A series of hot, dry years in the Upper Colorado River Basin has led to increasing concern about the security of water supplies at region-wide and local scales for the following purposes and sectors:
• Maintaining compact compliance and preventing Lake Powell’s water level from dropping too low to generate power.
• Maintaining agricultural production and the vitality of rural communities.
• Maintaining municipal and industrial water security.
• Maintaining river ecosystems.
Without a strategic, collaborative approach to addressing these issues, there is a risk that individual entities will act independently to secure their water supplies against climate and legal uncertainties. This could lead to more permanent transfers from agriculture, with detrimental impacts on rural communities and unpredictable impacts on river ecosystems.
Over the past several years, there have been numerous explorations into new approaches to meeting community and environmental needs in the Upper Basin, including deliberate, temporary, and compensated reductions in water use in order to help balance supply and demand in the Colorado River system, share water supplies between agriculture and cities, and aid troubled streams.
This report distills insights from these explorations that can help illuminate how such deliberate, temporary reductions in water use could play a role in:
• Enhancing long-term water security for farms, municipalities, industries and rivers in the Upper Basin (upstream objectives).
• Compact compliance and protection of power generation capacity in Lake Powell (downstream objectives).
In this report, the term “strategic conservation” will be used to describe these deliberate reductions in water use to meet specific goals.
The insights covered in this report focus on the following topics:
• Water user interest
• Agronomic impacts of reducing water use
• Monitoring and verification of saved water
• Shepherding and conveyance of conserved water
• Pricing considerations
• Environmental considerations
• Additional considerations
For each topic, key insights and remaining uncertainties are highlighted and illustrative research, experiences and resources are described. Links to documentation are provided wherever possible.
Due to low levels of water, the federal government has declared a Tier 1 water shortage in the Colorado River for the first time ever. Now in effect, this shortage declaration impacts municipalities, agriculture, tribes, and many other stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin.
What does this mean for Colorado and surrounding states? What are The Nature Conservancy and its partners doing to address this issue?
Join us to learn how the Colorado River can be a model for resiliency and sustainability, and what you can do to help. Speakers include:
Taylor Hawes – Director, Colorado River Program, The Nature Conservancy
Aaron Derwingson – Water Projects Director, Colorado River Program, The Nature Conservancy
Carlos Fernández – State Director, Colorado Chapter, The Nature Conservancy
During a work session held by the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) on Dec. 7, the board heard from Al Pfister with the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Program (WEP) in regard to a matching fund request for the south Yamaguchi Park project.
The WEP is requesting $10,000 in matching funds. The funds would come from the county’s Conserva- tion Trust Fund (CTF), which can only be used for outdoor recreation purposes.
The total cost of the project is estimated at just over $664,000, with more than $500,000 coming from the grant.
The WEP needs a 25 percent cash match, or just over $166,000 to be awarded the grant.
Pfister explained the WEP is a stakeholder group that was formed to develop a stream management plan for the upper San Juan River basin…
He explained the WEP is working under the Colorado Water Plan and the Southwest Basin Roundtable Implementation Plan (SWBIP), “which sets the framework for how water issues are going to be addressed throughout the state.”
He mentioned that, currently, the SWBIP is being revised and should be coming out for public comment in January 2022.
As part of that plan, the WEP is applying for a matching grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), Pfister noted…
He explained that the project objectives are to enhance the recreational experience for both anglers and river enthusiasts, improve pub- lic access to recreational features, improve fish habitat quality and pro- mote sediment movement through this section of the San Juan River.
“Everybody in the county is going to see some benefit from it, even if they don’t get in the river,” Commissioner Alvin Schaaf said.
During a work session held by the BoCC on Dec. 14, County Attorney/ Interim Administrator Todd Weaver indicated that the county does have sufficient funds in its CTF to commit $10,000 to the WEP out of the 2021 budget.
He noted the BoCC will likely vote on the matter at its next regular meeting scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 21at 398 Lewis St., in the commissioners’ room.
The emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) is a deceptively attractive metallic-green adult beetle with a red abdomen. But few people ever actually see the insect itself – just the trail of destruction it leaves behind under the bark of ash trees.
I study invasive forest insects and work with the USDA to develop easier ways of raising emerald ash borers and other invasive insects in research laboratories. This work is critical for discovering and testing ways to better manage forest recovery and prevent future outbreaks. But while the emerald ash borer has spread uncontrollably in nature, producing a consistent laboratory supply of these insects is surprisingly challenging – and developing an effective biological control program requires a lot of target insects.
The value of ash trees
Researchers believe the emerald ash borer likely arrived in the U.S. on imported wood packaging material from Asia sometime in the 1990s. The insects lay eggs in the bark crevices of ash trees; when larva hatch, they tunnel through the bark and feed on the inner layer of the tree. Their impact becomes apparent when the bark is peeled back, revealing dramatic feeding tracks. These channels damage the trees’ vascular tissue – internal networks that transport water and nutrients – and ultimately kill the tree.
Before this invasive pest appeared on the scene, ash trees were particularly popular for residential developments, representing 20-40% of planted trees in some Midwestern communities. Emerald ash borers have killed tens of millions of U.S. trees with an estimated replacement cost of US$10-25 billion.
State and federal agencies have used quarantines to combat the spread of several invasive forest insects, including Asian longhorned beetles and Lymantria dispar, previously known as gypsy moth. This approach seeks to reduce the movement of eggs and young insects hidden in lumber, nursery plants and other wood products. In counties where an invasive species is detected, regulations typically require wood products to be heat-treated, stripped of bark, fumigated or chipped before they can be moved.
