forward.”
Swim class on the San Juan River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife
The sandhill cranes are back in the San Luis Valley on their spring migration. Photo credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife
Sandhill cranes. Photo: Scott Helfrich/Audubon Photography Awards
In response to decreasing flows and a dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 900 cfs on Wednesday, August 12th, starting at 5:00 PM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
In response to decreasing flows and a dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Tuesday, August 11th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
A multi-agency effort to restore the federally threatened greenback cutthroat trout into its native river basin took a giant hike upwards last week when an army of Colorado Trout Unlimited volunteers led by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service staff stocked the Colorado state fish into a new body of water.
Cache la Poudre tributaries cutthroat stocking event August 2020. Photo credit: Jason Clay via Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Cache la Poudre tributaries cutthroat stocking event August 2020. Photo credit: Jason Clay via Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Cache la Poudre tributaries cutthroat stocking event August 2020. Photo credit: Jason Clay via Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Around 10 staffers and 40 volunteers from Colorado Trout Unlimited each hiked between 12-15 greenback cutthroat trout in backpacks into a Poudre River tributary stream. This introduction marks just the fifth body of water in the state the greenbacks now can call home, with four of those five within the South Platte River basin that the greenbacks are native to.
“Today is one of those exciting instances of getting a new population established,” said Kyle Battige, Aquatic Biologist with CPW. “We are trying to replicate and perpetuate this resource across the landscape, by getting greenbacks into more water bodies within the South Platte River basin.”
A total of 711 greenbacks were stocked on Tuesday, July 28. They came from the Mt. Shavano Hatchery out of Salida. It took the hatchery one year to take the fertilized eggs, hatch and raise the fish to five inches in length, primed for release into the wild.
“Colorado Trout Unlimited is a proud partner in the campaign to protect and restore our native trout,” said Dan Omasta, Grassroots Coordinator for Colorado Trout Unlimited. “This stocking project is another great example of how anglers and local communities can work together to save a threatened species. We had over 40 volunteers that traveled from as far as Eagle, Colo., and Wyoming to carry fish over nine miles into the backcountry on a rainy afternoon. The passion and dedication of our community is what drives an optimistic future for the greenback cutthroat trout.”
U.S. Forest Service personnel located the fishless stream in the Poudre River basin a couple years ago and the agencies did their due diligence to make Tuesday’s stocking become a reality. Aquatic biologists conducted stream sampling with backpack electrofishing units and took eDNA samples to confirm it was indeed a fishless location. Habitat suitability work also took place to ensure the fish would survive once stocked. Everything checked out and the greenbacks were stocked into a fifth body of water in Colorado.
“We’re excited and proud to be partnering with CPW on this important effort reintroducing greenback cutthroat trout and restoring part of Colorado’s natural heritage,” said Christopher Carrol, Fisheries Biologist and Watershed Crew Lead with the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland. “We especially want to thank Colorado Trout Unlimited and Rocky Mountain Flycasters Chapter of Trout Unlimited for organizing so many passionate volunteers and helping collect data that informed our decision for making the reintroduction. Shared stewardship and working together pays dividends for native species.
An important characteristic when looking to identify a reintroduction site is that the stream must be fishless. It must also have protection from invasion of non-native trout that will outcompete and overrun the greenbacks.
“This location is protected by a series of natural waterfall barriers, upwards of 20-feet, that ensures the reach we stocked will not be invaded by non-native fish downstream,” Battige said.
The greenbacks have previously been stocked into Herman Gulch, Dry Gulch, and Zimmerman Lake – all within the South Platte River drainage. These rare fish, twice believed to be extinct, are descendants of the last wild population of native greenback cutthroat trout found in Bear Creek outside of Colorado Springs in 2012. Bear Creek is the fifth body of water in Colorado where the fish currently reside.
“This project could not have been completed without the hard work and dedication of today’s volunteers. The hikes that they did range from four miles roundtrip up to nine miles and covered 1,200 to 2,400 vertical feet of elevation, so it was a pretty substantial undertaking,” Battige said.
The fish were loaded onto the hatchery truck at 3:30 a.m. and driven roughly 240 miles to the trailhead where they got loaded into bags with 1-2 gallons of water and pumped full of oxygen. The fish were put in ice water before leaving the hatchery, so they can handle the conditions better during their long journey.
“Lowering the temperature helps the fish travel well, ensures that their metabolism slows down and decreases the overall stress on the fish,” Battige said.
The water temperature in the stream was 51 degrees, so before getting stocked the volunteers tempered their fish, meaning they took time to slowly acclimate the fish to the temperature in the creek over a 10-15 minute time period.
Crews will stock additional greenbacks into the same location each summer for the next two years as they look to establish the population. They will follow up with surveys to see how the fish are doing and aquatic biologists will look for signs of natural reproduction and new greenbacks hatching in the stream in 3-4 years.
In response to decreasing flows and a hot and dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs on Friday, August 7th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust, et al. (Mark Harris, Mark Harris, Donald Anderson, and Scott McCaulou):
On Saturday, August 1, Colorado Water Trust, Grand Valley Water Users Association, and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District will initiate their implementation of an agreement that will deliver 877 acre-feet of water to the Grand Valley Power Plant and the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River above its confluence with the Gunnison River near Grand Junction, Colorado this summer. Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District identified available capacity in their water delivery system for Colorado Water Trust to deliver water decreed for power generation through the Grand Valley Power Plant, from where it subsequently returns to the 15-Mile Reach. This delivery will mark the second execution of an innovative agreement that Colorado Water Trust, Grand Valley Water Users Association, and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District entered last year with assistance from the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program and the Bureau of Reclamation.
The agreement furthers common goals of streamflow restoration for the 15-Mile Reach and takes steps toward unlocking a $425,000 grant from Walton Family Foundation to renovate the aging Grand Valley Power Plant. Thanks to donor support, Colorado Water Trust has purchased stored water from the Colorado River District. That water will be released from Ruedi Reservoir to the Colorado River for use in the power plant and to increase 15-Mile Reach flows to support four species of endangered fish including the Colorado Pikeminnow, Humpback Chub, Bonytail, and Razorback Sucker.
“We are so grateful to Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District for coordinating with us to boost flows in the 15-Mile Reach. Seeing the project work for a second year in a row proves the lasting success of our partnerships, and it’s particularly important to the fish this year, with flows as low as they are.” says Kate Ryan, Senior Staff Attorney for Colorado Water Trust.
This is the second time in the past two summers that Colorado Water Trust purchased water stored in Ruedi Reservoir for release to the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River to help maintain healthy streamflow and water temperatures. Purchases since 2019 will result in delivering over 1200 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River. Colorado Water Trust works closely with Grand Valley Water Users Association and Orchard Mesa Irrigation District to identify when there is available capacity in the power plant. Colorado Water Trust also works closely with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program to determine when the 15-Mile Reach needs supplemental water most to support the fish. When these two conditions overlap, Colorado Water Trust releases the water purchased out of storage for delivery to the power plant and then the 15-Mile Reach.
“Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association appreciate the Colorado Water Trust’s facilitation of this agreement–it benefits our two organizations at the Grand Valley Power Plant, and the many other water users who support flows through the 15-Mile Reach. We believe these kinds of collaborative efforts to be of great value to the people of Colorado, the Colorado River, and the fish,” says Mark Harris, General Manager of Grand valley Water Users Association.
“Maintaining adequate flows for endangered fish through the 15-Mile Reach is possible only because of the extraordinary cooperation our Recovery Program enjoys from multiple partners and stakeholders. We are delighted to add the Colorado Water Trust to that mix of cooperators. This year, in light of unusually low flow conditions in the Colorado River, the additional water made available through this leasing arrangement is especially welcome,” says Donald Anderson, Hydrologist and Instream Flow Coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy also helps to inform Colorado Water Trust of conditions on the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork Rivers to so that releases will complement flows on the stream sections between Ruedi Reservoir and the Colorado River. This year, the water released from Ruedi Reservoir will serve a few purposes before it supports the health of endangered, native fish in the Colorado River in the 15-Mile Reach. The water will bring flows in the Fryingpan River closer to their average, and will cool water temperatures on the Roaring Fork River. Finally, on the Colorado River, the water will generate hydropower, helping to produce clean energy.
“Flowing rivers are an economic engine in Colorado, providing immense value to irrigators, drinking water providers, and recreation across the state,” says Todd Reeve, CEO of Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Director of Business for Water Stewardship. “It is for this reason that we are seeing more and more corporate funders step forward to invest in innovative projects like this one that help keep the rivers in Colorado flowing.”
Essential to the project’s success are dedicated donors: Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Coca Cola, Colorado Water Trust donors, and Daniel K. Thorne Foundation. Without these generous donations and the collaborative work of local and state agencies, water releases to support the health of the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River would not be possible.
ABOUT COLORADO WATER TRUST: Colorado Water Trust is a statewide nonprofit organization that works collaboratively with partners all across Colorado on restoring flow to Colorado’s rivers in need using solutions that benefit both the people we work with and our rivers. Since 2001, we’ve restored 12 billion gallons of water to rivers and streams across the state.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) received a water court decree for an instream flow water right on Himes Creek, located in San Juan National Forest, to protect a rare population of Colorado River cutthroat trout. This lineage of trout is native to the San Juan River Basin and was previously thought to be extinct.
“This instream flow water right on Himes Creek is one of the most significant that the Colorado Water Conservation Board has appropriated in the program’s history,” said CWCB Stream and Lake Protection Section Chief Linda Bassi. “CWCB staff, along with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service, consulted with leading researchers and scientists for the past two years to develop a strategy to best protect this extremely rare and at-risk species.”
When this instream flow recommendation was initially brought to CWCB in 2017, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) was interested in protecting flows on Himes Creek to support a genetically pure population of Colorado River cutthroat trout. During data collection, genetic testing confirmed that the fish in Himes Creek have the same genetic markers as the San Juan lineage once thought to be extinct. Researchers estimate that the total number of San Juan lineage trout in all known populations is estimated to be as few as 1,000.
The CWCB approved the Himes Creek instream flow recommendation in March 2019, and the water court issued a decree for the Himes Creek instream flow water right on July 27, 2020.
We all may be missing visits to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic this summer, but a conservation easement finalized last week ensures that the 92-year-old research site will remain in perpetuity beyond just one summer season.
The RMBL site itself has been relatively quiet this summer with its usual camps, tours, cafeteria, visitor center/general store and coffee house closed to the public to protect researchers and staff from the risks of coronavirus.
But a smaller number of field scientists are conducting their own business as usual there and RMBL announced on Thursday, July 16, that its 270-acre “living laboratory” has been permanently protected under a conservation easement with Colorado Open Lands for the entire town of Gothic.
The contract will create requirements for RMBL to uphold its mission for research and science, and will in turn protect the area from development beyond those purposes…
The conservation easement prevents subdivision of and development on the land and preserves the site for education and recreation into perpetuity…
This means, as RMBL stated in a press release, “that the hundreds of scientists and students that RMBL normally hosts each year have guaranteed access to conduct field research in a large, intact outdoor environment and that tens of thousands of visitors will have unique opportunities to explore environmental science in a beautiful and informal setting.”
As RMBL executive director Dr. Ian Billick phrased it, “The community can know that the Gothic Townsite is dedicated to research and education in perpetuity.”
All of the buildings must have a primary purpose of research and education. There are several buildings outside the building envelope, which Billick explains are in an avalanche zone and will eventually be replaced by structures inside the building envelope…
In 1997, Gunnison County voters approved a 1 percent sales tax to fund the protection of open space, agriculture, wildlife habitat, wetlands and public parks and trails. With these funds, the Gunnison Valley Land Protection Fund provided a transaction costs grant to support this project. The cost was $65,000, according to Billick.
Tony Caligiuri, president of Colorado Open Lands added, “This is a unique opportunity for a land trust to conserve an entire town, and knowing that the space will be used in perpetuity to advance critical research makes it even more meaningful.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun asking for water releases from high-country reservoirs to boost water flows in the Colorado River upstream of the Gunnison River confluence and aid endangered fish, while being careful not to exhaust available water that may be needed for the species later in the year.
The agency is seeing what U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hydrologist Don Anderson on Wednesday said are “quickly deteriorating flow conditions” on what’s called the 15-Mile Reach of the river between the Gunnison confluence and where Grand Valley irrigation diversions occur upstream.
Speaking in a conference call with upstream reservoir operators, local irrigation officials and others who work to cooperatively manage Colorado River flow levels, he said flows in the stretch Wednesday were around 450 cubic feet per second. The longterm median flow at Palisade below where Grand Valley diversions occur is 1,780 cfs for July 23, according to U.S. Geological Survey streamflow data.
Anderson told call participants that according to a report from Fish and Wildlife Service colleague Dale Ryden, fish conditions in the 15-mile stretch “are getting pretty grim.”
There, when water is low the fish are more prone to predation, exposure to more sun especially in clearer-water conditions, and even impacts from recreational river use, Anderson said. The latter is on the upswing on that river stretch as people are restless due to the pandemic and looking to get outdoors.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and partners make use of water leases and contracts, coordinated releases from upstream reservoirs and other means to enhance flows in the river stretch.
Anderson has asked for releases totaling 150 cubic feet per second from three upstream reservoirs to boost flow levels in the stretch. While he indicated a desire to further increase flows, he’s balancing that against a desire to not too quickly go through what he referred to as firm sources of water to hit an ideal flow target, in case some of that water is needed later in the year…
Anderson said some endangered fish, such as young Colorado pikeminnow, are reportedly responding to the current conditions by moving to the lower Gunnison River, which currently has more favorable flows and turbid conditions that benefit them…
One bright spot is the moister weather that is arriving in Colorado and could boost river flows. Treste Huse, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said during Wednesday’s call that a more active seasonal monsoon pattern is setting up that will bring a steady increase in moisture to the region over the next several days. While the most rain is expected in southwest and south-central Colorado, she said a total of maybe 1.5 to 3 inches of rain is possible in north-central Colorado. She said the 30-day outlook now calls for an equal chance of above- or below-average precipitation…
Another development that will boost the river’s flows is the expected restoration of operations at Xcel Energy’s Shoshone hydroelectric power plant in Glenwood Canyon by the end of this week. That plant has a senior 1,250-cfs water right but was damaged by river ice this spring. Flows just above the plant have fallen below that point but will be boosted once the plant exercises its right to call for more water.
