Water year 2018 closes as one of driest on record for upper #ColoradoRiver Basin — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

Drying in process on the Colorado River, where Lake Powell once stood, in early October 2018. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Colorado water managers are saying good riddance to water year 2018. It enters the history books alongside 2002 and 1977 as one of the driest on record for the Upper Colorado River Basin.

According to preliminary numbers from the Bureau of Reclamation, water year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, had the third-lowest unregulated inflow into Lake Powell at 4.62 million acre-feet. That’s just 43 percent of average.

Only 1977 and 2002 saw less water flow into Lake Powell from the upper basin, at 3.53 million acre-feet and 2.64 million acre-feet, respectively.

The average yearly inflow is 10.8 million acre-feet.

The months of August and September 2018 were the third- and fourth-worst months for unregulated inflows into Lake Powell behind only July and August of 2002.

The unregulated flow in August was just 2 percent of average. Lake Powell is currently 46 percent full.

“We know if we have another drought, the risk of draining Lake Powell is real,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and chairman of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. “If we have another year as bad as this one, you’re going to see lots of discussions about who’s going to take reductions. We really need three, four, several years of average or above-average snow years to get us out of this pickle.”

Low flows in the Roaring Fork River just above Rio Grande Park, in July 2012. Water year 2018 surpassed 2012 as third driest in terms of inflow into Lake Powell from the Upper Colorado River Basin. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

Roaring Fork conditions

Locally, the Roaring Fork watershed was extremely dry this water year. The region was plagued by record-low snowpack — the lowest snow-water equivalent ever recorded for some dates at the McClure Pass and Independence Pass SNOTEL sites — sparse runoff, record-low streamflows and a hot, dry summer.

Low flows were prevalent across Colorado during the last two weeks of the water year, which runs from October through September. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s drought information system, 30 percent of U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges in the intermountain West reported record-low seven-day-average stream flows for the last two weeks of September, including some in the Roaring Fork watershed.

On Sunday, the last day of the water year, the USGS river gauge on the Roaring Fork at Stillwater Road just east of Aspen showed the river flowing at 19 cubic feet per second, beating the previous minimum flow of 21 cfs in 1977.

Flows on the Crystal River were similarly low. Above Avalanche Creek and above a series of diversion structures, the river was running at nearly 46 cfs, lower than the previous record low of 48 cfs in 1977.

At the river gauge near the state fish hatchery and downstream from several diversion structures just outside of Carbondale, flows dribbled down at just under 7 cfs Sunday.

Colorado Department of Water Resources Engineer for Division 5 Alan Martellaro said the summer’s weak monsoons exacerbated conditions caused by little snowfall.

“We had a bad snowpack,” Martellaro said. “It was not the worst, but then we have had an incredibly dry summer, a total lack of rain. I think when we start analyzing it, we are going to find the flows in late summer are unprecedented. We have done some things we have never done before.”

Martellaro is referring to curtailment on the lower Crystal in late July. Amid rapidly dropping flows, the district 38 water commissioner turned down the headgate of the Lowline Ditch, which he determined was diverting too much water. The ditch diversion did not exceed its legally decreed amount; the problem was that it was violating new state guidelines regarding wasting water.

According to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, many sites around western Colorado rank as the driest since recording began for water-year precipitation, including McClure Pass, Schofield Pass and Independence Pass.

Statewide, the water year precipitation average at all SNOTEL sites measured just 21.4 inches, which is 64 percent of average — the second-lowest on record behind only 2002.

“It was pretty consistently dry throughout the entire year,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the NRCS Colorado Snow Survey. “February may have been the only month where we had near-normal precipitation across the state.”

Paonia Reservoir was at 7 percent full at the end of September. Water year 2018 ranked as the third driest in the Colorado River Basin. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Reservoirs low

In some instances, reservoir releases have come to the rescue of downstream anglers, fish and ecosystems.