The federal emerald ash borer quarantine started with 13 counties in Michigan in 2003 and increased exponentially over time to cover than a quarter of the continental U.S. Quarantines can be effective when forest insect pests mainly spread through movement of their eggs, hitchhiking long distances when humans transport wood.
Any biocontrol plan poses concerns about unintended consequences. One notorious example is the introduction of cane toads in Australia in the 1930s to reduce beetles on sugarcane farms. The toads didn’t eat the beetles, but they spread rapidly and ate lots of other species. And their toxins killed predators.
Introducing species for biocontrol is strictly regulated in the U.S. It can take two to 10 years to demonstrate the effectiveness of potential biocontrol agents, and obtaining a permit for field testing can take two more years. Scientists must demonstrate that the released species specializes on the target pest and has minimal impacts on other species.
Four wasp species from China and Russia that are natural enemies of the emerald ash borer have gone through the approval process for field release. These wasps are parasitoids: They deposit their eggs or larva into or on another insect, which becomes an unsuspecting food source for the growing parasite. Parasitoids are great candidates for biocontrol because they typically exploit a single host species.
The selected wasps are tiny and don’t sting, but their egg-laying organs can penetrate ash tree bark. And they have specialized sensory abilities to find emerald ash borer larva or eggs to serve as their hosts.
The USDA is working to rear massive numbers of parasitoid wasps in lab facilities by providing lab-grown emerald ash borers as hosts for their eggs. Despite COVID-19 disruptions, the agency produced over 550,000 parasitoids in 2020 and released them at over 240 sites.
The goal is to create self-sustaining field populations of parasitoids that reduce emerald ash borer populations in nature enough to allow replanted ash trees to grow and thrive. Several studies have shown encouraging early results, but securing a future for ash trees will require more time and research.
One hurdle is that emerald ash borers grown in the lab need fresh ash logs and leaves to complete their life cycle. I’m part of a team working to develop an alternative to the time- and cost-intensive process of collecting logs: an artificial diet that the beetle larva can eat in the lab.
The food must provide the right texture and nutrition. Other leaf-feeding insects readily eat artificial diets made from wheat germ, but species whose larva digest wood are pickier. In the wild, emerald ash borers only feed on species of ash tree.
In today’s global economy, with people and products moving rapidly around the world, it can be hard to find effective management options when invasive species become established over a large area. But lessons learned from the emerald ash borer will help researchers mobilize quickly when the next forest pest arrives.
FromYale 360 (Jim Robbins). Click through for Ted Wood’s photo gallery:
The Gila was once a vibrant desert river, providing a lifeline for the riparian habitat and wildlife that depended on it in the U.S. Southwest. But population growth, agricultural withdrawals, and, increasingly, climate change have badly diminished the river and threaten its future.
The confluence of the tiny San Pedro River and the much larger Gila was once one of the richest locales in one of the most productive river ecosystems in the American Southwest, an incomparable oasis of biodiversity.
The rivers frequently flooded their banks, a life-giving pulse that created sprawling riverside cienegas, or fertile wetlands; braided and beaver-dammed channels; meandering oxbows; and bosques — riparian habitats with towering cottonwoods, mesquite and willows. This lush, wet Arizona landscape, combined with the searing heat of the Sonoran Desert, gave rise to a vast array of insects, fish and wildlife, including apex predators such as Mexican wolves, grizzly bears, jaguars and cougars, which prowled the river corridors.
The confluence now is a very different place, its richness long diminished. A massive mountain of orange- and dun-colored smelter tailings, left from the days of copper and lead processing and riddled with arsenic, towers where the two rivers meet. Water rarely flows there, with an occasional summer downpour delivering an ephemeral trickle.
On a recent visit, only a few brown, stagnant pools remained. In one, hundreds of small fish gasped for oxygen. An egret that had been feeding on the fish flew off. The plop of a bull frog, an invasive species, echoed in the hot, still air.
The Gila River, which was listed by the advocacy group American Rivers in 2019 as the nation’s most endangered river, drains an enormous watershed of 60,000 square miles. Stretches have long been depleted, largely because of crop irrigation and the water demands of large cities. Now, a warmer and drier climate is bearing down on ecosystems that have been deprived of water, fragmented, and otherwise altered, their natural resilience undone by human activities.
Other desert rivers around the globe — from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates to the Amu Darya in Central Asia — face similar threats. Efforts are underway to restore some integrity to these natural systems, but it is an uphill battle, in part because desert rivers are more fragile than rivers in cooler, wetter places.
Last year was the second-hottest and second-driest on record in Arizona, where heat records are frequently broken. The last two years have seen fewer desert downpours, known locally as monsoons, an important source of summer river flow.
“We’re dealing with a rapidly changing climate that is becoming, overall, more dry and varied and warmer,” said Scott Wilbor, an ecologist in Tucson who studies desert river ecosystems, including the San Pedro. “We are in uncharted territory.”
Born of snowmelt and springs in the mountains of southern New Mexico, the Gila is the southernmost snow-fed river in the United States. It was once perennial, running 649 miles until it emptied into the Colorado River. As the climate warms, scientists predict that by 2050 snow will no longer fall in the Black and Mogollon ranges that form the Gila’s headwaters, depriving the river of its major source of water.