Endangered fish potentially could benefit later this year from what’s called a historic users pool of water in Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County. While the pool was created for irrigators, municipal and other water users, some years surplus water from that pool can be used to boost fish flows.
he fish also stand to gain this year from the efforts of the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust. Last year it reached a five-year agreement with the Grand Valley Waters Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, which operate the Grand Valley Power Plant hydroelectric facility near Palisade. The deal calls for the Colorado Water Trust to secure water from upstream sources to deliver to the plant at critical times of year, boosting the plant’s operational capacity when water supply is otherwise limited while also putting more water in the 15-mile river stretch.
In response to decreasing flows in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 850 cfs on Thursday, July 16th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. This release is calculated to be that necessary to maintain the minimum target baseflow.
The U.S. Forest Service has been inundated with more than 500 online comments — the vast majority in opposition — to a geophysical study and drilling by the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs to determine the feasibility of a second reservoir in the Homestake Creek drainage, including objections from nearby towns and a local state senator.
The geophysical study and the drilling are the next step in the lengthy process of developing a reservoir on lower Homestake Creek.
The mayors of Red Cliff and Minturn signed and submitted separate but identical letters questioning the legality of drilling 10 boreholes on Forest Service land near the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which is six miles southwest of Red Cliff, to see whether soil and bedrock can support a dam for what would be known as Whitney Reservoir. Avon’s attorney has asked for a public comment extension to Aug. 4 so that it can hold a hearing.
“A Whitney Reservoir would irreparably change and harm our community,” Minturn Mayor John Widerman and Red Cliff Mayor Duke Gerber wrote in their letters, submitted June 30. “We are paying close attention to these proposals, other moves by Homestake Partners and the public controversy. This categorical exclusion is rushed, harmful and unlawful.”
Operating together as Homestake Partners, the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs own water rights dating to the 1950s that, under the 1998 Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), give them the basis to pursue developing 20,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Western Slope. They’ve been studying four potential dam sites in the Homestake Valley several miles below the cities’ existing Homestake Reservoir, which holds 43,600 acre-feet of water.
The smallest configuration of Whitney Reservoir, if deemed feasible and ultimately approved, would be 6,850 acre-feet, and the largest would be up to 20,000 acre-feet. The reservoir, on lower Homestake Creek, would pump water up to Homestake Reservoir, about five miles upstream, then through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville.
In 2018, Homestake Partners paid $4.1 million for 150 acres of private land, which it leases back to the former owner for a nominal fee. That land, which would be inundated to accommodate a large portion of Whitney Reservoir’s surface area, is braided with streams and waterfalls and is lush with fens and other wetlands. It’s also home to a cabin once used as an officers quarters for the famed 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army. The site is not far from Camp Hale, between Red Cliff and Leadville, where soldiers trained for mountain warfare during World War II.
Eagle River MOU
The Eagle River MOU is an agreement between Aurora and Colorado Springs and a bevy of Western Slope water interests. The Colorado River Water Conservation District, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and Vail Resorts are collectively defined in the MOU as the Reservoir Company. None of those entities submitted comments to the Forest Service on the drilling proposal. And according to Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the ERWSD and UERWA, none are helping to pay for the feasibility study and none are involved in the reservoir project, except to the degree that it is tied to the MOU.
The MOU provides for 20,000 acre-feet of average annual yield for the cities. “Yield” refers to a reliable supply of water. In some cases, yield equates to storage in a reservoir, but yield can also be created by other methods, such as pumping water uphill from a smaller, refilled reservoir, which is an option being studied by the cities on lower Homestake Creek. The MOU also provides for 10,000 acre-feet of “firm dry year yield” for the Western Slope entities in the Reservoir Company, and firm dry year yield means a reliable supply even in a very dry year. Those entities have developed about 2,000 acre-feet of that allocated firm yield in Eagle Park Reservoir, and it’s not yet clear whether the Whitney Reservoir project would help them realize any additional yield.
“The short answer is we support (Homestake Partners’) right to pursue an application for their yield,” Johnson said. “We trust the permitting process to bring all impacts and benefits to light for the community to consider and weigh in total.” .
Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the River District, declined to comment on the investigatory test work, saying only, “Yes, we have signed the MOU. That said, … we are not participating in the Whitney Creek effort.”
Besides Homestake Partners and the Reservoir Company, the MOU was signed by the Climax Molybdenum Company. The two private companies signed onto the MOU — Vail Resorts and Freeport-McMoRan (Climax) — also declined to comment on either the drilling study or Whitney Reservoir.
Under the MOU, various parties can pursue projects on their own, and the other parties are bound to support those efforts, but only to the degree that a proposed project meets the objectives of the MOU, including whether a project “minimizes environmental impacts.”
Many of the 520 online comments as of the June 30 deadline objected to testing for the possibility of a dam, expressing concern for the complex wetlands in the area, but most of the comments also strongly condemn the overall project: a potential future Whitney Reservoir.
The cities are trying to keep the focus on the test drilling.
“This is simply a fatal-flaw reservoir siting study that includes subsurface exploration, and it’s basically just to evaluate feasibility of a dam construction on lower Homestake Creek,” said Maria Pastore, Colorado Springs Utilities’ senior project manager for water resource planning. “It’s simple exploratory work to determine if we can even go ahead with permitting and design.”
Marcia Gilles, acting ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross District, said her office will continue accepting comments at any time during the ongoing analysis of the geophysical study despite the June 30 deadline. She added that if the Forest Service concludes there are no “extraordinary circumstances,” she can render a decision using what is known as a categorical exclusion and then issue a special-use permit as soon as August. A categorical exclusion requires less environmental scrutiny than other forms of analysis.
“At this time, the proposed action appears to be categorically excluded from requiring further analysis and documentation in an environmental assessment (EA) or environmental impact statement (EIS),” Gilles said. “Should the environmental analysis find extraordinary circumstances, the Forest Service would proceed to analyzing the project in an EA or EIS.”
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, disagrees. She wrote to the Forest Service on June 30: “I … strongly urge you not to categorically exclude this project from (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis. I cannot express how sternly the citizens of my district oppose water diversion projects to Front Range communities.” Her district encompasses seven Western Slope counties, including Eagle, where the dam would be located.
Donovan called the proposed investigation — which would require temporary roads, heavy drilling equipment, continuous high-decibel noise, driving through Homestake Creek and use of its water in the drilling process — an affront to the “Keep It Public” movement, which advocates for effective federal management on public lands.
If approved by the Forest Service for a special-use permit, Homestake Partners would send in crews on foot to collect seismic and other geophysical data later this summer or fall. Crews with heavy equipment would then drill 10 boreholes up to 150 feet deep in three possible dam locations on Forest Service land. The drilling would take place on Forest Service land but not in a wilderness area.
Crews would use a standard pickup truck, a heavy-duty pickup pulling a flatbed trailer, and a semi-truck and trailer that would remain on designated roads and parking areas, with some lane closures of Homestake Road and dispersed campsites possible.
For off-road boring operations, crews would use a rubber-tracked drill rig, a utility vehicle pulling a small trailer, and a track-mounted skid steer. The drill rigs are up to 8 feet wide, 22 feet long and 8 feet high, and can extend up to 30 feet high during drilling, possibly requiring tree removal in some areas. The rigs would also have to cross Homestake Creek and some wetland areas, although crews would use temporary ramps or wood mats to mitigate impacts.
According to a technical report filed by Homestake Partners, the subsurface work is expected to take up to five days per drilling location, or at least 50 days of daytime work only. However, continuous daytime noise from the drilling could approach 100 decibels, which is equivalent to either an outboard motor, garbage truck, jackhammer or jet flyover at 1,000 feet. If work is not done by winter, crews have up to a year to complete the project and could return in 2021.
The drilling process would use several thousand gallons of Homestake Creek water per day that engineers say “would have negligible impacts on streamflow or aquatic habitat. Water pumped from Homestake Creek during drilling would amount to less than 0.01 (cubic feet per second), a small fraction of average flows,” according to a technical report included with application materials.
Homestake Partners would avoid wetlands as much as possible during drilling, but “where temporary wetland or waters disturbance is unavoidable, applicable 404 permitting would be secured from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.” Crossing of Homestake Creek would occur in late summer or fall when streamflows are low, and no drilling would occur in wetlands.
While no permanent roads would be built for the drilling, temporary access routes would be necessary and reclaimed as much as possible.
“Access routes would be selected to reduce surface disturbance and vegetation removal, and to avoid identified or potential unexploded ordnances (UXOs) discovered during field surveys,” according to the technical report. The 10th Mountain Division used the area for winter warfare training during WWII.
Another concern cited in the report is the potential impact to Canada lynx. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, “only Canada lynx has potential habitat in the vicinity of the project area,” according to the report. “No impacts on lynx are anticipated from the proposed work because much of the activity would occur near Homestake Road, a well-traveled recreation access road. Work would be conducted over a short period (approximately five to six weeks) and impacts on potential habitat would be negligible.”
The vast majority of comments from a variety of environmental groups and concerned citizens focused on potential impacts to the area’s renowned wetlands and peat-forming fens, which the project proponents say they will avoid as much as possible. So far, Gilles said she is not aware of any legal challenges to the project.
“Geophysical exploration has an obvious significant nexus and direct relation to additional future actions, i.e., dam construction, which may in time massively impact the Eagle River watershed — regardless of whether the future actions are yet ripe for decisions,” ERWC officials wrote.
Even if the test drilling returns favorable results for a reservoir project, there is another obstacle that Homestake Partners will have to clear if they want to move forward with two iterations of the project: a wilderness-boundary change, which would require an act of Congress and the president’s signature.
The Whitney Reservoir alternatives range from 6,850 to 20,000 acre-feet and in some configurations would require federal legislation, which the cities are working to draft, requesting a boundary adjustment for the nearby Holy Cross Wilderness Area. The largest Whitney proposal would require an 80-acre adjustment, while an alternative location, lower down Homestake Creek, would require a 497-acre adjustment.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams discounts the notion that his agency should reject outright the test-drilling application, as some environmental groups have suggested, until the wilderness-boundary issue is determined. Although some local and state lawmakers have said they are against shifting a wilderness boundary, Fitzwilliams said it’s still too soon for him to take up the wilderness issue.
“These are test holes,” Fitzwilliams said of the drilling, which is intended to see whether the substrata are solid enough for a dam and reservoir. “Going to get a (wilderness) boundary change is not a small deal for them, so why would you do it if you find fatal flaws? That’s a red herring.
“I understand it; nobody wants to see a dam in the Homestake drainage. I get that. But it just seems prudent to do (the drilling) to see if there’s any reason to go further.”
Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story was published online by Vail Daily on July 9, 2020 and in its print edition on July 10. The early online version of the story was edited to clarify aspects of the Eagle River MOU.
Charismatic is hardly the best word to describe the humpback chub, a fish with a frowny eel face jammed onto a sportfish body in a way that suggests evolution has a sense of humor. Nor did tastiness build a fan base for this “trash fish” across its natural habitat throughout the Colorado River Basin. But, in 1973, the humpback chub became famous by winning federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Researchers in the Grand Canyon now spend weeks at a time, several times a year, monitoring humpback chub, which has become central to an ecosystem science program with implications for millions of westerners who rely on Colorado River water…
…the humpback chub’s experience is surprisingly meaningful now, as its river habitat deep in the iconic, redrock canyon becomes the subject of new scrutiny. New negotiations about the Colorado’s future begin later this year in a world that has fundamentally changed since foundational water agreements were drawn up, back when the river was flush and the entire basin was treated like a giant network of irrigation ditches.
Now, nearly a century after the original Colorado River Compact was forged, river stakeholders also find themselves in alien terrain as they try to reconcile an old management scheme with new realities, such as tribal rights, environmental protection and, especially, climate change.
‘The Pie is Getting Smaller.’
About 40 million people in seven states and Mexico rely on the Colorado for irrigation, drinking and even hydropower. Most of the water is used in agriculture to irrigate more than 5.5 million acres.
Meanwhile, the Colorado is shrinking. Average river flows have dropped 19 percent over the last century. About half of the decline is blamed on global warming, and scientists project that unchecked climate change could nearly triple flow reductions by the century’s end. Meanwhile, basin tribes want to tap into allocations they haven’t been able to use because they lack means to store and pipe the water.
And thanks to research mandated by the 1992 Grand Canyon Protection Act, the fate of the chub and the canyon ecology are factors that will also need to be considered in the yet-to-be-scheduled negotiations. Ultimately, everyone’s worried about losing their share of the Colorado River, of going home with partly empty buckets because there’s just not enough water to go around…
Water Rights: A Dramatic Struggle
The U.S. Interior Department must begin updating plans for managing the river, and convene all the states that rely on it, by the end of the year under the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, one of the agreements that determine how much water is allocated for each stakeholder to use or develop.
Like everything about Colorado River management, it’s legally complex and controlled by a deeply entrenched power structure involving the seven basin states, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and established users in agriculture and municipalities that have assigned positions in the line to the spigot—spots known as “water rights.”
But even the guidelines, which were implemented in 2007, have fallen short in the new, drier West. Last year, Congress approved a pair of Drought Contingency Plans, requiring varying levels of conservation to be implemented, state-by-state, whenever water levels sank too low at Lake Powell or Lake Mead, the ginormous storage reservoirs for Colorado River water. Both lakes dropped to emergency levels within months.
The original compact guarantees certain water volumes to the lower basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California. The upper basin states—Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico—historically haven’t used all of their allocations but plan to develop theirs, too. For example, Utah is pressing forward with a multibillion-dollar project to pipe 86,000 acre feet halfway across the state to the fast-growing southwestern part of the state. A diversion of water from the Utah-Wyoming border to Colorado’s populous Front Range—killed and resurrected so many times it’s called the “zombie pipeline”—would use 55,000 acre feet.
Still, Schmidt said: “I am actually very hopeful. I believe that climate change and the real need to renegotiate agreements have brought us together.”