Releases from Ruedi Reservoir will continue through October to bolster flows for endangered fish in what’s known as the 15-mile reach, a notoriously dry section of the Colorado River between the Palisade area and the confluence with the Gunnison River in Grand Junction.

[Reclamation has been releasing water from] Ruedi Reservoir.

Periodic releases from Green Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling also boosted summer flows in the Colorado River. But that water will need to be replaced this winter by snowfall, Martellaro said. Ruedi Reservoir is currently 63 percent full while Green Mountain Reservoir is nearly 46 percent full.

“Where we have large reservoirs that can supplement the flows, yeah, we’ve gotten by,” Martellaro said. “But even that is coming to an end. We are running out. It remains to be seen what the snowpack is like to refill these large holes we’ve put in these reservoirs.”

Water year 2018 Upper Colorado River Basin precipitation accumulation via the NRCS.

“The days of water abundance are gone” — Jen Pelz

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

From The Santa Fe New Mexican (Andy Stiny):

The Santa Fe-based organization [Wild Earth Guardians] filed notice that it wants the New Mexico Court of Appeals to review a district judge’s refusal to force the Office of the State Engineer to prove that the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is entitled to water it uses under permit.

“The appeal looks to compel the State Engineer to require the District actually prove it has used the large quantity of water it claimed upon receiving its permits from the State in 1925,” WildEarth Guardians said in a news release. “Despite the clear mandate under its permits, the District has long avoided confirming its use with the hope of continuing to control and divert the entire flow over the river in perpetuity.”

The district’s diversion of water from the Rio Grande for hundreds of farmers has been a source of contention, especially in dry years when the riverbed has gone mostly dry below the Albuquerque area, threatening the survival of species such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow…

“The days of water abundance are gone,” Jen Pelz of WildEarth Guardians said in a statement. “The reality of these times demands that the basic limitations on water use are met. Our litigation seeks just that, to enforce key provisions of state water law to safeguard and conserve water for our rivers.”

Electrofishing near Grand Junction

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

The temperature is hovering right around 90 degrees the day Dale Ryden and I float down the Colorado River near Grand Junction, Colorado. The water looks so inviting, a cool reprieve from the heat, but if either of us jumped in we’d be electrocuted.

“It can actually probably be lethal to people if you get in there,” Ryden, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says.

Next to us, Ryden’s coworkers cruise by in grey and blue inflatable rafts, outfitted with a metal sphere — the size of a disco ball — hanging off the front. A generator on the back of the raft sends an electric charge through the ball into the turbid water. Ryden compares the color to a glass of Ovaltine. What lies beneath the surface of the sediment-laden water is a mystery.

“To get at the animal we’re studying we have to actually find ways to capture them and take them out of their natural habitat,” Ryden says. “And so one of the ways we can do that is electrofishing.”

The fish that venture near the electrified rafts are momentarily stunned and pulled out of the water with nets. Today’s mission is to remove nonnative fish — like small mouth bass — which feed on the young progeny of the four endangered species found in the river. The bass will be collected, measured, weighed, stored in bags and eventually discarded in a local landfill.

Meanwhile, any of the four endangered species — bonytail, razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow, and humpback chub — we encounter will be treated with care and released back into the river.

Ryden has a tough, and some would say impossible, job. Everyday he tries to find ways to help the fish that evolved to live only in this river system — one of the most engineered ecosystems in the world — survive.

Ancient species

Fish in the Colorado River are a product of harsh conditions.

Over millions of years the rushing, sediment-laden water sculpted their bodies with characteristic ridges and bumps, making them well-equipped to handle its highs and lows. But human interference in the rivers they call home has caused a few to nearly go extinct.

“They’ve survived three explosions of the Yellowstone supervolcano. They were here when mastodons and woolly mammoths went extinct,” Ryden says.

He ticks off the historical events that upended human civilization while the fish just kept swimming. The razorbacks and humpback chubs didn’t bat an eye while Roman and Egyptian empires collapsed, while America was colonized, while soldiers fought the Civil War.