“We’re seeing a combination of long-term climate change and really bad drought,” said David Gutzler, a professor emeritus of climatology at the University of New Mexico. If the drought is prolonged, he said, “that’s when we’ll see the river dry up.”
The same scenario is playing out on the once-mighty Colorado, the Rio Grande, and many smaller Southwest rivers, all facing what is often called a megadrought. Some research indicates that a southwestern U.S. megadrought may last decades, while other scientists fear the region is threatened by a permanent aridification because of rising temperatures.
Worldwide, said Ian Harrison, a freshwater expert with Conservation International, “pretty much where there are rivers in arid areas, they are suffering through a combination of climate change and development.”
Like the Gila, many of these rivers have high degrees of endemism. “Life is often highly specialized to those particular conditions and only lives on that one river, so the impacts of loss are catastrophic,” he said.
Rivers everywhere are important for biodiversity, but especially so in the desert, where 90 percent of life is found within a mile of the river. Nearly half of North America’s 900 or so bird species use the Gila and its tributaries, including some that live nowhere else in the U.S., such as the common blackhawk and northern beardless tyrannulet. Two endangered birds, the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo, live along the Gila and its tributaries, including the San Pedro and the Salt.
Desert rivers, of course, make life in the desert possible for people, too. Growing crops in the perpetual heat of the desert can be highly lucrative, especially if the water is free or nearly so thanks to subsidies from the federal government. Agriculture is where most of the water in the Gila goes.
This spring, photographer Ted Wood and I made a journey along the length of the Gila, from the headwaters in New Mexico to west of Phoenix. In most of Arizona, the Gila is dry. Where it still flows, I was impressed by how such a relatively small river, under the right conditions, can be so life-giving. The trip brought home what desert rivers are up against as the climate changes, and also how much restoration, and what types, can be expected to protect the biodiversity that remains.
Our journey began at the river’s source, where Cliff Dweller Creek spills out of a shady canyon lined with Gambel oak in Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The creek is barely a trickle here. Above the creek, ancestral Puebloans, known as Mogollon, once lived in dwellings wedged into caves, making pottery and tending vegetable gardens. The Mogollon abandoned these canyons in the 15th century, perhaps done in by an extended drought.
From inside a Mogollon cave, I looked out at rolling hills, covered with ponderosa pine, pinyon and juniper trees. The green-hued water gains volume where three forks come together near here. Historically, the mountain snow melts slowly each spring, providing high steady flows through April and May. Flows slow to a trickle in June. In July and August, monsoons pass through and, along with frontal systems, cause flash flooding and a rise in water levels.
Flooding is a “disturbance regime,” not unlike a forest fire, that rejuvenates aging, static ecosystems. A healthy river in the mountains of the West is one that behaves like a fire hose, whipping back and forth in a broad channel over time, flash flooding and then receding, moving gravel, rocks, logs and other debris throughout the system. A flooding river constantly demolishes some sections of a river and builds others, creating new habitat — cleaning silt from gravel so fish can spawn, for instance, or flushing sediment from wetlands. A river that flows over its banks, recharges aquifers and moistens the soil so that the seedlings of cottonwoods, mesquite trees and other vegetation can reproduce. Along healthy stretches of the Gila, birds are everywhere; I spotted numerous bluebirds in the branches of emerald green cottonwoods.
The riparian ecosystem that lines the 80 or so miles of the New Mexico portion is largely intact because of the protections afforded by federal wilderness areas, the lack of a dam, and the river’s flow not being completely siphoned off for farming. This is an anomaly in a state that has lost many of its riparian ecosystems. “This is the last free-flowing river in New Mexico,” said Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition.
The future of the New Mexico stretch of the river is uncertain because of the possibility of more water withdrawals and the loss of snowpack. “We’ve seen flows in the last 10 years lower than we’ve ever seen,” Siwik said. This year, she said, set an all-time low on the river, with flow less than 20 percent of normal.
Undammed, the Gila River through New Mexico still floods, refreshing the Cliff-Gila valley, which contains the largest intact bosque habitat in the Lower Colorado River Basin. The valley is home to the largest concentration of non-colonial breeding birds in North America. The river is also a stronghold for threatened and endangered species, such as nesting yellow-billed cuckoos, the Gila chub, Chiricahua leopard frogs and Mexican garter snakes all live there.
At odds with efforts to keep the Gila wild are plans by a group of roughly 200 long-time irrigators in southwestern New Mexico. Each summer they divert water from the Gila to flood-irrigate pastures, which de-waters stretches of the river. The irrigators have been trying to raise money to build impoundments to take even more of their share of water, but so far have been unsuccessful, in part because of opposition from conservation groups.
Cattle are another threat to the river’s biological integrity here — both unfenced domestic cattle and feral cows. Cattle break down riverbanks, widen the stream and raise water temperatures. They eat and trample riparian vegetation, causing mud and silt to choke the flow, and destroy habitat for endangered species. The Center for Biological Diversity recently sued the U.S. Forest Service to force the agency to take action.
“We’re in a cow apocalypse,” said Todd Schulke, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are even in the recovered Gila River habitat. It’s just heartbreaking.”
As the river enters Arizona, the riparian ecology remains largely intact, especially in the 23 miles of the Gila Box National Riparian Area. Here, 23,000 acres of bosque habitat is in full expression, with thick stands of cottonwoods, velvet mesquite trees and sandy beaches. It is one of only two national riparian areas in the country set aside for its outstanding biodiversity; the other is on the San Pedro River.