The role of global warming as a motivator for revisiting the water allocations probably can’t be overstated. The average temperature in the Southwest has already risen twice as fast as the global average and future temperatures are projected to increase as much as 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
Climate change is just one reason Daryl Vigil, water director for the Jicarilla Apache Nation and interim director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, is determined to see tribes at the table in the next round of negotiations. He says the 29 basin tribes have priority rights to about 20 percent of the Colorado River’s water but were snubbed by current users from past Colorado River talks.
“The system is going to protect itself, to perpetuate what it already does because it benefits those who already are doing okay,” he said. “Familiar story, right?”
The exclusion, which amounts to environmental racism, means tens of thousands of indigenous people have not been able to access their water and tap into the associated economic opportunities, such as selling their water rights and using the water for energy projects, he said. Instead, other stakeholders are using tribal water without paying for it.
Another reason the tribes should be part of the decision making, he said, is because of their experience—thousands of years of dealing with water scarcity in the region—and their cultural views about the environment belong in any critical conversations about the Colorado. Otherwise the future looks “pretty catastrophic to us,” Vigil told High Country News this spring.
“When we start talking about climate change,” he said, “absolutely pushing to make sure that we’re thinking about a mindset of how we fit into Nature, rather than Nature fitting into us.”
[John] Fleck said the people deciding the basin’s fate need information about the tradeoffs. And data from Grand Canyon research will help them understand not only how to preserve a “sacred space” in American culture but also how to continue relying on a resource essential to the West.
From Great Outdoors Colorado via The Mountain Mail:
The Great Outdoors Colorado board awarded a $1,625,000 grant this month to Central Colorado Conservancy in partnership with The Trust for Public Land and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to help conserve four ranches covering more than 2,400 acres in Chaffee County.
The project is part of the Heart of the Arkansas Initiative, aiming to protect water resources and diverse landscapes surrounding the Arkansas River.
The grant is part of GOCO’s Special Opportunity Open Space grant program, which funds high-value conservation projects that seek funding beyond the $1 million maximum request amount set in GOCO’s ongoing Open Space grant program.
Those projects help give outdoor recreationists places to play and enjoy scenic views, protect wildlife habitat, safeguard the state’s water supply and watersheds and sustain local agriculture.
“This GOCO grant will help match the conservancy’s easement awards received through Chaffee County’s new Common Ground Fund, which supports community-based conservation projects for local agriculture, healthy forests and managing recreation impacts,” Adam Beh, conservancy executive director, said.
“Our local communities value these ranchland conservation projects and have shown their support through generous donations to match our other fundraising efforts. We appreciate and respect the local landowners who have made the choice to help protect this beautiful valley.”
The three organizations will protect four ranches: Centerville Ranch, Arrowpoint Ranch, Pridemore Ranch and Tri Lazy W Ranch. The cattlemen’s trust will hold the conservation easement on Pridemore Ranch, while the conservancy will hold the conservation easements for the other three ranches.
This conservation work is also supported by funding from the Gates Family Foundation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The properties boast several miles of stream and riparian corridors along the Upper Arkansas River as well as significant water rights that support agricultural production while contributing to overall watershed health. They also support outdoor recreation experiences for visitors to Browns Canyon National Monument and nearby public lands along the Arkansas River.
In conjunction with surrounding private and public lands, the properties create a continuous corridor of open space that serves as a seasonal migration route for big game species.
The riparian areas and surrounding wetlands support several species listed as “greatest conservation need” by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and birds of “conservation concern” as defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Data from the Fish and Wildlife Service also indicates the landscape is suitable for several federally threatened or endangered species, including North American wolverine, Mexican spotted owl and Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly.
The properties operate as working ranches and will continue to do so after conservation easements are in place. Tri Lazy W Ranch has won numerous awards for exceptional stewardship of the land, and Arrowpoint Ranch provides natural beef to several local restaurants.
Centerville Ranch and Pridemore Ranch both feature several hundred acres of irrigated land and produce thousands of tons of hay each year.
While unrestricted public access is not permitted on any of the properties, visitors can access and fish a section of the Arkansas River that flows through Pridemore Ranch via the adjacent Pridemore State Wildlife Area.
Centerville Ranch and Arrowpoint Ranch will feature limited opportunities for guided hikes, 4-H programs and volunteer work days.
To date, GOCO has invested more than $14.2 million in projects in Chaffee County and conserved more than 3,500 acres of land there. GOCO funding has supported conservation of Steel Ranch, Buena Vista River Park, Ruby Mountain Campground and Salida River Trail, among other projects.
Great Outdoors Colorado invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds to help preserve and enhance the state’s parks, trails, wildlife, rivers and open spaces.
GOCO’s independent board awards competitive grants to local governments and land trusts and makes investments through Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Created when voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1992, GOCO has since funded more than 5,300 projects in all 64 Colorado counties without any tax dollar support. Visit GOCO.org for more information.
Update: From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):
In response to decreasing flows in the San Juan River Basin, and a dry weather forecast, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Wednesday, July 1st starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):
In response to decreasing flows in the San Juan River Basin, and a dry weather forecast, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Tuesday, June 30th starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
Genetics from Germany and a hardy cross with Gunnison River trout seem to be overcoming a nightmarish parasite that causes deadly whirling disease
Through dogged research that called on experts throughout the U.S. and even Europe, the rainbow has staged a remarkable recovery that required years of genetic testing, cross breeding and painstaking reintroduction into Colorado’s waters. Only recently have those efforts shown signs of enduring success against the parasite that nearly destroyed it.
And in large part, it has been developments in the rugged Gunnison River waters, where researchers cultivated a strain of rainbow — dubbed the HXG — that’s both disease-resistant and hardy enough to survive in the wild, that have pushed the effort toward sustainability.
More than 1.3 million of the new fish will be introduced into Colorado’s waterways this summer.
“It’s been an ongoing sort of thing, an evolution of little successes over time,” says George Schisler, chief of aquatic research for CPW and one of the key players in the long-running drama. “Now that we’ve got a lot of these HXGs in production, that’s the tipping point. We’re starting to see more and more little rainbows surviving in the wild.”
To get here, the fish beloved by anglers for its colorful appearance, relative ease to hook and admirable fight, had to overcome a nasty parasite, hungry browns and a whole lot of trial and error…
The department’s electrofishing along a 2-mile stretch of the Colorado near Kremmling in 1993 shocked well over 1,000 fish to the surface. Nehring recalls counting a huge population of wild rainbows from 16 to 24 inches long — but only five under 12 inches.
It was a mystery what happened to the little ones. The results of the count were nothing like they’d seen on that same stretch of river in the early ‘80s, when there were plenty of big rainbows, but most fell in the 9-inch range — evidence that the young ones were thriving.
At the same time, the brown trout population was virtually unchanged over that period. Nehring looked everywhere for possible culprits: water temperature, flow fluctuations during rainbow spawning and egg incubation, pollution, floods. But he could find no factors that seemed to make sense. That stretch of the Colorado seemed to be missing two years’ worth of wild rainbow trout fry — recently hatched fish — with no similar impact on the browns.
When Nehring called in to report the conundrum, his boss wondered if the answer might be something called whirling disease that plagued tiny rainbows but not browns.
“At that time I didn’t even know what whirling disease was,” Nehring says.
Although the life cycle of the parasite — Myxobolus cerebralis — has been understood only since 1984, whirling disease dates its discovery to the late 19th century at a trout farm in Germany. Scientific literature was sparse. In Colorado, a state fish pathologist determined after testing some infected rainbows that there was less than a 5% chance that whirling disease was responsible for the disappearance of the young rainbow population…
Although Nehring sounded the alarm, most fish and wildlife experts didn’t pick up on the damage that whirling disease was doing to the state’s rainbow trout population until years after they’d studied bottom-feeding tubifex worms. The worms, which live in the mud and sediment of river and lake beds, had proved unwitting distributors of the spores that infected young fish and fed on the cartilage that later would mature into bone.
The result is a misshapen skeletal structure, with deformities that include a telltale lateral curvature of the spine. Eventually, inflammation causes nerve malfunction. The result is a rainbow that whirls in endless circles, and either dies of the infection or becomes prey — often to the large population of brown trout. Cutthroat and some other species are vulnerable to the disease, too, but rainbows are particularly susceptible.
Fulfilling Drought Contingency Plan commitments and achieving water security for Arizona.
As part of an overall $38 million effort to bolster Lake Mead surface levels by fallowing irrigable farmland on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in western Arizona, the National Audubon Society has reached an agreement with the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) to help fund the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ (CRIT) on-going efforts to conserve 150,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead over the next three years.
“Leaving water in Lake Mead for the greater Colorado River system creates more security for people and birds in the arid Southwest,” said Karyn Stockdale, Audubon’s Western Water Initiative Senior Director.
“This is a great first step toward completing an important piece of the funding plan approved by the Steering Committee members and the Arizona Legislature,” said ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke. “I commend the National Audubon Society for recognizing the importance of keeping Lake Mead surface levels as stable and healthy as possible.”
The three-year deal is expected to reduce water demand and add approximately two vertical feet to Lake Mead’s surface levels.
According to the agreement signed on May 21, Audubon—supported by their corporate partner Intel Corporation—will contribute to an Arizona Fund created in 2019 to incentivize the CRIT for creating up to 150,000 acre-feet of system conservation water in Lake Mead, helping to avoid precipitous declines in the Lake.
“I want to thank our partners at Audubon, Intel, and the Arizona Department of Water Resources for their ongoing support of this conservation project,” said Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairman Dennis Patch. “The partnership among the State, nonprofit organizations, corporations and our tribal government demonstrates that working together we can tackle the most enduring water supply challenges. The Colorado River Indian Tribes look forward to continuing to work with our partners ensuring the State of Arizona has a sustainable water future.”
The CRIT offered to forego irrigation water deliveries and fallow approximately 10,000 acres of farmland in exchange for the funding.
The fallowing/funding effort is a part of Arizona’s celebrated agreement among dozens of water users, agencies, tribes and conservation groups statewide in January 2019 to address instability in the Colorado River system through the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). After nearly 20 years of drought in the Colorado River Basin, the DCP is designed to promote conservation, reduce demand, and stabilize water levels in Lake Mead through projects such as the CRIT’s system conservation project.
“Intel is proud to support this vital effort, and to restore water to the community we’ve innovated and invested in for 40 years,” said Liz Shipley, Intel Arizona Public Affairs Director. “Investing in our watershed is an investment in our future.”
Signed May 21, Audubon’s funding contribution agreement with ADWR comes almost exactly one year after the May 20, 2019 signing of the DCP on the Observation Deck of Hoover Dam by the seven Colorado River States and the federal Department of the Interior.
Background on System Conservation and DCP
The months-long, public efforts of Arizona’s Steering Committee, led by ADWR Director Buschatzke and Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) General Manager Ted Cooke, opened the door to the State Legislature’s approval of legislation authorizing the ADWR Director to sign the DCP, as well as legislation necessary for the DCP to be implemented in Arizona.
On signing the legislation on January 31, 2019, Governor Doug Ducey hailed the DCP as “the most significant water legislation passed in nearly 40 years.”
The specific terms of the CRIT conservation effort were set out in an agreement by ADWR with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, operator of the Colorado River system, and the CAWCD, which delivers about 1.6 million acre-feet of Arizona’s 2.8 million acre-foot annual allocation to users mainly in central and south-central Arizona.
To fund the CRIT creation of system conservation water in Lake Mead, the State of Arizona appropriated $30 million in budget year 2019/2020. By a separate agreement, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) agreed to deposit $2 million into the Fund by January 31, 2020 and use its best efforts to raise an additional $6 million into the Fund no later than July 15, 2021.
The Audubon contribution is a part of the EDF agreement. Intel’s leadership support of Audubon made this vital project possible, and also opens up opportunities to leverage additional philanthropic support later this year.
This project demonstrates how the landmark DCP agreement is achieving the goal of creating positive partnerships among entities, fulfilling funding commitments and achieving water security for Arizona.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):
After nearly a two-year wait, Colorado Parks and Wildlife hatchery staff and biologists in Durango have spawned a new lineage of Colorado River cutthroat trout that were rescued from a remote stream during the 416 Fire in 2018.
This marks a major milestone for CPW’s on-going species conservation work in Colorado, and the result of decades of work by dedicated biologists, researchers and field staff.
Fertilized eggs of the San Juan cutthroats will hatch by mid-summer; some of the fingerlings will be placed in back-country streams in the southwest area of the state and others will be held at the Durango hatchery to start a sustainable brood stock. Now, the hatchery staff and biologists will continue the long-term effort to restore these native trout to their home waters.
“I’m thrilled that we’ve gotten a spawn from these fish, it’s been a long process and we’ve got a lot more work to do,” said Jim White, aquatic biologist for CPW in Durango.
The story of these fish that hold a unique genetic marker goes back nearly 150 years and includes some serious biological detective work. Since the 1970s, CPW aquatic biologists have searched back-country streams looking for isolated populations of cutthroats — Colorado’s native trout. In southwest Colorado in the 1980s and 1990s, biologists found cutthroat trout that were suspected to have unique characteristics in eight small streams. Back then, however, technology to analyze genetics fully was still being developed. The biologists kept their eyes on the fish and made sure non-native trout were not stocked nearby.
In 2012, researchers from the University of Colorado went to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History looking for preserved specimens of cutthroat trout that had been collected in Colorado. Two of the specimens they found were taken from the San Juan River near Pagosa Springs in 1874.
An analysis showed that the fish had genetic “fingerprints” specific to the San Juan River Basin. CPW researchers then began a similar analysis of the cutthroats they’d found in southwest Colorado. By this time, genetic-analysis technology had advanced and in early 2018 scientists confirmed that the marker in the museum specimens matched the cutthroat trout recently found in the wild.
Biologists and hatchery staff then made a plan to start propagating the fish. The 416 Fire helped push the project along.
When the fire started north of Durango, biologists worried that ash and sediment run-off could kill the cutthroats in the remote streams. So CPW worked with the San Juan National Forest to go into the area to capture the wild trout and bring them to a special isolation hatchery in Durango. Only 54 cutthroat were recovered from the fire area.
White and Durango Hatchery Manager Toby Mourning have been concerned because the fish did not produce any spawn last year and some of the fish died. But the turnaround this year is a major milestone for the restoration effort.