It was the era of big dam building that fundamentally altered the fish species’ home. Within the last 100 years or so, Ryden says, dams and other water diversions have made life close to impossible for these fish. Then people started adding in toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals and a suite of invasive fish.

“Call it the death by a thousand cuts,” Ryden says. “So they could survive any one of those problems probably fairly well. When you start throwing them all on top of them, then it becomes a lot more problematic.”

USFWS recommends “Threatened” status for razorback sucker #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Populations are stabilized due to an off stream hatchery program. From the Associated Press (Dan Elliot) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended reclassifying the ancient and odd-looking razorback sucker from endangered to threatened, meaning it is still at risk of extinction, but the danger is no longer immediate.

The Associated Press was briefed on the plans before the official announcement.

Hundreds of thousands of razorbacks once thrived in the Colorado River and its tributaries, which flow across seven states and Mexico.

By the 1980s they had dwindled to about 100. Researchers blame non-native predator fish that attacked and ate the razorbacks and dams that disrupted their habitat.

Their numbers have bounced back to between 54,000 and 59,000 today, thanks to a multimillion-dollar effort that enlisted the help of hatcheries, dam operators, landowners, native American tribes and state and federal agencies.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Tom Chart, director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “We get more fish out in the system, they’re showing up in more places, they’re spawning in more locations.”

Chart’s program oversees the campaign to restore the razorback sucker and three other fish, all of them found only in the Colorado River system.

In March, the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended changing the humpback chub from endangered to threatened. It takes 18 to 24 months to complete the process, including a public comment period.

The razorback sucker’s name comes from a sharp-edge, keel-like ridge along its back behind its head. Chart thinks the ridge may have evolved to help the fish stay stable in the turbulent waters of the Colorado.

It can grow up to 3 feet (1 meter) long and live up to 40 years.

Razorbacks have been around for between 3 million and 5 million years, but trouble arrived as the population expanded in the Southwest. State and federal agencies began introducing game fish into the Colorado without realizing they would devour the native fish, Chart said. A spurt of dam-building was a boon to cities and farms but interrupted the natural springtime surge of melting snow, which in turn shrank the floodplains that provided a safe nursery for young razorbacks.

Dams also made parts of the rivers too cold for razorbacks, because they release water from the chilly depths of reservoirs. And they blocked the natural migration of the fish.

By the late 1980s, most of the wild razorbacks were old, an ominous sign they were no longer reproducing, Chart said. The Fish and Wildlife Service began capturing the remaining wild razorbacks and moving them to hatcheries to begin rebuilding the population.

The agency designated razorbacks an endangered species in 1991, although Utah and Colorado enacted state protections earlier.

Biologists began restocking rivers with hatchery-raised razorbacks in 1995. Now, about 55,000 are released into the Colorado and its tributaries annually.

The Fish and Wildlife Service began working with dam operators to time water releases to help razorbacks spawn and restore flood plains for them to mature. Some dams were modified to help razorbacks to get by…

Drought, climate change and increasing human demand are straining the rivers, which makes it harder for fish to survive.

McAbee said the Fish and Wildlife Service took the river’s uncertain future into account before recommending the change for the razorbacks. Their long lifespan helps them endure low-water years when few young fish survive, he said.

Cooperation among water users in 2018, a year of devastating drought in much of the Southwest, shows the razorbacks’ needs can be accommodated, McAbee said.

“Things could have been catastrophic,” he said.

Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity is doubtful about how healthy the razorbacks really are.

The government’s reliance on hatcheries to boost the population shows they are not self-sustaining, he said, and he worries about their future in the overtaxed Colorado River.

“I think the elephant in the room right now with regard to recovery is climate change and river flows and regional aridification,” he said.

“We’re skeptical of the merits of this,” McKinnon said.