As the river leaves the riparian area, it undergoes a striking change: massive cotton farms near the towns of Safford, Pima, and Thatcher, first planted in the 1930s, cover the landscape. The dried, brown stalks of harvested cotton plants stand in a field, bits of fluff on top. Growing cotton in the desert — which uses six times as much water as lettuce — has long been seen as folly by critics, made possible only by hefty federal subsidies.
Much of the flood pulse ecology is lost here, as the river is diverted or subject to groundwater pumping. Instead of flooding, the river cuts deeper into its channel, lowering the water table, which many plants can no longer reach. The cottonwood stands and other riparian habitats have disappeared. “You want the groundwater within five feet of the ground, but it’s mostly 8 to 12 feet,” said Melanie Tluczek, executive director of the Gila Watershed Partnership, which has been doing restoration here since 2014.
It is a harsh place for new planting. The river is dry in long stretches. Tamarisk, a pernicious invasive tree also known as salt cedar, needs to be cut down and its stumps poisoned to prevent regrowth. Small willows and Fremont cottonwoods have been planted on barren desert ground. Wire cages over infant trees keep elk, beaver and rabbits from gobbling them up.
Meanwhile, tamarisk grows prolifically, slurping up water, changing soil chemistry and the nature of flooding, robustly outcompeting natives, and increasing the risk of wildfire.
“If you can do restoration here, you can do it anywhere,” Tluczek said. She said the Gila Watershed Partnership has removed 216 acres of tamarisk along the river and planted 90 acres with new native trees. But the Gila here will never look like it did. “We can’t restore the past,” Tluczek said. “We’re going to see a floodplain that has more dryland species and fewer floodplain species.”
Downstream, the Coolidge Dam forms a giant concrete plug on the Gila. Built in the 1920s by the federal government, it was the result of irrational exuberance about the amount of water on the Gila and meant to supply farmers with water. Today, however, the reservoir is usually dry. Built to hold 19,500 acres of water, this year the water in the lake covered just 50 acres.
From here to Phoenix and on to the Colorado, water only occasionally flows in the Gila. Yet even the small amount of water that remains is vital to wildlife. “Where there has been water near the surface, animals smell it and will dig down in the sand in the riverbed to free it up,” Wilbor said. “You set up a camera and it’s like an African watering hole, with species after species taking turns to come use the water.”
Will the Gila River through most of Arizona to the Colorado ever be restored to a semblance of the biological jewel it once was? The chances are slim. But two pioneering efforts have brought back elements of the desiccated river.
In 2010, Phoenix completed a $100 million, eight-mile restoration of the long-dewatered Salt River where it joins the Gila and Agua Fria rivers at Tres Rios. Fed by water from the city’s sewage treatment plant across the road, this constructed complex includes 128 acres of wetlands, 38 acres of riparian corridor, and 134 acres of open water. It is thick with cattails and other vegetation, an island of green around a lake amid the sere surrounding desert.
On the nearby Gila River Indian Community, meanwhile, home to the Pima — or the name they prefer, Akimel O’othham, the river people — is something called a managed area recharge. The Akimel O’othham, who share their community with the Maricopa, are believed to be the descendants of the Hohokam, an ancient agricultural civilization with a vast network of irrigation canals that was largely abandoned centuries ago. The Akimel O’othham continued to farm along the Gila in historic times until their water was stolen from them in the late 19th century by settlers who dug a canal in front of the reservation and drained it away.
After a century of the Akimel O’othham fighting for their water rights, in 2004 the Arizona Water Settlement Act provided the tribe with the largest share of Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project, a share larger than the city of Phoenix’s allotment. The tribe is now water-rich, using much of that water to restore its tribal agricultural past, though with modern crops and methods.
Last year, some of the Colorado River water was released into the Gila to be stored in an underground aquifer and used to create a wetland.
Both of these projects, at Tres Rios and at the reservation, have created oases in a harsh desert landscape, bringing back an array of birds and wildlife, and — in the case of the Akimel O’othham — helping revitalize the cultural traditions of these river people.
“We’re not going to have rivers with native species in the Southwest unless we can protect and restore these systems,” especially with a changing climate, Siwik said. “Protecting the best, restoring the rest — or else we lose these systems that we need for our survival.”
From RiversEdge West via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
Tamarisk trees, those green bushy plants seen along waterways, have been turning brown across the county thanks to a special beetle used to control the invasive species.
Ben Bloodworth, Tamarisk Beetle Program coordinator with RiversEdge West, sent out a note Monday responding to social media posts from local people wondering why they were seeing so many browning tamarisk plants.
“These are tamarisk trees, or salt cedars, and the phenomenon is currently so pervasive here in the valley that folks are starting to wonder about it on social media,” Bloodworth said. “So, before you blame anyone for over-spraying, or the hot, dry air of June, let’s chat about the millions of little beetles that live in the valley with us.”
According to Bloodworth, tamarisk, which is native to Asia and the Mediterranean, became such an environmental and economic problem in the western United States that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to research and release a biological control agent to address the issue.
“Biocontrols are natural ‘predators’ that feed on plants in their native ranges but are not found in the U.S.,” Bloodworth said. “In 1987 the USDA began a program to find natural enemies of tamarisk and see if they could live and feed on tamarisk in North America without feeding on anything else.”
Out of hundreds of candidate species, the tamarisk beetle was found to be the most successful. It was found to only feed on tamarisk and not any other species of plants. So the USDA began releasing it, including in Moab, Utah, in 2001. From there the beetle spread up the Colorado River to Mesa County.