“We’re not getting a lot of eggs, but enough to provide some for a limited amount of stocking and some to start a captive population that will be sustainable,” Mourning said.
In order to protect the fish, CPW is not providing details on stream locations. Biologists hope, however, that in a few years anglers will be able to find this unique cutthroat trout in the wild.
White explained that the work on this native is a significant conservation effort. In 2018, after the genetics of the fish were confirmed, he said: “We always ask ourselves, ‘What if we could go back to the days before mining, pioneer settlement and wide-spread non-native fish stocking to see what we had here? Careful work over the years by biologists, finding those old specimens in the museum and the genetic testing gave us the chance, essentially, to go back in time. Now we have the opportunity to bring this native trout back to southwest Colorado.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The toothy, predacious fish hasn’t broken any laws on its own, but someone is thought to have done so by introducing the nonnative species into Kenney Reservoir on the White River.
It’s a fish that’s fun to catch and great to eat, said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton. But it also wreaks havoc on populations of rainbow trout and other species that make up the fishery at Kenney. Worse yet, northern pike pose a threat to endangered fish that are part of an intensive recovery program in the Upper Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
That’s the back story behind why CPW and the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District are working with partners to offer anglers a $20 reward through Nov. 30 for every northern pike caught and removed from Kenney Reservoir, the White River and other waters from approximately Stedman Mesa to the Utah border…
Another concern is the threat pike pose to Colorado pikeminnow, one of four endangered fish that are the focus of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. The largest adult population of the Colorado pikeminnow is on the lower White River, which is designated critical habitat for the fish upstream and downstream of Kenney Reservoir. The lower 18 miles of the White River in Utah is designated critical habitat for the endangered razorback sucker.
The reward for northern pike was first offered last year, and just 19 fish were turned in. Hampton said northern pike can be harder to catch, favoring deep, cool waters farther from shore. Organizers hope for more participation this year, to get anglers more involved in the efforts to eradicate the northern pike around Rangely.
Participants should bring their freshly caught northern pike to CPW’s office in Rangely from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays. CPW staff will dispense reward money that comes from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and is sourced from the state Species Conservation Trust Fund generated by severance tax dollars.
Partners in the effort also are planning a weekend fishing derby and expo June 5-7. It includes a $250 prize for whoever brings in the most smallmouth bass, another nonnative predator. With COVID-19 social-distancing measures being heeded, there will be interactive learning opportunities, a display of an electrofishing boat and an aquarium display including endangered fish.
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
Western Water in-depth: A key reservoir for Colorado River storage program, Powell faces demands from stakeholders in upper and lower basins with different water needs as runoff is forecast to decline
Sprawled across a desert expanse along the Utah-Arizona border, Lake Powell’s nearly 100-foot high bathtub ring etched on its sandstone walls belie the challenges of a major Colorado River reservoir at less than half-full. How those challenges play out as demand grows for the river’s water amid a changing climate is fueling simmering questions about Powell’s future.
The reservoir, a central piece of the storage program for the Colorado River, provides water, hydropower and recreation to millions of people. It was designed to ensure that Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico can meet their legal obligation to let enough water pass to Arizona, California and Nevada, as well as supplying water to Mexico.
But persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin over the last 20 years and the need to keep Lake Mead, Powell’s twin reservoir downstream, from reaching critically low levels have left Lake Powell consistently about half-full. Some environmental advocacy groups, aiming to restore Glen Canyon, have called for the dam’s decommissioning.
Water managers say that’s unlikely, given Lake Powell’s key role in meeting downstream obligations and the interest of some upstream who hope to tap its waters. Recent studies point to warmer and drier conditions ahead, with reduced runoff into the river. A rewrite of the river’s operating guidelines is on the horizon, and already there is talk about how those guidelines could affect Powell.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead currently adhere to an operations protocol that determines release volumes from Lake Powell to Lake Mead and how Lower Basin water users enjoy the benefits of surplus conditions or the shared sacrifice of delivery cuts during shortage. The rules for these scenarios are found in the 2007 Interim Guidelines, the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans and international agreements with Mexico.
Chief among the Guidelines’ provisions is better coordination of the operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead each year.
As key stakeholders prepare to forge the next set of management guidelines that will update those from 2007, there may be a reassessment of Lake Powell’s operations so that it can take on the coming challenges.
“I think an honest and thorough look into the future of Lake Powell is absolutely warranted,” said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers Colorado Basin Program.
Rice, part of a February forum on the future of Lake Powell, said the crisis wrought by the coronavirus pandemic shows how rare “black swan” events can emerge and shatter existing management plans, such as those for watersheds.
The dry conditions have prompted Colorado River water agencies to undertake unprecedented, collaborative efforts to ensure water supplies are not disrupted. In Las Vegas, for instance, rebates to homeowners by the Southern Nevada Water Authority have converted 193 million square feet of thirsty grass lawns into water-efficient landscaping.
Staying ahead of future crises is critical, and officials are informally discussing the parameters of the next set of guidelines. How those talks affect future water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead will be significant.
A Reliable Lake Powell
Conditions on the river are never static. In some years, a large snowpack produces voluminous runoff, but the science is showing a pattern of decreased flow from tributaries into the mainstem Colorado River. Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center projected inflow to Lake Powell from April to July would be 65 percent of average.
Upper Basin users, meanwhile, want to access their share of Colorado River water to meet growing demands. In Utah, a 140-mile pipeline proposal would divert as much as 86,000 acre-feet annually from Lake Powell to growing communities in the state’s southwest corner. Utah officials believe the $1 billion plan is necessary for places such as St. George that are bumping against their limits of water supply.
Furthermore, Utah officials say the state is well within its right to access water it has rights to.
“Utah’s right to develop water for the Lake Powell Pipeline is equal to, not inferior to, the rights of all the other 1922 [Colorado River] Compact signatory states,” Eric Millis, then-director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said in a 2019 statement by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The Colorado River Compact divided the Basin into an upper and lower half, with each having the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually.
Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation is also looking at tapping Lake Powell water via pipeline so it can supplement limited groundwater supplies.
“The continued existence of Glen Canyon Dam is imperative if the Navajo Nation is to obtain a reliable supply of water from the Colorado River,” said Stanley Pollack, an attorney for the tribe. “A water line only works if you have Lake Powell.”
In the Upper Basin, there is concern that Lake Powell has been increasingly called on to help Lake Mead, with not much to show for it.
“We are not improving the health of Lake Mead and … until and unless the Lower Basin addresses its overuse … Mead is not going to improve and it’s just going to bring the elevations of Powell down,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
The storage/release paradigm between the two reservoirs has caused the most tension since adoption of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, said Colby Pellegrino, director of water resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
The Upper Basin recognizes its obligation to let enough river flow pass to the Lower Basin, but occasional machinations with Lake Mead’s storage can be touchy. “Sometimes water is moved from Lake Mead downstream to other reservoirs or water users in a different pattern or timing, prompting concern from people in the Upper Basin that its neighbors seek to game the system,” she said.
The largest reservoir in the United States, Lake Mead receives the lion’s share of attention because of the efforts to keep it viable and supplying water to the many farms and urban areas – Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix, among them – south of Hoover Dam. In 2015, a third, deeper intake was completed at the lake to keep water flowing to Las Vegas’ 2 million residents and 40 million annual visitors. The lake supplies about 25 percent of the water needs of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – even more during drought.
Having a reliable Lake Powell to back up Lake Mead is crucial especially during a period of uncertainty, Lower Basin users say.
“As we get into flashier, more volatile hydrology cycles with climate change we can likely see the occasional huge storm years with less snow and more rain,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of Metropolitan Water District, the largest supplier of treated water in the United States. “Having readily available storage capacity for the occasional mega year will be extremely valuable.”
‘The Most Wonderful Lake in the World’
Controversial from the start, Lake Powell remains polarizing to some degree. Former Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy, who spearheaded construction of Glen Canyon Dam that created Lake Powell in the early 1960s, said in a 2000 interview that Powell is “the most wonderful lake in the world [and] my crowning jewel.”
Former Reclamation Commissioner Dan Beard, who served in the 1990s during the Clinton administration, opposes the continued existence of Glen Canyon Dam. Because climate change and further reductions in runoff will cause Lake Powell to keep dropping, he said, stakeholders should focus their energy on saving Lake Mead.
“Lake Mead is the heartbeat of the Colorado River,” Beard said. “It is a vital and important part of the delivery system for water to the Lower Basin states and to Mexico. It is a critical facility and yet it continues to decline.”
Beard is a board member with the advocacy group Save the Colorado, which, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers last year sued the federal government to force examination of climate change science in the management of Glen Canyon Dam.
The litigants say Reclamation and the Department of the Interior should conduct a revised analysis and include a full range of alternatives based on predicted climate change-related impacts on the flow of water in the Colorado River.
“Such a full range must include an alternative that incorporates the decommissioning and removal of Glen Canyon Dam because the projections from the best available climate science indicate there likely will not be sufficient flow in the Colorado River to keep Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam operational,” a press release accompanying the lawsuit said.
At capacity, Lake Powell holds more than 26 million acre-feet of water that originates as snowpack from the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. That water gets released to Lake Mead via the Grand Canyon and helps supply the Lower Basin — Arizona, Nevada, California – as well as Mexico.
However, since 2002 Lake Powell’s water elevation has rarely gone above its historical 50-year annual average of 3,639 feet above sea level, the point at which it contains about 15.8 million acre-feet of water. The operating system is flawed, some experts say.
Two years ago, the Colorado River Research Group, a highly respected group of Colorado River scholars including Colorado State University’s Brad Udall and University of Arizona’s Karl Flessa, produced a publication called It’s Hard to Fill a Bathtub When the Drain Is Wide Open: The Case of Lake Powell. In it, they noted that the system is stacked against Lake Powell in part because of an overallocated Colorado River system.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead operate under multiple laws and agreements that are collectively known as the Law of the River. Under the rules, Lake Powell is obligated to release a certain amount of water each year to Lake Mead for the Lower Basin states.
The Lower Basin states, however, collectively draw about 1.2 million acre-feet more water from Lake Mead than Lake Powell releases in a normal year. The result is a so-called “structural deficit.”
“The structural deficit is the true villain in this story, mixing with the operational rules to drain Lake Powell,” the Colorado River Research Group publication said. “If storage in Lake Powell cannot rebound in an era where the Upper Basin consumes less than two‐thirds of its legal apportionment, then the crisis is already real.”
Answers, the authors say, lie partly in the ability of Lake Powell storage to recover in wet years, reducing use in the Upper Basin and re-thinking exiting reservoir management. “Lakes Mead and Powell, after all, are essentially one giant reservoir and … thinking of these facilities as two distinct reservoirs, one for the benefit of the Upper Basin and one for the Lower, now seems outdated,” the publication said.
Haas, with the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the existing operating guidelines leave room for improvement. “I feel very strongly that as long as our reservoir operations are coordinated … the future of Lake Powell hinges on the future of Lake Mead,” she said. “We need to find a more equitable mechanism by which reservoir operations are coordinated.”
Marlon Duke, spokesman with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages the river, acknowledged that Lake Powell draws scrutiny.
“I often get asked, ‘What’s the deal with Lake Powell?’” he said. “Shouldn’t we just drain it or is it really doing what it is supposed to do?”
The answer, Duke said, means looking at the lake’s performance and how it has met expectations during difficult times. Powell was near capacity in 2000. Then a period of record-setting dryness set in. Through it all, enough water was released to meet the Upper Basin’s obligation to the Lower Basin.
People in the respective basins view Lake Powell and Lake Mead with a certain degree of ownership, and perspectives vary. Upper Basin interests generally want a more robust Lake Powell. South of the lake, the desire to tap into it further is not uncommon in the Lower Basin. The degree of change, ultimately, will likely fall between those sentiments.
All of that notwithstanding, it’s important to understand the two reservoirs are tightly woven, said Jack Schmidt, the Janet Quinney Lawson chair of Colorado River studies at Utah State University.
“It’s one big system and whether Powell [or Mead] goes up or down …those are intentional societal decisions of management that have little to do with climate change,” he said.
Schmidt in 2016 analyzed the concept of “Fill Mead First,” the idea of establishing Lake Mead as the primary water storage facility on the mainstem river and relegating Lake Powell to a secondary storage role when Mead is full. The savings in evaporation and seepage losses would be relatively small, Schmidt said, but the idea shouldn’t be completely discounted.
Fill Mead First “generates passions and emotions,” Schmidt said. It is embraced by some as a restorative opportunity for Glen Canyon. “Then there is the world of traditional water managers who say that’s a ludicrous idea and we don’t pay any attention.”
The disparate views “live in two worlds completely.”
But Kightlinger, with Metropolitan Water District, discounts the idea of draining Powell. “Politically, I don’t see any real support or push for a fill Mead first strategy,” he said. “Powell, even less full going forward, remains a valuable piece of very expensive infrastructure that will remain part of the Colorado River storage pool for decades to come.”
A Warmer and Drier Basin
A small army of water professionals and experts constantly analyze the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to 40 million people and fuels a huge agricultural economy.
For years, scientists have looked at the drying conditions of the Colorado River Basin, employing techniques such as tree ring sampling. Analysis of that method has shown that the years 1905 to 1922 – just as the river’s waters were being allocated among the states — were exceptionally wet.
In 2012, Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study confirmed there are likely to be significant shortfalls in coming decades between projected water supplies and demands in the Colorado River Basin. Since the study, a steady stream of research points to warmer and drier conditions.
In April, a study published in the journal Science said the current dry period in the Southwest is one for the record books, and that its “megadrought-like trajectory” is fueled by natural variability superimposed on human-caused warming. Also in April, experts with the Western Water Assessment, whose researchers work out of the University of Colorado, Boulder and several other institutions in the region, noted that the severity and length of drought conditions can be difficult to quantify.
“This is especially true for the Colorado River system, in which total consumptive use plus other depletions typically exceeds supply, such that under even average hydrologic conditions the levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell will tend to decline,” according to Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science, the study conducted by the Western Water Assessment.
The continued variability justifies a robust Lake Powell, said Haas, with the Upper Colorado River Commission.