Congress Approves Increased Spending on Water and Other Projects — @Audubon

From the National Audubon Society:

The “minibus” appropriations bill is the result of a bipartisan, bicameral deal struck on [September 10, 2018] in a conference committee and is the first spending package to pass ahead of the end of the current fiscal year on September 30. “We are absolutely grateful to every member of Congress who supported this important funding bill,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Vice President of Water Conservation at the National Audubon Society. “Audubon and its more than one million members know that healthy water systems are vital to birds and to people. This legislation will help us build on the progress we’ve made in strengthening our water infrastructure.”

The bill advances programs that are important for birds and the places they need, including:

An extension of the System Conservation Pilot Program until the year 2022. As a key tool to address the prolonged drought in the West, this win-win program has provided anyone with Colorado River water rights the opportunity to receive a cash payment in exchange for conserved water that stays in rivers and reservoirs. Additional funding for the Bureau of Reclamation could also be used to increase the number of projects in this program that will reduce the threat of water shortages for the 36 million Americans who rely on Colorado River water.

With participation from ranchers, farmers, golf course owners and water system managers in seven states (WY, UT, CO, NM, AZ, CA, NV), this program allows for more water remaining in the seasonal habitats that birds like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Willow Flycatcher need to feed, rest and nest.

Increased funding for the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART Program, and other funding to address drought conditions in the West. WaterSMART invests in innovative, collaborative, and locally-led projects that conserve water across the West, and helps address the long-standing backlog of western water infrastructure needs. This means that organizations like state and local Audubon groups can continue to partner on projects such as lining canal walls, restoring native vegetation or clearing blocked streams, all of which contribute to the quantity and quality of water that people, birds and other wildlife depend on in an increasingly hot and dry West.

Funding for endangered species recovery and water quality control programs at the Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service. These programs are critical for the recovery of endangered native fish species like the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub and razorback sucker, and for ensuring compliance with the Endangered Species Act for more than 2,500 water projects in the Colorado River Basin, including every Bureau of Reclamation project upstream of Lake Powell. This program helps ensure species that are lynchpins of local ecosystems and food chains are considered when water infrastructure projects are planned.

Important funding for construction of Everglades restoration projects through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These projects will protect and restore wetlands in America’s Everglades, a unique ecosystem that is home to 70 threatened and endangered species and more than 300 native bird species like the Roseate Spoonbill. Completed restoration projects provide new options for managing water that can respond to toxic algae blooms in addition to intermittent flooding and drought. Audubon hopes to see the Army Corp direct some of its discretionary funds from this legislation towards Everglades restoration above and beyond the levels identified in this bill, including needed funding for Operations, Maintenance and Rehabilitation of Everglades projects.

A directive for the Department of Energy to pursue a “moonshot” goal for demonstrating energy storage technologies, critical funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and robust support for research and development supported by programs like the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Each of these programs will help pave the way for important advances in storing and distributing electricity generated by renewable sources like wind and solar. Renewable energy, properly sited and managed for bird safety, is key to mitigating a changing climate, which is the greatest danger that birds face.

Importantly, the bill does not include harmful environmental riders from earlier versions of the legislation.

One excluded provision would have repealed the 2015 Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule. Repealing the Rule would reduce protections for wetlands and the one-third of North American bird species – including the Bald Eagle, Wood Stork, American Bittern and Prothonotary Warbler – that rely on wetlands for food, shelter, or breeding.

The bill also does not include a rider that would have banned spending funds to develop or issue regulations based on studies of the social cost of carbon. Climate change is the top threat that birds face, as it is both shrinking and shifting their ranges. Audubon supports research and policy that will reduce greenhouse gases such as carbon that are warming the planet.

@USBR awards $3.4 million contract to aid the recovery of the critically endangered razorback sucker #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Ron Rogers biologist with Bio-West Inc., holds a large razorback sucker captured in Lake Mead near the Colorado River inflow area

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Mark McKinstry, Amee Andreason):

The Bureau of Reclamation today awarded a $3.4 million contract to Bio-West Inc., of Logan, Utah, to determine how habitat, flows, water temperatures, trends in other fish species and other variables affect the endangered razorback sucker in the Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon inflow areas.