“Since tamarisk beetles survive on tamarisk as their only food source, they were never intended to eliminate the invasive plant,” Bloodworth said. “Rather, they were released to help control the spread of the plant and reduce the amount that land managers must remove by other, more costly means.”
The small green beetles, when there is a large enough population, can defoliate a large amount of tamarisk in just a few weeks. Left behind are the orangish brown remains of the formerly green tamarisk.
“The populations ebb and flow with available tamarisk and some years we have almost no tamarisk beetles anywhere,” Bloodworth said. “As you may have noticed by all the brown tamarisk, this is not one of those years!”
Counterintuitively the brown, dead tamarisk is actually less of a fire danger than the green plant, Bloodworth said. It may initially, for a few weeks, be more susceptible to catching fire, but once it has dropped its leaves it is actually less of a fire risk, according to Bloodworth.
“The brown trees may not be pretty, but they do provide for opportunities to restore native vegetation alongside our rivers,” Bloodworth said.
Here’s the release from Oregon State University (Steve Lundeberg and David A. Lytle):
Researchers from Oregon State University say ecological data gathered during a recent low-flow experiment in the Grand Canyon is a key step toward understanding Colorado River ecosystems as the amount of water in the river continues to decline.
Dave Lytle, professor of integrative biology, and Ph.D. students Angelika Kurthen and Jared Freedman teamed with scientists from the United States Geological Survey during the March 2021 project to examine the quantity and diversity of invertebrates in the river. Monitoring aquatic invertebrates is an important tool for keeping track of stream health.
“The Colorado River and its dams are important to cities throughout the Southwest, and as a result of that management the river experiences some pretty unusual flows,” Lytle said. “During the day in the Grand Canyon, river levels can rise several feet, then they can drop down several feet, stranding your boat if you’re not careful. That’s because there’s high electricity demand during the day and lower demand at night.”
The high flow during times of heavy demand for power is known as hydropeaking.
“Hydropeaking can cause trouble for ecosystems downstream, and with our collaborators we’re experimenting with ways to change river flows to make them more compatible with productive ecosystems,” Lytle said. “Invertebrates are food for fish, birds and bats, and we want to enhance that food base by testing out different flow regimes that mesh with management ideas.”
During the low-flow event, releases from Lake Powell through the Glen Canyon Dam were restricted so that the Colorado ran at 4,000 cubic feet per second compared to its usual flow of 8,000 to 15,000 CFS. Lytle’s team took samples to measure the quantity of invertebrates stranded by the low flows and environmental DNA samples to analyze the diversity of invertebrates in the water.
“During this spring’s low flow, gravel bars and parts of channels that had been submerged were exposed for the first time in decades,” Lytle said. “We saw really large areas of vegetation and invasive species like New Zealand mud snails and quagga mussels, which are there in high numbers at the expense of native invertebrates such as black flies, mayflies and midges that are better food sources for native fish.”
The Colorado River follows a 1,450-mile route generally southwest from north central Colorado to just east of Las Vegas. From there it turns south to form Arizona’s western border with Nevada and California, and then the border between Mexican states Sonora and Baja California before emptying into the Gulf of California.
Between the U.S. and Mexico, 40 million people depend on water from the Colorado. The snowmelt-fed river has seen its flows drop by 20% over the last 100 years as runoff efficiency – the percentage of precipitation that ends up in the river – has declined as summers have become hotter and drier, cooking the soil.
This year, for example, snowpack is 80% of average but sending just 30% of the average amount of water into the Colorado. Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam, is at an all-time low, and between them Lake Mead and Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, are projected to be just 29% full within two years.
Completed in 1966, Glen Canyon Dam is 710 feet high and 1,560 feet long and named for the series of deep sandstone gorges flooded by Lake Powell. The lake draws its name from John Wesley Powell, the leader of the first boat expedition to traverse the Grand Canyon.
“Typically the Colorado River is coming out of Lake Powell fast and cold, which is a hostile environment for desert adapted organisms,” Lytle said.
For the recent experiment, low flow was maintained from March 15 through March 20, and immediately after that there was a big release of water, known as a high-pulse flow event, intended to scour out areas and possibly create new habitat for native fish and their food sources.
“During the first part of the low flow, we were in the far upper reaches of the canyon, and as soon as we finished sampling, we packed up the truck and raced across the desert 200 river miles away to Diamond Creek, where you can access the Grand Canyon from a road, just in time to capture the low-flow event moving its way down a long, sinuous canyon,” Lytle said. “And a USGS team was taking samples by boat throughout the entire canyon, complementary to what our group was doing. It was a real team effort, with people measuring riparian vegetation, taking drift samples of invertebrates in water, checking respiration of aquatic plants, and also noting the effect on fish and fisheries.”
As the climate continues to warm and the amount of water available for humans continues to drop, low flows such as the one during this year’s experiment may become the new normal, he added.
“That presents challenges but also opportunities for research,” Lytle said. “Prior to there being any dams on the river, low-flow events were part of the normal annual cycle of flows. In the spring, the river could flood quite spectacularly in some years, and by late summer or early fall into winter, flows could get to 4,000 CFS or even lower than that.”
Lytle says that kind of variation amounts to “exercise” for the river, which needs it for health just like a person needs both activity and rest.
“One question we’re asking is whether there could be ecological benefits, at least at certain important times of year, to low flows,” he said. “Low flows allow the water temperature to increase and let more light to reach the benthic zone, where the productivity of algae and invertebrates occurs. It also might favor greater production of those important native black flies, mayflies and midges.”
