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GRAND CANYON ENVIRONMENT
This in-depth feature from the Arizona Republic reviews how dams and water management have thoroughly altered the environment in the Grand Canyon, and how some of those alterations could now be, paradoxically, protecting native fish.
The species — previously considered extinct — is thriving in Herman Gulch, off Interstate 70, after initial stocking attempts now appear to be successful
Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists first tried to reproduce and reintroduce the greenback cutthroat trout into a stream, not far from Interstate 70 and the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel, in the summer of 2016.
When they returned the next summer, the results were grim. Researchers examining the ribbon of stream that winds down Herman Gulch found that none of the thousands of inch-long swimmers that were hauled up a steep trail by volunteers and placed in the waterway had survived.
But as history has shown, there’s never really an end to the story of the ancient, threatened greenback cutthroat trout.
A few months later, in September 2017, there was a good sign.
“Lo and behold, we found some of the fish that we stocked as young-of-year in September 2016,” said Boyd Wright, a native aquatic species biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northeast region. “We thought that it was a failed plant. We are seeing those fish, albeit in a very low percentage of what we stocked out.”
The news for greenbacks got better from there.
The creek has been stocked five times since 2016. Last year, CPW put in older fish, some of which were about 5 inches long.
“The real success story, I think, right now is with those fish we stocked last year as 1-year-olds,” Wright said. “We’ve seen on average about 35 percent survival on those. We’re really happy with that level of success. A year later, they’ve lived through a winter, they’ve lived through a runoff cycle. That’s significant.”
State wildlife officials chose the Herman Gulch stream, near a popular hiking trail, because a barrier where it spills into Clear Creek near I-70 prevents other types of trout — browns, brooks and rainbows — from sullying the genetics of the pure greenback population.
Before stocking the greenbacks, biologists remove other trout species from the creek.
CPW says the retention rate of the greenbacks in Herman Gulch is an encouraging sign for projects that the agency is working on to reintroduce the fish in other watersheds…
Greenbacks are being stocked in Dry Gulch, near Herman Gulch, and there are two more streams where CPW is building barriers — at a cost of about $250,000 — to stock the trout and keep other species out.
“Everything we know about this system tells us that it should support a population of native trout,” Wright said of Herman Gulch. “For us, we expect to have reproductively mature fish by 2019 and will best be able to detect if those fish reproduce successfully by 2020. If we see 1-year-old fish in the system in 2020, we know we had good, successful reproduction in 2019. I think 2020 is going to be a big year for this project.”
The hope is then to replicate that success elsewhere…
That passion for the greenbacks and for fishing was on display on a recent weekday morning. Several dozen volunteers from Trout Unlimited gathered with CPW officials waiting for a truck filled with thousands of tiny greenback cutthroats to arrive from Mount Shavano Fish Hatchery near Salida.
They huddled together in the chilly wind since the truck was more than an hour late. But they didn’t care about the delay.
“It’s pretty amazing to see not only the fish take hold, but the people it brings out in support of this,” Omasta said of the different people involved in hauling the trout up to Herman Gulch. “Just this past summer we had families, we had kids from middle school and a high school, walking alongside old fishermen.”
The volunteers fashioned an informal line as they waited for sloshing, 2-foot-tall, clear-plastic bags, each filled with 500 tiny greenbacks. They stuffed the bags into backpacks and headed uphill to free them into Herman Gulch.
As volunteer Brett Piché strolled up to the stream, several 5- or 6-inch greenbacks darted back and forth in the water. Piché placed his bag of fish in the water and, after a few minutes, carefully released its contents into the crystal-clear stream.
Immediately, a larger greenback swam up and gobbled a few of its smaller brethren and darted away.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:
On November 5-8, 2018, the Department of the Interior will conduct a high-flow experimental (HFE) release from Glen Canyon Dam. This HFE will include a peak magnitude release of approximately 38,100 cubic feet per second (cfs) for 60 hours (four days including ramping from baseflows to peak release) to move accumulated sediment downstream to help rebuild beaches and sandbars. This HFE will be the first conducted under the 2016 Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan (LTEMP) HFE Protocol; similar HFEs were conducted in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 in accordance with the 2011 HFE Environmental Assessment Protocol. The 2018 HFE is expected to provide resource benefits in the near term and will also provide scientific information to be used in future decision making.
This HFE will not change the total annual amount of water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. Releases later in the water year will be adjusted to compensate for the high volume released during this experiment.
As the morning light grows over the eastern mountains, the outlandish mating ritual comes into view. The knee-high males strut around, puffing their white-feathered chests and splaying their tails. They chase one another and spar in a flurry of beating wings, heaving chests, and loud thunking. Meanwhile the females—smaller birds with brindled gray feathers that blend with sage and soil—stand around looking bored. It’s a ridiculous spectacle, and the human analogies are inescapable: singles bar, Venice Beach boardwalk, Senate hearing.