“We know that future flows are going to be more variable and almost clearly lower, but we also need to ensure that our non-depletion obligation is satisfied,” she said. “Powell is our repository for this water. Doing away with the reservoir, in light of our 1922 Compact obligation, is not realistic,” she said.
Furthermore, an improved, more accurate forecasting approach is needed ahead of the next set of operating criteria. “That’s especially true given the vicissitudes of hydrology and the impacts of climate change,” Haas said.
Increasing Lake Powell’s releases is potentially problematic because of the likelihood that predator fish from Lake Mead could make it upstream and devastate native fish in the Grand Canyon.
As it stands, Pearce Ferry Rapid, a rugged, impassable cataract located near the downstream end of the Grand Canyon, prevents predators such as catfish, bass and pike from getting upriver and destroying native fish. The rapid exists because Lake Mead, sitting at just 43 percent of capacity, is so low that the inflow to it from the river has carved a new entry where the river plunges over a bedrock ledge.
If Lake Mead ever began to fill again, it would inundate Pearce Ferry Rapid, allowing the non-native fish to migrate upstream and prey on native Colorado River fish. “They would just eat and eat,” said Rice, with American Rivers. “All the recovery of endangered fish could be for naught.”
Playing the Waiting Game
During a period of great uncertainty about what the next water year will bring, Colorado River water users will need to think creatively while using all their tools, including storage.
“Glen Canyon Dam exists because you need all that potential storage,” said Schmidt, with Utah State University. “In some freak years you are going to get really big runoff, and nobody wants to see that go through the system.”
Meanwhile, the lake’s future role in the Colorado River Basin is a key topic as Reclamation reviews the performance of the 2007 Guidelines, with results expected at the end of this year at the annual meeting of Colorado River water users.
Pellegrino with Southern Nevada Water Authority said it would be nice to get past the controversy about Lake Powell’s releases and instead find ways to store more water in it. “We have had a lot of consternation … more because of the balancing releases than the actual behavior of any water user or basin,” she said. “Going back to something that’s more constant or more fixed would remove an element of consternation between the Basins.”
What’s likely to happen is an approach that builds upon the years of collaboration and cooperation established between everyone working on Colorado River water management, said Tina Shields, water manager with the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest user of Colorado River water.
“We know how the river works – its incrementalism,” she said. “Nobody wants to make wholesale changes because it’s too big of a deal and what if it went south? We are not quick to change these relationships and negotiations. They took a lot of time.”
Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said Reclamation’s findings will be key in considering the continued conjunctive management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“Certainly, the  Guidelines have shown that managing the reservoirs together has kept Lake Powell from crashing and has kept Lake Mead from a shortage condition,” he said. “I believe that there will be significant interest in evaluating opportunities, including with Mexico, for even more effective management of the reservoir system.”
That process will most likely look at different elevations and trigger points for excess releases from Lake Powell in a manner that’s acceptable to the Upper and Lower Basins.
“The question is, how do you get movement either way without someone saying, ‘That doesn’t work for me,’” Shields said. “Sometimes the status quo is easier to continue than the fear associated with changing those trigger points.”
As with virtually all Colorado River issues, the ramifications of actions can run far and wide. “This sounds like an esoteric argument about something hundreds of miles away, but the reality of it is what happens at Lake Powell affects the amount of water available to the Lower Basin states, Southern California and, indirectly, Northern California,” said Beard, the former Reclamation commissioner.
California’s extensive water plumbing network relies on a careful balance of imports to Southern California from Northern California and the Colorado River.
Even with Reclamation’s review of the guidelines expected to be issued at the end of the year, Schmidt with Utah State University said he believes stakeholders will let multiple years pass before committing to any radical operational changes.
“Every year that we wait buys a little more information about climate change and decreasing runoff and whether we go into a wet cycle,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that could happen and people will hope that nature provides a favorable condition so there can be a tiny bit more wiggle room and we don’t go into dire crisis.”
Haas echoed the comments of many stakeholders in noting that all options for Powell’s operation should be considered. “It’s not heretical to be thinking outside the norm on things,” she said. “It spurs a more robust discussion and we should not shy away from that.”
Reclamation’s Duke harkens back to Powell’s ability to consistently meet and sometimes exceed its release obligations during severe conditions.
“That is a testament to the people who came before and had to make those tough calls,” he said. “They built that reservoir and it’s done what we needed. Looking into the future, everything’s on the table, but we also need to remember there are 40 million people who rely on water from this river and over the last 20 years, we would not have been able to supply that water reliably without these storage reservoirs.”
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This spring, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque is running at about 20 percent of its historic average—even though snowpack in the watershed was close to average last fall and into February. Conditions won’t get much better: Peak snowmelt occurred last week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“This year was more along the lines of what I anticipate for the future, to happen more often,” says David Gutzler, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico. Gutzler has been studying climate change in the southwestern United States for decades.
Increasingly warm conditions play out in predictable ways in the arid Southwest. That includes having less water in rivers, even when the region isn’t necessarily mired in drought, experiencing a deficit in snowpack or rainfall.
“You get snow in the winter when it’s really cold, but then things get warm and dry—which is the long-term outlook for springtime in the Southwest—and the snow just melts away faster than our historical statistics would suggest,” Gutzler says of this year’s conditions.
“This is more like a global warming-style of a low streamflow year, as opposed to a drought year [like 2018] that started off bad and stayed warm, and was just bad for the whole winter.”
Two years ago, then-UNM graduate student Shaleene Chavarria published her research with Gutzler about declining snowmelt and streamflows in the Rio Grande. In that peer-reviewed study, she looked at annual and monthly changes in climate variables and streamflow volume in the headwaters of the Rio Grande in Colorado between 1958 and 2015. She found that flows are declining in March, April, and May.
Chavarria, a hydrologist, saw something else in the records: Snowpack in the Rio Grande watershed is decreasing. And it’s melting earlier.
That’s definitely playing out again this year.
Looking at the data, Chavarria notes that in 2018 and 2020, snowpack melted out about a month earlier than it normally did in the past. “This is something we address in the paper, and I think it’s interesting and scary to see it happening,” she wrote in an email to NMPBS…
The changes in the timing of spring runoff and in the amount of water flowing within the banks of the Rio Grande affect farmers and cities. They also affect the river’s ecosystem—including the cottonwood bosque—and the species that depend upon its waters and cycles.
Already, according to Carolyn Donnelly with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the water management agency has released about 4,000 acre feet of water from upstream reservoirs to prevent riverbed drying—and it plans to release supplemental water again within the week.
When the Natural Resources Conservation Service released its final May streamflow this week, the numbers were “pretty grim,” says Reclamation spokesperson Mary Carlson.
“In March, we were looking at a runoff that was near average. But that just didn’t materialize,” Carlson says. “We will continue to coordinate closely with our water operations partners to ensure that every drop of the supply that we do have will be used in the most beneficial way.”
She adds that New Mexico will likely end up under Article VII restrictions by the middle of June.
Under that provision of the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, New Mexico is only allowed to store water in upstream reservoirs when levels in Elephant Butte Reservoir are above a certain threshold. With little water flowing into that reservoir this year, the state won’t be able to store waters upstream—and Elephant Butte’s levels will keep dropping, too.
The bureau anticipates Elephant Butte’s levels will drop close to its 2018 historic lows, when the reservoir was at just three percent of capacity. (The reservoir, which was built to hold two million acre feet of water, is about 25 percent full this week. Water stored there is allocated to farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas)
Reclamation also anticipates that the Middle Rio Grande will dry within the next month, beginning within Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in San Antonio…
For decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with federal, state, tribal, and local partners, has tried to keep the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow from going extinct. The two-inch long fish was once one of the river’s most abundant. But by the 1990s, its population had plummeted, earning it the dubious distinction of requiring federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Some of those efforts include releasing water to keep the river flowing longer, and also working with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to release water “spikes” when the minnows are spawning.
When the Middle Rio Grande does dry, as it has many summers since the 1990s, biologists end up in the riverbed, trying to salvage what live minnows they can find. They scoop the fish from pools and puddles, then transport them to sections of the river where flows are high enough to possibly sustain the tiny fish.
Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Thomas Archdeacon anticipates the river will dry around Memorial Day. When that starts happening, biologists will slog through the muddy—and then sandy—riverbed, seeking out the endangered fish.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Marlon Duke, Robyn Gerstenslage):
From May 1 through August 31, the Department of the Interior will conduct a Macroinvertebrate Production Flow at Glen Canyon Dam. This experiment, also known as a Bug Flow, aims to improve egg-laying conditions for aquatic insects, which are the primary food source for endangered and native fish in the Colorado River. This is the third consecutive year for the Bug Flow under the Glen Canyon Dam Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan.
During the Bug Flow experiment, the Bureau of Reclamation will make targeted adjustments to water releases from Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. That adjusted release schedule will include low and steady flows during weekends, while weekday operations will maintain normal flows to meet hydropower demands. Weekday release rate hourly changes will remain unchanged.
Aquatic insects lay and cement their eggs to rocks, vegetation and other materials near the river’s edge. If flows are too variable, water levels may drop below where eggs are laid, causing them to dry out and die.
“Findings indicate that some aquatic insects are already benefiting from the bug flows, which also benefits fish and other animals that eat them,” said Scott VanderKooi, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. “For example, our research suggests that caddisflies, an extremely rare aquatic insect in the Grand Canyon over the past several decades, increased nearly four-fold during the first year of the experiment in 2018, before returning to pre-Bug Flows numbers in 2019. In contrast, non-biting midges, another type of aquatic insect that is a key food source for fish and other wildlife, may have increased, and a third year of Bug Flows should help verify this finding.”
Recreational fishing at Lees Ferry also improved during Bug Flows, with anglers catching an average of 1-2 more rainbow trout per day during Bug Flow weekends, when flows were low and steady, compared to weekdays when flows fluctuated.
“Our current experimental plan initially recommended two to three years of Bug Flows given the complexity of the Colorado River ecosystem, which is constantly changing,” said Lee Traynham, Reclamation’s Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program Manager. “We’ve already learned a lot about the ecosystem and have observed several resource improvements over many years of experimenting with flows. We are excited to see how the ecosystem responds this year.”
The decision to conduct this experiment was based on technical input and recommendation from a collaborative team of scientists and technical experts from federal agencies and states involved in the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program. This team includes representatives from the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs; the Department of Energy’s Western Area Power Administration; Arizona Game and Fish Department, Upper Colorado River Commission and all seven Colorado River Basin States.
Experiments are designed to maximize benefits to the Colorado River ecosystem through the Grand Canyon, while meeting water delivery requirements and minimizing negative impacts to hydropower production.
This experiment is expected to benefit aquatic insects and the fish, birds and bats that feed on them, while providing valuable scientific information for future decision making.
For more information about the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program and flow volumes below Glen Canyon Dam, please visit the following websites:
FromThe High Country News [January 31, 2020] (Tom Udall):
In his 1963 book The Quiet Crisis, my father, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, sounded the alarm about the creeping destruction of nature. “Each generation has its own rendezvous with the land, for despite our fee titles and claims of ownership, we are all brief tenants on this planet,” he wrote. “By choice, or by default, we will carve out a land legacy for our heirs.”
[January 31, 2020] would have been Stewart Udall’s 100th birthday. And 57 years after he wrote the The Quiet Crisis, it is more urgent than ever that we heed his words — and follow his example — in order to save the natural world.
As Interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, my father was the visionary leader of a burgeoning conservation and environmental movement. During his first year as secretary, then-Bureau of Reclamation Chief Floyd Dominy took him on a flight over southern Utah to show him the “next” big dam. My dad took one look at the red-rock spires below and saw not a dam, but the next national park. He carried this vision back to Washington, D.C., and worked to establish what is today Canyonlands National Park.
Canyonlands is one of four national parks, six national monuments, nine recreation areas, 20 historic sites and 56 wildlife refuges that Stewart Udall helped create as secretary of the Interior. In the face of environmental damage and species loss, he worked with Congress and the president to enact some of our country’s most successful conservation programs, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Clean Air Act, and the national wilderness system. In the process, he protected millions of acres of public lands.
In the span of a few years, Stewart Udall and other conservation leaders significantly deepened our national commitment to the lands and waters that sustain us. In addition to providing our generation and future ones with cleaner air and water, the lands they preserved and the protections they put in place created the bedrock of a strong economy today.
But now, the quiet crises that my father warned us about have risen to a crescendo that is impossible to ignore. Climate change is widely acknowledged as an existential threat to our planet. Meanwhile, the nature crisis has accelerated close to the point of no return. We lose a football-field’s-worth of nature every 30 seconds. And according to a United Nations report, 1 million species are at risk of extinction because of human activity.
The Trump administration has helped inflame these crises, eviscerating landmark protections like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Power Plan. President Donald Trump has already created the worst environmental record of any president in history as his administration hacks away at the nation’s proud conservation tradition.
But merely reversing Trump’s environmental attacks would be like putting a Band-Aid on a life-threatening wound. These crises were already worsening before he took office, and the trajectory will continue after he leaves unless we drastically rethink our approach to conservation.
If we fail to enact the kind of bold conservation framework my father envisioned, we will forever lose millions of plant and animal species — the biodiversity critical to our rich natural inheritance and fundamental to our own survival. We will lose not just our way of life, but the planet as we know it.
Today, just as we did 50 years ago under Stewart Udall’s leadership, we must write an aggressive new playbook to confront the climate and nature crises head-on. And we need to act fast.
That’s why I’ve introduced the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature — a resolution to set a national goal of protecting 30% of our lands and waters by 2030, with half protected by mid-century. The resolution reflects the will of the scientific community, including and scientists like E.O. Wilson, who say that we need to protect half the planet to save the whole.
We must also face down climate change with the urgency it requires. To do so, we should make our public lands pollution-free. Emissions from fossil fuels extracted on public lands account for nearly one-quarter of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. Instead of being a source of pollution, public lands can and should be part of the solution. Knowing that we must transition away from fossil fuels, we need an inclusive approach that gets us to net zero carbon pollution.
And as we transition, we must support and protect the communities, tribes and states that have long relied on fossil fuels. No one should be left behind in our transition to a clean energy economy.