Below-average snowpack and ongoing drought will hurt flows and fish habitat below McPhee Dam going into spring and summer, reports Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Water releases from the dam are expected to be under 15 cubic feet per second and could possibly drop as low as 3 cfs, said Jim White, a CPW aquatic biologist, in a April 14 news release.
During normal snowpack years, McPhee Reservoir fills, and the allocated fish pool allows for a sustained dam release of 60 cfs in summer.
Fish flows increase if snowpack runoff exceeds reservoir capacity, which prompts a recreational boating release. But a recreational water release will not happen this year because of below average snowpack and low reservoir carryover from last water season.
As of April 13, Snotels in the Dolores Basin reported 39% of average snowpack for snow water equivalent.
Trout and native fish will be adversely impacted by the water shortage below the dam, White said.
The 12-mile section of river that flows through the Lone Dome State Wildlife Area from below the dam to Bradfield Bridge is a popular tail-water fishery. Most trout fishing is done within the first 6 miles.
White said the lower flows will shrink the river habitat, and many brown and rainbow trout likely will die. The water coming out of the dam is about 42 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an ideal temperature for trout. But with such a low flow the water will warm quickly as it moves downstream…
The low flows will also affect native fish that live in the lower reaches of the Dolores River ─ the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. The fish, listed by CPW as species of concern, have adapted to warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.
White is concerned about lower sections of the river drying up or being connected by only tiny rivulets of water.
Making the problem worse is the smallmouth bass, an invasive non-native fish that thrives in the lower Dolores River but preys on young native fish. Anglers are encouraged to fish for smallmouth bass; they are abundant, fairly easy to catch, tasty and have no bag or possession limit.
As drought continues to grip the West, more and more rivers will face the same scenario — this year and beyond.
“All of this is a result of three things: low snowpack, dry soil that will absorb runoff and no carryover water in the reservoir from last year,” White said.
A citizen’s report of an invasive zebra mussel found in an aquarium moss package found in a pet store prompted a U.S. Geological Survey expert on invasive aquatic species to trigger nationwide alerts that have led to the discovery of the destructive shellfish in pet stores in at least 21 states from Alaska to Florida.
Amid concerns that the ornamental aquarium moss balls containing zebra mussels may have accidentally spread the pest to areas where it has not been seen before, federal agencies, states, and the pet store industry are working together to remove the moss balls from pet store shelves nationwide. They have also drawn up instructions for people who bought the moss balls or have them in aquariums to carefully decontaminate them, destroying any zebra mussels and larvae they contain using one of these methods: freezing them for at least 24 hours, placing them in boiling water for at least one minute, placing them in diluted chlorine bleach, or submerging them in undiluted white vinegar for at least 20 minutes. The decontamination instructions were developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USGS and representatives of the pet industry.
Zebra mussels are an invasive, fingernail-sized mollusk native to freshwaters in Eurasia. They clog water intakes for power and water plants, block water control structures, and damage fishing and boating equipment, at great cost. The federal government, state agencies, fishing and boating groups and others have worked extensively to control their spread.
In 1990, in response to the first wave of zebra mussel invasions, the USGS set up its Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, which tracks sightings of about 1,270 non-native aquatic plants and animals nationwide, including zebra mussels. State and local wildlife managers use the database to find and eliminate or control potentially harmful species.
The coordinator of the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, USGS fisheries biologist Wesley Daniel, learned about the presence of zebra mussels in moss balls on March 2 and alerted others nationwide about the issue. Moss balls are ornamental plants imported from Ukraine that are often added to aquariums.
“The issue is that somebody who purchased the moss ball and then disposed of them could end up introducing zebra mussels into an environment where they weren’t present before,” Daniel said. “We’ve been working with many agencies on boat inspections and gear inspections, but this was not a pathway we’d been aware of until now.”
On February 25, an employee of a pet store in Seattle, Washington, filed a report to the database that the employee had recently recognized a zebra mussel in a moss ball. Daniel requested confirming information and a photograph and received it a few days later.
Daniel immediately notified the aquatic invasive species coordinator for Washington State and contacted invasive species managers at the USGS and USFWS. He visited a pet store in Gainesville, Florida, and found a zebra mussel in a moss ball there. At that point federal non-indigenous species experts realized the issue was extensive.
The USFWS is coordinating the response along with the USGS. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, several state wildlife agencies and an industry group, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, are also taking steps to mitigate the problem. National alerts have gone out from the USFWS, the federal Aquatic Nuisance Task and regional aquatic invasive species management groups. Reports of zebra mussels in moss balls have come from Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, Washington and Wyoming.
“I think this was a great test of the rapid-response network that we have been building,” Daniel said. “In two days, we had a coordinated state, federal and industry response.”
The USGS is also studying potential methods to help control zebra mussels that are already established in the environment, such as low-dose copper applications, carbon dioxide and microparticle delivery of toxicants.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Bridget Kochel):
Colorado has mandatory boating inspection regulations in place to help monitor that mussels do not cross state lines.
After three consecutive years of negative testing, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has removed Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County from the positive waters list for quagga mussels, a prohibited aquatic nuisance species (ANS). As Green Mountain Reservoir was the only body of water in Colorado suspected of having a population of quagga mussels, this de-listing makes Colorado a completely negative state for both zebra and quagga mussels.