The razorback sucker is one of four large-bodied river fish native to the Colorado River Basin. Currently listed as endangered under the authority of the Endangered Species Act, the fish was historically abundant throughout the basin and was predominately found in the main stem river and major tributaries of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The current distribution and abundance of razorback sucker is greatly reduced from historic levels. However, populations have persisted, made possible due to aggressive stocking efforts throughout the Colorado Basin.

Grand Canyon and Lake Mead currently have the only self-sustaining and recruiting population of endangered razorback suckers in the Colorado River Basin. Under this contract, researchers will be able to study this population of fish to determine their population numbers, age structure, movement patterns from the river back and forth to Lake Mead, and spawning areas in the lake and river. Understanding this population will help in the recovery of this critically endangered fish throughout its range.

The work accomplished under this contract will include seven 2-week efforts in Grand Canyon from March through September 2019 and will investigate adult razorback sucker spawning and movement patterns in Grand Canyon and Lake Mead. This will help to identify the types of habitat used by these fish in addition to determining a population estimate. These activities will support conservation efforts in the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead and will provide updated information on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to revise the recovery goals for the razorback sucker.

Native cutthroat trout reintroduction program coming to Wolf Creek Pass — @CPW_SW

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

From Colorado Parks and Wildlife via The Pagosa Sun:

Colorado Parks and Wild- life (CPW) is continuing its work to make southwest Colorado a center for native cutthroat trout restoration. The agency will start a recla- mation project near the top of Wolf Creek Pass Sept. 11-13 to bring the native cold-water fish back to part of its native habitat.

Native cutthroat trout were nearly eliminated from Colorado during the pioneer days when water quality in many rivers and streams became polluted due to run off from timber and mining operations.

Also at that time, non-native trout — rainbows, browns and brook — were introduced to Colorado waters and muscled out the native trout. Fortunately, for more than 30 years CPW biologists searched for these indigenous fish and found sev- eral isolated populations in remote streams in the San Juan Basin.

“We’ve been working on cutthroat trout projects in this part of the state for more than 30 years and we’ve made great progress in restor- ing these fish to their native waters,” said Jim White, aquatic biologist in Durango.

Native cutthroat are only found and stocked in Colorado’s headwaters areas.

To re-establish native fish, CPW treats streams with an EPA-approved chemical to eliminate any non-native fish. In September, biologists will treat 1.5 miles of the south fork of Wolf Creek. The chemical, rotenone, has been used safely for years around the world for aquatic management projects. Used properly, it poses no threat to human health. On all stream projects, CPW adds another chemical to the water at the terminus of the treatment area to neutralize the effects of the rotenone. The treatment will be done on Sept. 12 and CPW staff will stay through the next day to monitor the water.
This tributary of Wolf Creek was selected for the project because it provides excellent trout habitat and it is separated by large natural barriers from the main stem of Wolf Creek. The barriers prevent non-native fish from moving upstream into the treated area.

This year is an ideal time for the treatment because the water level in the stream is low and easy to treat. The treated area will be void of fish until next summer. After the spring run-off in 2019, CPW biologists will check the stream to assure non-native fish have been eliminated. If none are found, the native cutthroats will be stocked next summer.

This and other native trout restoration projects are done in coop- eration with the San Juan National Forest.

Native cutthroat trout are restored in headwater streams where the water is pristine, free of whirl- ing disease and non-native fish. Pure native cutthroat trout are not stocked in major rivers because they cannot compete with established non-native rainbow and brown trout populations.

“Colorado Parks and Wildlife is dedicated to maintaining our state’s native species,” said John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for CPW’s Southwest Region. “Restoration work is done to assure that native trout remain a sustainable and important part of Colorado’s natural environment.”

North of Durango, CPW is in the final step of reintroducing native cutthroats into nearly 30 miles of stream in the Hermosa Creek area. The final section will be restocked next summer.

To learn more about CPW’s work to restore native cutthroat trout throughout the state, go to http:// cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/Re-searchCutthroatTrout.aspx.