Indeed, equity, inclusion and environmental justice must be our guiding lights — our true North Star — just like they were for my father. After a long career in public office — during which he fought segregation and discrimination at every turn — my dad spent his final chapter fighting alongside the widows of Navajo uranium miners. His mission was to ensure that families hurt by the federal government’s nuclear weapons activities were justly compensated, because he understood that low-income communities, communities of color and Native communities often bear the worst consequences of the environmental desecration and destruction too often caused by the rich and powerful.
Our conservation work must provide equitable access to nature and a just distribution of its benefits. We must ensure environmental justice for all. The future of our planet — and of humanity itself — depends on it.
Today, on what would be my father’s 100th birthday, let us remember a man who saw a national park where others saw a gigantic dam — a man who clearly saw the peril in mortgaging the land for short-term economic incentives.
Just a few years before his passing, my father and my mother, Lee, published a letter to their grandchildren in High Country News. This was their call: “Go well, do well, my children. Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.”
Now, with the wonder and beauty of the earth under threat, we must listen to Stewart Udall’s plea: that we do well — by the planet, and by future generations.
Tom Udall is a United States Senator representing New Mexico. A member of the Democratic party, he has also served as a U.S. Representative and New Mexico’s State Attorney General. Email High Country News at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Though it’s looking like it won’t be needed, officials have been standing by with 6,500 acre-feet of water set aside in Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County. They’re ready to release it if needed in order to avoid what’s referred to as an “April hole” in rivers flows in the Colorado River between Palisade and the river’s confluence with the Gunnison River.
That stretch is known as the 15-Mile Reach, a focal point for protecting flows for the sake of endangered fish in the Colorado River. If flows fall too low between where irrigation water is diverted and the Gunnison flows boost water volume, endangered fish can be left more vulnerable to predators, reduced habitat and potentially less food availability.
Four endangered fish — the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker — are the focus of recovery efforts in the Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
A court case and operating policy at Green Mountain, which is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, have resulted in establishment of a 66,000-acre-foot historic users pool there that is available to irrigators, municipal and other water users to replace water that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them due to calls by holders of senior water rights.
Victor Lee, a Bureau of Reclamation engineer, said that as part of another court case, it was decided that when the pool isn’t needed for those other uses, it could be used to augment flow in the 15-Mile Reach, for the sake of the fish. The pool is the largest single source of water for boosting flows in that reach, with 40,000 or 50,000 acre feet sometimes available for that purpose, he said.
Typically that water has helped boost flows in late summer and early fall, but over the last few years its use has been expanded to include the startup of the irrigation season when needed.
Lee said usually that startup can occur without excessively drawing down flows in the 15-Mile Reach. But the “April hole” can develop in circumstances such as when there’s little rain and a cold snap halts the beginning of spring runoff flows.
In recent years user pool managers including the Bureau of Reclamation, irrigators and state started considering how they might use, in April, water they didn’t deliver the prior fall. Last year they went a step further, decided to intentionally hold over some of the water that normally would have been released in the fall and keep it available for use this spring if need be…
The goal is to keep flows in the 15 miles at 810 cubic feet per second or more. On Monday the stretch had flows of about 1,440 cfs, but the Grand Valley Irrigation Co. was expected to begin diverting the same day, and the Grand Valley Water Users Association had begun increasing diversion. Lee has been consulting regularly with irrigation entities, weather and runoff forecasters and reservoir managers. While he thinks the flows in the crucial stretch will fall to 850 cfs, it looks like they will increase from there as temperatures warm and more moist weather arrives, likely making it unnecessary to augment flows to bridge the gap before spring runoff season begins in earnest.
Since Colorado’s last wild wolves were killed in the 1930s, a few lone animals have been spotted in the state. So, when a pack was spotted in northwest Colorado — several months before Colorado voters decide whether they’ll support a bill to reintroduce gray wolves to the state — it wasn’t a total surprise to Carbondale ecologist Delia Malone.
“It does give life to the idea that Colorado has ample suitable habitat for wolves,” said Malone, a member of the science advisory team for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which hopes to reestablish a sustainable population of wolves in Colorado.
Malone and Colorado wildlife officials agree that the rural northwest corner of the state is well-suited for wolves. CPW isn’t releasing the pack’s exact location, but agency spokesperson Lauren Truitt says there is plenty of prey and room to roam.
“With Colorado not having any wolf presence, there’s not a whole lot of competition for them, so it’s very likely that they’ll hang around,” Truitt said.
CPW biologists used DNA testing on four scat samples, which revealed there are at least three females and one male in the pack, and those wolves are all closely related, probably as full siblings.
“That does not mean there’s a sustainable population of wolves in Colorado,” Malone said. “A sustainable, recovered population is a population that is ecologically effective in their role to restore natural balance; they’re well-distributed throughout Colorado; they’re well-connected. And six little wolves is not that.”
Malone says her work as an ecologist gives her a clear view that Colorado needs wolves.
“Our ecosystems are not in great shape,” Malone said.
The combination of a warming climate and lack of predators has reduced the resilience of Colorado’s aspen forests and other habitats. Malone said the presence of wolves has tremendous benefits, including improving water availability in the driest months of the year.
“They (wolves) move the elk so that they don’t overgraze, so that there’s willow left for the beavers to build their dams, to store their water, to supply streamflows in the late-summer season,” Malone said.
Malone and others point to the ecological benefits seen after wolf recovery in Yellowstone National Park as a model. The National Park Service says that without pressure from predators such as wolves, the elk population grew far beyond what was sustainable. The number of elk has since reached healthier levels.
While a pack sighting indicates the possibility of wolves returning to western Colorado on their own, there are also two potential paths to reintroduction.
In November, voters will decide on Initiative 107, which would require CPW to create a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves by the end of 2023. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project has been working for years on a plan that would fully restore wolves to Colorado.
“Vast areas that are rugged and remote without humans are the ideal reintroduction sites,” Malone said.
The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project identified several potential reintroduction sites, including the Flat Tops Wilderness north of Glenwood Springs; Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests; Weminuche Wilderness in San Juan National Forest; and Carson National Forest.
Gray wolves are currently listed as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act, which gives management authority to the federal government. Last year, the federal government petitioned to remove those protections and declare wolves recovered. That would mean that CPW would be in charge of management.
If Initiative 107 passes and gray wolves remain listed under the ESA and, therefore, under federal management, Truitt says the next steps are unclear.
“The ballot initiative instructs the Commission to develop and implement a plan for reintroduction, but is silent as to what CPW is supposed to do if it has no authority to reintroduce or manage wolves,” she wrote in an email.
There is strong support across the state for wolf reintroduction. In an online survey conducted by Colorado State University professor Rebecca Niemiec, 84% of respondents intended to vote for wolf reintroduction.
Herd instinct and ranching changes
Jose Miranda raises water buffaloes, mostly for dairy, in Old Snowmass. He says it would be silly to think that wolves won’t change his operations, but he still plans to vote for reintroduction.
“My position is that morally, it’s the right thing to do,” Miranda said. “On the verge of so many species that are facing extinction, if we can do something to help some of them, we just have to.”
Miranda acknowledges that wolves would mean major changes for many ranchers, particularly those whose use permits to graze cattle on U.S. Forest Service land. Those permit areas tend to be large, with animals spread out across the landscape rather than gathered in herds.
Longtime Carbondale ranchers Bill Fales and Marj Perry use a Forest Service permit to graze up to 900 head of cattle each year in the summer and fall.
Perry has been researching ranchers’ experiences across the West, and she worries that wolf predation would be particularly severe during two times of the year: calving season, when wolves tend to hang out lower in the valleys and there are an abundance of calves available; and early fall, when wolf pups are learning to hunt.
“It’s a lot easier to learn to hunt a calf than a deer or elk,” Perry said, adding that their cattle are spread out on Forest Service lands during that time of year.
Researchers and ranchers have identified ways to minimize the loss of cattle to wolves and other predators. Matt Barnes, a rangeland and wildlife conservationist and a former rancher, says ranchers who use strategic grazing — a process in which cattle are moved from one pasture to another and work is done to encourage herd behavior — lose very few animals to predators.
“If they bunch up and stand their ground, the vast majority of the time, they all survive,” Barnes said. “A lone prey animal out there is kinda easy pickings.”
Wolves hunt by forcing their prey to run and attacking from the sides. That’s how they are able to kill animals that are four times their weight. But researchers think wolves are only successful about 15% of the time, and much of their success depends on how the prey behave — namely, if they gather in a herd.
“There is something magic about that herd effect,” Barnes said. “It’s prey animals’ primary anti-predator behavior.”
Cattle — indeed, all kinds of prey — can move the weakest members of the herd to the middle, and defend themselves using their hooves.
Miranda, who raises water buffaloes, thinks his animals stand a pretty good chance against wolves because of their herding behavior.
“I know that the water buffaloes that I have are probably going to have a better instinct protecting themselves and the younger animals as far as protecting themselves against a pack of wolves,” Miranda said.
But Perry and Fales say the landscape where their cattle graze make herding up very difficult. There aren’t many open fields on the Forest Service land where their permit is, and there’s also limited access to water.
“We try to not have the cattle in a big bunch in order not to hammer the riparian areas,” Perry said. “Our whole strategy has been to keep cattle strung out. And so far, it seems like it’ll be really hard to remedy that.”
Wolf advocates also say range riders can help minimize losses; a rider who is out with the cattle daily can watch for injured or weakened cows or calves that might become targets and keep an eye out for wolves. But Fales doesn’t think that would work, either, especially with the challenges of finding reliable labor.
“We do a lot of range riding. There’s never a day when there’s not someone out there,” he said. “But it would be totally insufficient to manage for wolves.”
The management strategy that Perry and Fales think would work in their situation is one that currently isn’t an option in Colorado: killing the problem wolves that prey on cattle.
“The only thing I would really advocate for would be lethal control,” Perry said. “You can’t have wolves without forevermore killing them.”
Killing wolves is illegal in Colorado because the species has federal protection under the ESA, but the future of that status is uncertain. Some ranchers, including Miranda, are hopeful that reintroduction would mean a larger voice in how wolves are managed than if the animals return to the state on their own.
“Some of these programs are very progressive,” Miranda said. “As long as there’s that kind of help and communication, that’s very fortunate.”
In fact, the CSU survey found that nearly 80% of people who identify as ranchers intend to vote for reintroduction. The online survey asked respondents a series of questions about how officials could manage wolves — including lethal control and compensation for ranchers for lost livestock — before asking whether people support the ballot initiative.
The initiative does not include any promise of lethal control, and management depends on a series of questions — namely, if wolves are removed from protections under the ESA. Even then, Barnes said control measures need to be carefully executed.
“For lethal control to make sense, it’s got to be targeted to the specific individuals that are involved in the conflict,” Barnes said. “Preemptive lethal control does not work.”
Also, he said, the number of cattle and sheep actually killed by wolves in states such as Montana and Wyoming is surprisingly low.
The numbers are similar in Wyoming, where wolves are considered “predatory animals” in most of the state, meaning they can be killed at will. In 2018, wolves were confirmed to have killed 71 head of livestock: 55 cattle, 15 sheep and 1 horse.
Wolves do kill livestock but not in big numbers.
“The rhetoric, the exaggeration, the myth is our biggest challenge,” Malone said. She said wolf advocates have work to do to assure ranchers that wolves won’t devastate their livelihood.
“We need to do work with the ranching community to be sure that they are whole and that they’re fairly treated,” Malone said. “But we can do that. We have good examples of it.”
Initiative 107 includes direction for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to create a plan to compensate
for livestock lost to wolves. Similar plans exist in other Western states, including Montana, where the state paid $82,959 to 40 livestock owners.
Funding for such a program in Colorado would come from an existing wildlife cash fund, and Malone says the goal is for public input to help shape policy on how to fairly compensate ranchers for their losses.
Still, Fales and Perry worry that wolves in Colorado would mean a significant economic hit — and an emotional one, too.
“There’s an emotional attachment (to the cattle), even though you’re selling them for a beef animal. You’re taking care of them, we’re with them just night and day when they’re calving,” Perry said. “And to go out and find them just shredded and eaten up is not something I would ever vote for.”
If Initiative 107 passes, Perry says she might quit. And her husband, Fales, thinks others might follow suit.
“I think a lot of people will quit, and certainly in this part of Colorado, there are a zillion developers ready to help you quit,” he said.
Coexistence amid conflict
Historically, conflicts between ranchers and wolves have not ended well for the predators.
“Because of their depredations of domestic animals, wolves in Colorado were systematically eradicated by shooting, trapping and poisoning,” reads the CPW informational website on wolves.
In recent years, CPW officials say there have been no reports or evidence of people killing wolves in the state, except for a widely publicized incident in 2015 where a hunter shot a wolf that he said he thought was a coyote.
While wolf advocates point to the ecological benefits of restoring wolves to their historic range, the social implications might be harder to pin down. Perry says she understands why people might be attracted to the idea of wolves, but she believes the implications on the ranching industry will be far-reaching.
“There could be unintended consequences (of wolf reintroduction),” Perry said. “Loss of ranchland, which means more fragmentation, more housing development, more decline for all animals, prey and predator.”
Barnes, who has experience in both wildlife conservation and raising livestock, says part of having domestic animals is the risk of predators.
“Very little in nature gets to live out its life without the risk of getting eaten,” Barnes said. “Coexistence is possible, but it’s probably not peaceful.”
From RethinkWolves.com via The Rio Blanco Herald-Times:
Rio Blanco county ag groups raised $34,000 to help oppose the statewide ballot initiative to introduce wolves on the Western Slope of Colorado. The Rio Blanco Stockgrowers, in partnership with Rio Blanco Farm Bureau and Rio Blanco Woolgrowers, hosted “Dance Without Wolves,” a fundraiser dinner, dance and auction to raise money to oppose the proposal.
More than 300 people gathered at the Fairfield Center in Meeker for the sold-out event. Rio Blanco Stockgrowers President Brian Collins noted, “This sends a strong message statewide that families on the Western Slope are very concerned about introducing wolves in their backyard and the subsequent negative impact on their families and communities.”
More than 70 live and silent auction items were donated, numerous sponsorships provided, and many businesses and individuals provided services free of charge. Contributions came from surrounding communities and all areas within the county. All three organizations worked together closely to ensure success.