In August 2017, Green Mountain Reservoir, which is owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and whose developed public recreation sites are managed by the White River National Forest, tested positive for the presence of quagga mussel larvae (veligers). No adult mussels were ever found in Green Mountain Reservoir nor have they ever been found in a Colorado water body. Regional standards require three years of subsequent negative testing in order to re-classify the water from Suspect to Negative.
“After three years of negative testing, we are confident that Green Mountain Reservoir is free of invasive mussels and does not pose a risk to other aquatic resources,” said CPW’s Invasive Species Program Manager Robert Walters. “Colorado is the only state to de-list all mussel positive waters. This is a testament to the fact that our mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination procedures do work to protect Colorado’s waters from invasive species.”
While Colorado is once again completely free of invasive mussels, the threat of zebra or quagga mussels entering Colorado from another infested state is still quite real. Boaters using infested waters must take extra care not to transport mussels across state lines and to comply with Colorado’s mandatory inspection regulations.
“Our staff want to express our gratitude to the boaters who help keep Colorado’s waters safe from harmful invasive species. By participating in Cleaning, Draining, and Drying your watercraft and gear between each and every use, we can continue to prevent the spread of invasive species,” said Walters.
State of Colorado Aquatic Nuisance Species Management Plan Approved
The management plan was originally conceptualized in 2006 and has been collaboratively developed by CPW staff, the Colorado ANS Task Force and by ANS experts and stakeholders across the state.
“The approval of this plan is a significant milestone in ANS program history because it sets a clear path forward on how we can prevent and manage aquatic nuisance species in Colorado,” said Reid DeWalt, CPW’s assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources. “Invasive species have the potential to cause significant irreversible environmental impacts. The ANS management plan includes a coordinated prevention plan to keep Colorado’s waters free of ANS and a rapid response strategy that is designed to quickly contain new populations that may establish. This aims to minimize negative impacts on human safety, our wildlife populations and our native ecosystems.”
In an effort to balance outdoor recreation with mindful conservation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife requires boaters to purchase an ANS Stamp when registering a boat in Colorado to help protect state waters. The stamp provides approximately half of the funding needed to run the ANS Program operations annually, which includes watercraft inspection and decontamination services, monitoring of state waters and management of existing populations.
Audubon works to protect wildlife like birds and their habitats.
As part of an agreement between Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas, this water transfer would help meet the state’s delivery obligations within the Republican River Compact.
But over the years, water from the Platte River has heavily been used by municipalities and agriculture.
This has led to the compact being short on water deliveries for quite some time.
The state also has an agreement with other neighboring states to balance this overused water supply through the Endangered Species Act, which began about 30 years after the river compact, and through the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program that aims to add water back to the river…
A diversion of the already short water supply to the Republican could create a ripple effect.
“Overall, taking water from one basin that is already water short and transferring it to another basin that’s water short.. that doesn’t really give us a long term solution. It doesn’t provide certainty for water users and it potentially has ecological impacts for both river basins,” said Mosier.
Taddicken said almost 70% of the water from the Platte River is gone before it even makes it to Nebraska and an interbasin transfer would heavily impact the its supply.
“This water removed from the Platte actually leaves the basin which is a real problem. Moving water around irrigation canals and things like that, eventually a lot of that water seeps back into the groundwater and back to the Platte River. This kind of a transfer takes it out completely,” said Taddicken.
He said farmers in the Platte River Valley should be really concerned if the transfer goes through…
Streamflow also helps to create multiple channels and varying depths which attract many wildlife species, especially birds.
“Sandhill cranes, whooping cranes, piping plovers and other birds.. they use those sand bars for protection. That’s where they like to nest and roost, so that’s really important. Stream flow makes that happen,” stated Mosier, “there’s also an important connection between streams on the Platte River and wetlands. Those wetlands are where a lot of birds and other wildlife find their protein sources.”
Taddicken said we’ve made a lot of compromises for wildlife already as the width of the Platte River has slowly declined and vegetation has taken over where the waters don’t extend.
The impact then extends its reach to the economy, with less sandhill cranes coming to the area that could impact tourists traveling to Central Nebraska.
Invasive species making their way into Kansas is also a concern.
Back in 2018, former Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer wrote a letter objecting to the transfer due to the risk of invasive species.
The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.
As a Yampa River Botanic Park team member, [Jeff] Morehead removes the diversion dam on Fish Creek under U.S. Highway 40 every year. The water flows through two arches under the road, and the dam keeps the water level high enough in one of them so water diverts to the Yampa River Botanic Park.
Each fall after Halloween, the park closes and Morehead removes the dam. This year, as requested by Steamboat Springs Water Resources Manager Kelly Romero-Heaney and Public Works City Engineer Ben Beall, Morehead removed the structure a bit earlier. Additionally, he created a wing dam of rock and fabric to divert the water through one arch instead of two, deepening the flow of water.
“I was just happy to help,” said Morehead. “You could tell the fish were going right past me while I was doing it. I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is absolutely working.’”
Without the diversion, waterflow through both arches isn’t deep enough to allow the fish to swim and jump through the box culvert steps. The middle arch has one large step of about 18 inches, according to Morehead, which would be nearly impossible for the fish to leap over.
“It’s staircased in a way that the drops are like 18 inches and there’s a long flat that approaches the staircase, so the whitefish can’t really swim and get a jump over that 18 inches.”
There used to be a third arch, but as of summer 2019, a sidewalk underpass filled the far right arch. That left the far left arch as the only viable option for fish to get upstream.