The greater sage grouse is “unquestionably the most comical-looking bird I have ever seen,” ornithologist Charles Bendire noted in 1877. Back then there were millions of sage grouse across the American West. Native peoples and Anglo settlers alike hunted them for feathers and food. Camping in one Wyoming valley in the 1880s, naturalist George Bird Grinnell found it so crammed with grouse that it became a “moving mass of gray.”
Such scenes are hard to find today. Less than 10 percent of the bird’s original population remains, about half a million birds scattered across 11 western states and two Canadian provinces. Sage grouse need undisturbed sagebrush; the tough, drought-resistant shrub feeds the birds, especially in winter, and shelters them and their nests. But sagebrush is in retreat everywhere. Massive overgrazing a century ago cleared the way for invasive grasses that now fuel devastating fires in the western part of the bird’s range. Roads and subdivisions, transmission lines, farms, gas fields, and wind turbines—all disrupt what was once an unbroken sea of sage.
Preserving sagebrush for grouse would help other animals that depend on the same habitat, such as pronghorn, mule deer, pygmy rabbits, and burrowing owls. But it might prove costly to ranchers, miners, oil and gas developers, and real estate brokers. In 2015 then President Barack Obama’s administration brokered what it hailed as a historic collaboration among those competing interests. Now President Donald Trump’s administration is weakening provisions that steered oil and gas drilling away from areas that had been reserved for sage grouse.
It’s the age-old battle between those who want to preserve western lands and those who want to extract a living from them—only in this case, the burden falls on a comical, knee-high bird. As the sage grouse goes, so goes the West.
One of the biggest factors in the grouse’s decline these days may be the astonishing increase in natural gas production in places such as the Green River Basin, south of Pinedale, Wyoming. In 1984, when biologist John Dahlke first visited, the basin contained sagebrush, a few fence posts, some two-track roads, and not much else—except the largest known winter concentration of sage grouse. They would lift from the sage in lumbering waves, Dahlke recalls: “The sky was full of them, bumping into each other, falling down.”
That basin is now home to one of the most productive gas fields in the region. Called the Jonah Field, it’s crisscrossed with roads and cluttered with chugging, groaning infrastructure: gas wells, drill rigs, pipelines, sage-camouflaged service huts. Nearly all of that is on federal land.
“It happened stunningly fast,” says Dahlke, who works as a wildlife consultant in Pinedale. “From absolutely silent, just the wind or the hiss of snowfall hitting the ground, to an industrialized landscape.”
The breakneck change has proved particularly hard on sage grouse because of their fidelity to ancestral mating and nesting grounds. Males return each spring to the same leks—clearings where they do their mating dances. Females usually nest within 500 yards or so of the previous year’s nest. Their chicks settle nearby.
“Sage grouse are very poor pioneers,” Dahlke says. Rather than set off for better habitat—which is more and more limited—they dance doggedly on and nest among the bulldozers and flaring gas wells. Most birds survive in the short term, Dahlke says, but “incremental impacts” take their toll. The number of leks has dwindled. “The enormous winter flocks are now gone from the Jonah Field,” Dahlke says. “They are gone.”
Only in the early 1990s did scientists start to realize the extent of the sage grouse’s decline across the West. In 1999 conservation groups filed the first petition requesting that the bird be protected under the Endangered Species Act. But for years the federal government, hamstrung by tight budgets and pressure from business interests, put off a reckoning. Listing sage grouse as endangered would sharply limit economic activity on the 173 million acres of public, state, and private land where sage grouse live.
But the threat of a listing motivated states to take action. In 2007 Wyoming, which houses more than a third of the remaining sage grouse and has an economy that depends on fossil fuel extraction, brought together a broad coalition—ranchers, industry representatives, conservation groups, land managers, and politicians—to create a policy to halt the bird’s decline.
“We battled it out mightily,” says Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs at Jonah Energy, which operates on the Jonah Field. “And then we put our interests aside and asked, ‘What is best for Wyoming?’ ”
The group ultimately agreed to limit any development and restore disturbed areas within “core” grouse habitat—not including the Jonah Field, where the grouse population was already diminished—while allowing more intensive development elsewhere.
The Obama administration’s $60 million federal plan was modeled on Wyoming’s. No faction got everything it wanted. But, Ulrich says, “it’s demonstrably working.” Industry got certainty: The administration promised it wouldn’t list sage grouse as endangered. Conservationists, says Brian Rutledge of the Audubon Society, got limits on development in important habitat. “Do we have issues?” Rutledge asks. “Of course. But we set standards and are measuring impacts. To me this is the future of conservation.”
Not everyone agreed. Groups on left and right filed suit, arguing, respectively, that the plan would not adequately protect grouse or that the restrictions were “draconian.” “The certainty of not being able to develop is not the kind of certainty we want,” says Kathleen Sgamma of Western Energy Alliance, an industry group.
The Trump administration agrees: For the sake of energy independence and not “destroying local communities,” as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed lifting some restrictions on development in key sage grouse habitat. Under another proposed policy, which could affect many species, the administration would allow regulators to consider not only the science but also the economic impact of listing species as endangered.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”