Rio Blanco County Farm Bureau President Janice Weinholdt said, “The outpouring of donations and support from our community was overwhelming and underlines the deep concern in our county and the surrounding communities. We thank all who made this event possible.” A listing of helpers and donations, etc. will be compiled for next week’s paper.
Proceeds from the event are dedicated to Coloradans Protecting Wildlife, the issue committee running the campaign against the initiative. Coloradans Protecting Wildlife is run by the Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Woolgrowers Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Safari Club International. People are encouraged to donate to the campaign at http://www.rethinkwolves.com.
Audubon’s Western Water Initiative advocates for healthy rivers and lakes in the arid West, as well as the people and birds who depend on them.
Audubon’s priority saline lake ecosystems—Great Salt Lake, Lahontan Valley, Salton Sea, Owens Lake, Mono Lake, and Lake Abert—are at risk due to changes in water quality, quantity, and timing of water delivery. These changes are brought on by drought, diversions, and climate change.
This series of webinars will focus on efforts by Audubon and others to protect some of these unique systems. In this first webinar we will focus on a unique ecosystem that lies at the intersection of Western Water priority landscapes: The Salton Sea.
Two members of Audubon California’s Salton Sea team, Andrea Jones (Director of Bird Conservation) and Frank Ruiz (Salton Sea Program Director) will discuss the history and current status of the Salton Sea, its relationship to the Colorado River and Delta, the status of birds, policy initiatives, and community engagement and education programs. Learn how you can contribute to our efforts at the Salton Sea, both locally and remotely.
Feb 20, 2020 04:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):
Whirling Disease first impacted Colorado’s rainbow trout in the mid-1990s and eliminated many wild populations of this popular sport fish. The aquatic tragedy sparked a decades-long effort by Colorado Parks and Wildlife research scientists to find a remedy and re-establish populations.
Since 2003, the researchers have been crossing a strain of rainbow trout resistant to the disease with other strains of rainbows in the hope of developing a trout that would fend off whirling disease. Now, after more than 20 years of study, frustration, experimentation and dogged persistence by CPW’s aquatic researchers, the tide has turned in the fight against the dreaded disease. Whirling-disease resistant rainbows are now thriving in the wild and the agency is collecting their spawn, enabling hatcheries to propagate millions of fish that will be distributed to rivers and streams throughout the state.
“Thanks to advance genetic testing, we know these fish are maintaining their resistance to whirling disease,” said George Schisler, CPW’s aquatic research chief. “Now they are surviving, reproducing and contributing to future generations of Gunnison River rainbows.”
This long success story started on an August day in 1994 when former CPW researcher Barry Nehring, while walking the river bank in the Gunnison Gorge, noticed small fish swimming helplessly in circles. He knew immediately that the fish were infected with a microscopic spore that damages the cartilage of young fish and prevents them from swimming and developing normally. Whirling disease had arrived in the wild.
The disease was accidentally introduced to Colorado in the late 1980s when infected fish were imported to state and private hatcheries. After those fish were stocked in 40 locations, the spore spread and within a decade infected many rivers throughout state. The disease kills young fish, so eventually natural reproduction by wild rainbows ended across much of Colorado.
In search of a remedy, CPW scientists and biologists from wildlife agencies throughout the West started researching the disease in the late 1990s. At a national conference in Denver in 2002, a researcher from Europe who studied whirling disease gave a presentation about a strain of disease- resistant rainbow trout he’d found at a hatchery in Germany. Schisler, working with the University of California-Davis, imported eggs and then tested the hatched fingerlings, known as Hofers – named after the German hatchery. He found they were 100 times more resistant to the disease than the various CPW rainbow strains.
He also learned that because these fish had been raised in a hatchery for decades, they showed no inkling of the flight response needed to elude predators in the wild. So researchers started crossing them with wild strains, such as the Harrison Lake and Colorado River rainbow to produce fish that exhibit wild behavior and maintain resistance to whirling disease. Those fish were stocked in rivers around the state and some natural reproduction started.
Biologists working in the East Portal Section of the Gunnison River gorge began documenting wild reproduction of rainbow trout in that location in the mid-2000s. These fish demonstrated strong resistance to whirling disease, but also had instincts to survive in the wild. Through advanced genetic analysis, Schisler and his research partner, Eric Fetherman, determined that a DNA marker unique to the stocked Hofer-crosses appeared to have been incorporated into this population, resulting in observed resistance to the disease.
The researchers and agency aquatic biologists determined that developing a brood stock using the Gunnison River trout would be the best way to repopulate Colorado’s rivers with wild rainbows. Since 2014, more than 500,000 eggs have been collected from these fish to stock into whirlingdisease positive rivers and to create hatchery brood stocks.
The trout now has its own moniker: The Gunnison River Rainbow.
CPW’s Glenwood Springs hatchery is propogating both the pure Gunnison River Rainbows and crosses of those fish and other strains of whirling disease-resistant rainbows. This summer more than 1.3 million of fingerling disease-resistant rainbows will be stocked in rivers and streams throughout the state.
The ultimate goal of the stocking effort is to restore natural reproduction in the wild, eliminating the need to stock rainbows in the future.
However, re-establishing the rainbows continues to be a long-term project. After rainbows vanished, brown trout took over Colorado’s big rivers. They prey on the small rainbows that are stocked or hatch and compete for food and habitat with adult rainbows. Biologists say it will take many years for rainbows to become firmly established.
Research scientists don’t declare victory easily, but Fetherman noted that the research project in the East Portal is officially closed. Populations across the state will continue to be monitored because the tiny worms that produce the spores causing whirling disease will likely always exist in Colorado’s rivers.
“I feel like we’ve done some good work and these fish are ready to be stocked statewide,” Fetherman said.
Click here for all the inside skinny from Audubon Rockies:
Jamie Weiss, Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero coordinator, will demonstrate the importance of restoring our communities, one garden patch at a time. From a bird’s-eye view, learn how to create wildlife-friendly gardens that help combat the loss of open spaces and create green corridors that link your garden to larger natural areas by providing habitat for wildlife.
Here’s some of the history of the Sacramento-San Joaquin deltas from Matt Weiser writing in The High Country News, [February 27, 20214]:
When Padre Juan Crespi first sighted the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 1772, he thought he would be able to walk around it.
The Spanish missionary and his party of 15 soldiers had been dispatched to find a land route from Monterey to Point Reyes, where Spain hoped to build a port. But 10 days into their journey, in the heart of Alta California, Crespi and his men encountered a maze of water, mud and swamp, instead of solid ground. It was the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.
Crespi expected the estuary to function like others he had seen, fragmenting into dozens of small braided channels fanning out toward the sea. Upstream, he figured, they would find a single channel to cross.
But this estuary did the opposite. As Crespi traveled upstream, the water spread out, and his hopes thinned. On foot and horseback for three days in March, he and his companions searched fruitlessly for a way through the tangle of channels.
“Crossing these rivers by boat or canoe would be apt,” a chastened Crespi wrote in his diary. “Because if you do not, it’s (necessary) to climb the mountains to the southeast and seek the path of the large river. To climb such a high pass certainly requires a greater number of soldiers and more provisions, which is why I withdrew.”
Crespi was the first European to glimpse this odd California landscape, and the first of many to be confounded by it.
Sixteen rivers and hundreds of creeks converge from all over California on the Delta’s vast central plain – all mud, tules and marsh – finally forming one mighty river that drains the state’s whole churning belly. It’s called an “inverted” estuary because its waterways unite before reaching the sea. The only place comparable is the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
When Crespi encountered the estuary, its floodplain extended 100 miles north and south, filling the Central Valley with a wealth of snowmelt, all of it destined to squeeze through the land gap later called Golden Gate. Within a century of Crespi’s expedition, European settlers were trying to engineer their own logic into the place, trenching new channels and building levees to create some of the world’s richest farmland. Today, the Delta is crossed by three state highways and hundreds of miles of railroad tracks and county roads. There are 1,100 miles of navigable channels, and 72 islands ringed by levees. Modern charts detail where to anchor, where to catch the best striped bass, where to find the most convenient bridges and ferries.
But the levees may be vulnerable to earthquakes. If they fail, the water supply would be compromised by a flood of salty water from San Francisco Bay. And rising sea levels could taint the water supply permanently.
The Delta, which still covers an area the size of Rhode Island, provides half of all the freshwater consumed by a thirsty state, serving 3 million acres of farmland and 25 million Californians from Silicon Valley to San Diego. Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to better serve them by spending $15 billion on a new water-diversion system. If approved this year, it would shunt a portion of the Sacramento River out of the estuary into two giant tunnels, 30 miles long and 150 feet underground. The intent is to divert freshwater in a way less harmful to imperiled native fish species, while protecting those diversions from floods, earthquakes and a rising sea. The tunnels would serve existing state and federal canal systems that begin in the south Delta, near Tracy, and divert water to cities and farms, mostly in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Another $10 billion would go to wildlife habitat improvements, in part to breach levees and restore tidal action to some islands. The state believes the proposed tunnel intakes would be far enough upstream to protect the water supply from disaster, at least under present climate-change scenarios. The intakes would also include modern fish screens, potentially preventing the extinction of the native Delta smelt, spring-run chinook salmon and other species that are being killed by the current water export system.
But after seven years of study, state officials acknowledge that removing so much freshwater upstream may cause “unquantifiable” water-quality changes. Meanwhile, critics say taking so much freshwater from the estuary could harm Delta farms and perhaps concentrate pollutants in a way that hurts the same fish that state officials hope to restore. The Delta continues to confound.
Forty-five years after Crespi turned back, Padre Narciso Durán came through with two small boats on an expedition led by Lt. Don Luis Arguello. They left the Spanish presidio, or fort, at San Franciso, which was established three years after Crespi’s visit. Their trip through the watery maze began on May 13, 1817, and lasted two weeks. Durán, who kept a journal, came along to baptize Indians.
His party had a hard time from the start: They set out in a storm, and the boats became separated at the confluence. The storm blew Arguello onto the shore of the San Joaquin River, near its mouth. Durán and a second padre, in the other boat, took refuge for the night on a soggy mound of tules in the middle of the Sacramento.
When the storm finally quit and the boats were reunited, another challenge arose. It was snowmelt season, and the downstream current in the Sacramento River was so strong that it nearly halted their progress. Without wind, days of brutal rowing followed, with little upstream progress to show for it.
On top of that, the men experienced a condition that plagues Delta visitors to this day: They became disoriented.
Seeking to remain on the Sacramento River, the party soon encountered a variety of branching side-channels. They could not be sure which one was the river itself. Because the Delta was in flood, the true riverbanks and many of the natural islands were submerged. A gap in the trees that looked like a river channel might turn out to be a flooded island where a boat would quickly run aground. “The thick leafiness makes the whole river like a tree-lined promenade,” Durán remarked.
The next day, May 16, they traveled only four leagues upriver. They also took a wrong turn and left the Sacramento on a side channel – a serious mistake, as any detour meant more labor for the rowers. Eventually, though, they got lucky and recovered their course.
Familiarity with this labyrinth benefitted the locals, who fled on rafts as soon as they spotted the expedition boats. The Europeans found two villages vacated, either because of the spring flood or because word had spread that the Indians might be conscripted as laborers in the Spanish missions.
Occupants of a third village “fled at the noise of the launches, leaving only two old women, more than 60 years old.”
Durán felt obliged to baptize both women, “because it seemed to us that they could die before Divine Providence could arrange another convenient time when we could baptize them in one or another of the missions.”
Durán, who was no naturalist, made no effort to identify important land features or tree species, and does not mention sighting any animals. But the Delta was teeming with wildlife in a way that is difficult to imagine today: Vast herds of elk and pronghorn antelope roamed here, hunted by wolf and grizzly bear. Giant tidal marshes, packed with tules and cattails, hosted millions of waterfowl. The maze of curving sloughs was a nursery for one of the world’s most productive fisheries.
The Delta remains the most important salmon fishery on the West Coast, producing most of the wild-caught king salmon in the Lower 48 states. Yet it may not survive. There are 57 endangered species here, including steelhead trout and two runs of salmon.
Modern-day Californians are as oblivious to the region’s natural wealth as Durán seemed to be. A January 2012 survey found that 78 percent of California residents don’t know where the Delta is, or even what it is.
The day after baptizing the two women, Durán and his party reached their turnaround point. They hoped to find a place to erect a cross, “and there to end our quest and retreat downriver.” After rowing upriver three more leagues, they pulled ashore to rest, where, by chance, they spotted some rafts in the tules and a village of Natives, “who came out at them armed with their customary fierce clamor.”
Arguello mustered his soldiers to confront the Indians, who “calmed down, to everyone’s relief, and said they had armed themselves believing we were hostile people.” The travelers were invited to visit a larger village one league upriver, where they were promised fish.
But Durán and his cohorts, possibly disoriented, never found the second Indian village, and never got the promised fish. Exhausted and frustrated, they were ready to turn back. Amid the flood, they could find no solid ground to erect a cross. So they carved one on an oak tree.
The exact location of that cross is unknown today. But according to Durán’s diary, they carved it about 80 miles upstream from the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, or approximately near today’s state capital, Sacramento, where Gov. Brown weighs the fate of the Delta today.
Matt Weiser covers environmental issues for The Sacramento Bee and has written about the Delta and California water for 15 years.
The contemporary translation of Crespi and Durán’s journals is by Alexa Mergen.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in coordination with the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, plans to release water from Lake McConaughy to benefit downstream habitat used by threatened and endangered species.
Releases will start Monday and may continue through March 15…
USFWS, PRRIP and Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District staff will coordinate the releases, monitor weather and runoff conditions, and be prepared to scale back or end releases if required to minimize the risk of exceeding flood stage.
Current expectations include:
Environmental account water traveling down the North Platte channel below Lake McConaughy will be increased by approximately 300 cubic feet per second to 700 cfs.
– The river will remain well below the designated flood stage of 6 feet at the city of North Platte.
– Flows downstream of North Platte are expected to be significantly below flood stage.
– Flows at Grand Island should be approximately 700 cfs, or less than 6 inches higher than current flows.
– In the Overton to Grand Island stretch, the river stage is expected to be less than 1 foot above normal levels for this time of year.
A trail of wolf tracks observed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers in Northwest Colorado on January 19, 2020. Photo credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife:
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists have received notification back from a genetics lab confirming that four scat samples collected near a scavenged elk carcass in Moffat County in early January came from wolves. This is the first official documentation of a pack of wolves in the state since the 1940s.
Of the four samples, DNA results indicate three are female and one is male. The testing was also able to determine that all the wolves were related, likely as full siblings.
“The DNA doesn’t tell us the age,” said CPW Species Conservation Program Manager Eric Odell. “We don’t know where or when they were born. We can’t say. But that there are closely related wolves is a pretty significant finding.”
Odell also noted that “although previous reports had mentioned sightings of up to six wolves, this doesn’t do anything to alter that estimate. Just because we only collected four scat samples doesn’t mean there were only four animals.”
CPW is still waiting to receive results back from scat samples collected at a potential wolf sighting in Moffat County on January 19.
CPW would like to remind the public that wolves are a federally endangered species and fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, killing a wolf can result in federal charges, including a $100,000 fine and a year in prison, per offense.
The public is urged to contact CPW immediately if they see or hear wolves or find evidence of any wolf activity. The Wolf Sighting Form can be found on the CPW website.
The Trump administration is proposing to redefine a key term in the Clean Water Act: “Waters of the United States.” This deceptively simple phrase describes which streams, lakes, wetlands and other water bodies qualify for federal protection under the law.
Government regulators, landowners, conservationists and other groups have struggled to agree on what it means for more than 30 years. Those who support a broad definition believe the federal government has a broad role in protecting waters – even if they are small, isolated, or present only during wet seasons. Others say that approach infringes on private property rights, and want to limit which waters count.
The Trump proposal goes completely against scientists’ understanding of how rivers work. In my view, the proposed changes will strip rivers of their ability to provide water clean enough to support life, and will enhance the spiral of increasingly damaging floods that is already occurring nationwide. To understand why, it’s worth looking closely at how connected smaller bodies of waters act as both buffers and filters for larger rivers and streams.
Parts of a whole
The fact that something is unseen does not make it unimportant. Think of your own circulatory system. You can see some veins in your hands and arms, and feel the pulse in your carotid artery with your finger. But you can’t see the capillaries – tiny channels that support vital processes. Nutrients, oxygen and carbon dioxide move between your blood and the fluids surrounding the cells of your body, passing through the capillaries.
And just because something is abundant does not reduce each single unit’s value. For example, when we look at a tree we tend to see a mass of leaves. The tree won’t suffer much if some leaves are damaged, especially if they can regrow. But if it loses all of its leaves, the tree will likely die.
These systems resemble maps of river networks, like the small tributary rivers that feed into great rivers such as the Mississippi or the Columbia. Capillaries feed small veins that flow into larger veins in the human body, and leaves feed twigs that sprout from larger branches and the trunk.
Microbes at work
Comparing these analogs to rivers also is apt in another way. A river is an ecosystem, and some of its most important components can’t be seen.
Small channels in a river network are points of entry for most of the materials that move through it, and also sites where potentially harmful materials can be biologically processed. The unseen portions of a river below the streambed function like a human’s liver by filtering out these harmful materials. In fact, this metaphor applies to headwater streams in general. Without the liver, toxins would accumulate until the organism dies.
As an illustration, consider how rivers process nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which are essential for plant and animal life but also have become widespread pollutants. Fossil fuel combustion and agricultural fertilizers have increased the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus circulating in air, water and soil. When they accumulate in rivers, lakes and bays, excess nutrients can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen from the water, killing fish and other aquatic animals and creating “dead zones.” Excess nitrogen in drinking water is also a serious human health threat.
River ecosystems are full of microbes in unseen places, such as under the roots of trees growing along the channel; in sediments immediately beneath the streambed; and in the mucky ooze of silt, clay, and decomposing leaves trapped upstream from logs in the channel. Microbes can efficiently remove nutrients from water, taking them up in their tissues and in turn serving as food for insects, and then fish, birds, otters and so on. They are found mainly in and around smaller channels that make up an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the total length of any river network.
Water does not necessarily move very efficiently through these small channels. It may pond temporarily above a small logjam, or linger in an eddy. Where a large boulder obstructs the stream flow, some of the water is forced down into the streambed, where it moves slowly through sediments before welling back up into the channel. But that’s good. Microbes thrive in these slower zones, and where the movement of dissolved nutrients slows for even a matter of minutes, they can remove nutrients from the water.
Flood control and habitat
Other critical processes, such as flood control, take place in small upstream river channels. When rain concentrates in a river fed by numerous small streams, and surrounded by bottomland forests and floodplain wetlands, it moves more slowly across the landscape than if it were running off over land. This process reduces flood peaks and allows more water to percolate down into the ground. Disconnect the small streams from their floodplains, or pave and plow the small channels, and rain will move quickly from uplands into the larger channels, causing damaging floods.
These networks also provide critical habitat for many species. Streams that are dry much of the year, and wetlands with no surface flow into or out of them, are just as important to the health of a river network as streams that flow year-round.
Marvelously adapted organisms in dry streams wait for periods when life-giving water flows in. When the water comes, these creatures burst into action, with microbes removing nitrate just as in perennially flowing streams. Amphibians move down from forests to temporarily flooded vernal wetlands to breed. Tiny fish, such as brassy minnows, have waited out the dry season in pools that hold water year-round. When flowing water connects the pools, the minnows speed through breeding and laying eggs that then grow into mature fish in a short period of time.
Scientific sleuthing with chemical tracers has shown that wetlands with no visible surface connection to other water bodies are in fact connected via unseen subterranean pathways used by water and microbes. A river network is not simply a gutter. It is an ecosystem, and all the parts, unseen or seen, matter. I believe the current proposal to alter the Clean Water Act will fundamentally damage rivers’ ability to support all life – including us.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Boris Kondratieff):
Editor’s note: Boris Kondratieff, professor of entomology and curator of the C. P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity at Colorado State University, wrote this piece for The Conversation in January 2020. Colorado State is a contributing institution to The Conversation, an independent collaboration between editors and academics that provides informed news analysis and commentary to the general public. See the entire list of contributing faculty and their articles here.
Experienced anglers recognize that for a trout, the ultimate “steak dinner” is a stonefly or mayfly. That’s why fly fishing enthusiasts will go to extreme lengths to imitate these graceful, elegant and fragile insects.
I share their passion, but for different reasons. As a an entomologist who has studied stoneflies and mayflies for over 40 years, I’ve discovered these insects have value far beyond luring trout – they are indicators of water quality in streams and are a crucial piece of the larger food web. And they are in trouble.
I have served as director of the C. P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity since 1986. The greatest thrill of my career has been collecting and adding mayflies and stoneflies to our collection.
To find specimens, I have traveled to pristine streams in every U.S. state, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Brazil, Ecuador, the Arabian Peninsula and Europe. My collecting trips have yielded more than 100 new species of mayflies and stoneflies.
One of my favorites literally fell into my lap as I was beating lush foliage along a pristine stream in southern Oregon during May 2014. The beating sheet is an efficient means of sampling dense, streamside vegetation, where adult insects hide. The sheet itself is made of sturdy canvas stretched over two wooden cross members. A stick is used to knock the insects from the vegetation onto the canvas, where they are collected.
When I saw a large yellow and black insect drop onto my sheet, I knew immediately it was a new stonefly species, previously unknown to science. I was ecstatic. My colleagues and I subsequently described it as Kathroperla siskiyou, after the Siskiyou mountains of southern Oregon.
Mayflies and stoneflies thrive in unpolluted water – a fact my colleagues and I have witnessed firsthand on our numerous expeditions. Not only do we see greater overall abundance of these insects in clean streams, but more diversity of species, as well. In polluted areas, we observe the exact opposite. Without a doubt, the presence or absence of mayflies and stoneflies in a stream is a reliable indicator of the quality of its water.
The role of mayflies and stoneflies in the food chain is fundamental, as well. Immature mayflies and stoneflies consume algae, living plants, dead leaves, wood and each other. In this nymph phase, when they have gills and live exclusively underwater, they are an important food source for many animals further up the food chain, including fish and wading birds. When the mayflies and stoneflies emerge from the water as adults, they are essential food for spiders, other insects such as dragonflies and damselflies, and many kinds of birds and bats.
Currently, scientists estimate that 33% of all aquatic insects are threatened with extinction worldwide. Many of these species are mayflies and stoneflies. The mayfly species Ephemera compar has already gone extinct in Colorado, and several other species of aquatic insects are threatened in my home state.
Life drains into a stream
Less than 1% of Earth’s water is potable and available for human use. Maintaining water quality has become an ever increasing challenge because of the large number of chemicals people use in everyday life and in commerce. Common contaminants such as sediment, organic enrichment including fertilizers and animal waste and heavy metals are constantly making their way into the waters, as well. Declining water quality is like a police siren alerting humanity to current, ongoing and emerging pollution problems.
One of my great passions is to enlighten others on how to protect the most valuable natural resource of the planet: streams and rivers. Individually, citizens can make a difference. Storm water is the number one water quality problem nationally. Enhancing and planting riparian buffers – that is, planted areas near streams – can help to prevent precipitation and sprinkler runoff. People can also prioritize using only native plants; decreasing mowing areas; recycling or composting yard waste; using less or no fertilizer; avoiding the use of pesticides; and bagging pet waste. Insisting that environmental laws be enforced and strengthened will also help reduce water pollution.
Without clean water, life on Earth will become difficult or impossible for mayflies and stoneflies, not to mention people.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Rebecca Ferrell):
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials are confirming they have additional evidence that a group of wolves is now residing in northwest Colorado.
On Jan. 19, CPW wildlife officers investigated the discovery of an animal carcass surrounded by large wolf-like tracks in the northwest corner of Moffat County. While conducting their investigation in the field, they made an attempt to locate the wolves. In their search, they heard distinct howls in the area. Officers used binoculars to observe approximately six wolves about two miles from the location of the carcass.
“This is a historic sighting. While lone wolves have visited our state periodically including last fall, this is very likely the first pack to call our state home since the 1930s. I am honored to welcome our canine friends back to Colorado after their long absence,” said Governor Jared Polis. “It’s important that Coloradans understand that the gray wolf is under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. While the animals have naturally migrated to our state and their presence draws public interest, it’s important that people give them space. Due to their Protected status, there are severe federal penalties for anyone that intentionally harms or kills wolves in our state.”
“Right after our two officers heard the howls from the wolves, they used binoculars to observe approximately six wolves about two miles from the location of the carcass,” said JT Romatzke, Northwest Region Manager for CPW. “After watching them for about 20 minutes, the officers rode in to get a closer look. The wolves were gone but they found plenty of large tracks in the area.”
According to the officers, the tracks measured approximately 4.5 to 5.5 inches and appear to have been made by at least six animals.
“As we have made clear, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will not take direct action in these cases,” said Dan Prenzlow, Director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We have the leading experts on wildlife management and species recovery working for our agency, but while wolves remain federally protected, they are under the jurisdiction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. We will continue to work with our federal partners and monitor the situation.”
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, killing a wolf can result in federal charges, including a $100,000 fine and a year in prison, per offense. The public is urged to contact CPW immediately and fill out a report if they see or hear wolves or find evidence of any wolf activity in Colorado. The Wolf Sighting Form can be found on the CPW website.
After a year of anxious waiting, scientists and researchers who’ve helped build one of the most successful species recovery programs in the nation have gotten a 13-year extension to finish their work.
The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program began operating in 2007 with the bi-partisan backing of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since then it has created some 15,000 acres of new habitat for stressed birds and fish, and added nearly 120,000 acre-feet of new annual water to the Platte River in central Nebraska. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons.
The region is critical because it serves as a major stopping point for migrating birds, including the whooping crane, the least tern and the piping plover.
In addition to helping fish, birds and the river, the program also allowed dozens of water agencies, irrigation districts and others to meet requirements under the Endangered Species Act, which can prevent them from building and sometimes operating reservoirs, dams and other diversions if the activity is deemed harmful to at-risk species.
Last year it wasn’t clear that three new governors, three state congressional delegations, and a fractious Congress could come together to re-authorize the program.
Jo Jo La, an endangered species expert who tracks the program for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said everyone was grateful that politicians united to push the federal legislation, and the new operating agreement, through. It was signed by President Trump at the end of December.
“Our program was fortunate to have the leaders it had,” La said.
But it wasn’t just politicians who were responsible for the program’s extension, said Jason Farnsworth, executive director of the Kearney, Neb.-based program.
It was the diversity among the group’s members that was also key, he said. “Everyone from The Nature Conservancy to the Audubon Society to irrigation districts in the North Platte Basin supported this. You don’t often see an irrigation district sending a support letter for an endangered species recovery program. That’s how broad the support was.”
Of the $156 million allocated, Colorado is providing $24.9 million in cash and another $6.2 million in water, Wyoming is providing $3.1 million in cash and $12.5 million in water, Nebraska is providing $31.25 million in land and water, and the U.S. Department of Interior is providing $78 million in cash, according to PRRIP documents.
With their marching orders in hand, researchers and scientists can now focus on completing the program so that at the end of this 13-year extension it will become fully operational.
Early results have won accolades from Wyoming to Washington, D.C. The CWCB’s La said congressional testimony routinely described it as one of the “marquee” recovery programs in the nation, largely because, even though it isn’t finished, species are coming back in a major way.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the endangered whooping crane, least tern and pallid sturgeon, and the threatened piping plover, were in danger of becoming extinct, with the river’s channels and flows so altered by dams and diversions that it could no longer support the species’ nesting, breeding and migratory habitats.
Today the picture is much different.
Still ahead is the work to acquire more water and land, and research to understand how to help the rare pallid sturgeon recover. Thus far it has not responded to recovery efforts, in part because it is extremely difficult to locate.
The idea is to ensure there is enough water and habitat to keep the birds and fish healthy once the program enters its long-term operating phase.
“The intent is to spend the next 13 years working on identifying the amount of water and land that is necessary to go into [the final operating phase]. The focus will be less on acquiring and learning, and more on operating and managing,” Farnsworth said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Whooping crane adult and chick. Credit: USGS (public domain)