With more water flowing through the arch, it allowed whitefish to swim upstream and spawn in the waters of Fish Creek. Development and low water levels have made it harder to access their main spawning tributary for the fish living in the headwaters of the Yampa. The whitefish spawn, or lay their eggs, in early to mid-October. The eggs will hatch in the spring before the waters reach their peak flow.
As seen in a video taken and edited by Morehead, the whitefish seem to have utilized the access point to Fish Creek.
Whitefish populations in the Yampa River Basin have been dwindling for years, so, as part of the Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan adopted in 2018, the city of Steamboat Springs vowed to “promote native fish populations from further decline and promote range expansion where possible.” The Fish Creek diversion is just one way the city is working to accomplish that task.
The mountain whitefish isn’t endangered, but its numbers are falling in the Yampa River Basin, where it’s one of two native salmonids in the area, the other being cutthroat trout. The species is also found in Colorado in the White River Basin. They live in the Northwest in cool waters of high elevation streams, rivers and lakes, particularly in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
While they are thriving in other areas of the country, including the White River Basin, they are struggling in the Yampa River Basin as noted in samples taken from the river every few years, most recently conducted by Billy Atkinson, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
A huge reason for their decline is the non-native northern pike. Pike are predacious fish and feed on the whitefish. There have been efforts to control the pike population in the area, which is another goal of the Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan.
Mountain whitefish are doing well in the White River, where there are no northern pike to prey on the native fish. There are other ecological factors that can be attributed to the whitefish’s success in the White River basin, but no pike is the biggest difference between that system and that of the Yampa River.
Predation is just one issue plaguing the whitefish.
The whitefish, which can grow up to 2 feet, loves cold water in high elevations. A 20-year drought in Colorado has brought on some particularly rough water years, though, lowering the flow in rivers across the state.
The Yampa River was extremely low this year, closing to usage Sept. 2 when the streamflow dropped below 85 cubic feet per second. Shallower water is warmed by the sun far easier than deeper water, causing stress to fish that prefer cooler temperatures.
Thankfully, there are already efforts in place to improve this on two fronts. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District releases water from Stagecoach Reservoir to improve river flow and prevent the loss of fish habitat when the water line lowers.
Additionally, the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council and Retree have been planting young trees on the banks of the Yampa in designated spots. When they grow, the trees will provide shade to the river, helping maintain lower temperatures.
This year, with water levels so low, the end of summer river closure extended into the fall to put less stress on the entire Yampa River ecological system. With low flow, fish, such as the mountain whitefish, concentrate in small pools due to limited resources.
Here’s the release from the City of Boulder (Phillip Yates):
Recent city wildlife monitoring in South Boulder Creek has discovered New Zealand mudsnails – an invasive aquatic species that can disrupt aquatic ecosystems, harm fish populations and displace native insects.
With the discovery of mudsnails in a creek area near the East Boulder Community Center, the City of Boulder requests community assistance in preventing their spread to additional stretches of the creek and other water bodies. It also advises open space visitors the best way to prevent the spread of this invasive snail is to stay out of the creek.
Adult mudsnails are about the size of a grain of rice and can rapidly reproduce through cloning – a single mudsnail can produce a colony of 40 million snails in just one year. Because they are so small, they can hitch a ride from one water body to another on everything from a dog’s paw to fishing equipment, including boots and waders. Mudsnails can also easily adapt to a wide range of aquatic ecosystems and once established in a creek, there are no practical means of removing them all.
The city reminds residents – particularly anglers and dog guardians – to practice these responsible recreation practices:
Visitors should not access streams or creek areas where mudsnails have been found. If individuals fish in an affected area, they should use a wire brush to remove mud and vegetation from their boots and gear immediately after stepping back onto dry ground.
If dogs enter South Boulder Creek, guardians should carefully brush their paws and bellies on dry land.
Visitors, and especially anglers, should take precautionary steps detailed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife when they are back home or before they go to another body of water. Those measures include freezing boots and gear overnight, soaking equipment in hot water, submerging waders and other equipment in solution specified by CPW, or drying boots and gear – preferably in direct sunlight – for at least 48 hours.
Community members should not flush water used to clean boots or rinse equipment down storm drains.
OSMP has temporarily closed South Boulder Creek access south of South Boulder Road to Marshall Road to help stem further human-caused spread of mudsnails along the creek. OSMP also will install educational advisory signs along the creek encouraging visitors to stay out of the creek in areas that aren’t included in the temporary closure.
During this temporary closure and community-outreach period, OSMP will assess its current management of South Boulder Creek – one of the city’s most diverse creek areas and home to federally protected wildlife and plant species – and may implement additional measures and creek access restrictions. The city currently has year-round New Zealand mudsnail closures in portions of Dry Creek and Boulder Creek.
The discovery of New Zealand mudsnails in South Boulder Creek also has led OSMP to postpone implementation of its Gebhard Integrated Site Project – a habitat protection and recreational access project planned for an area near where OSMP discovered mudsnails. The department anticipates sharing updates about this project with community members in early 2021.
Inspectors in Colorado this season intercepted a record number of watercraft showing signs of invasive mussel infestations as reservoirs across the state saw surging numbers of boaters.
Ruedi Reservoir, near Basalt, recorded the state’s highest number of intercepted boats carrying mussels. Officials said that is probably due to the reservoir’s relative proximity to Utah’s Lake Powell, which has been dealing with a mussel infestation for years.
As public health experts have urged people to maintain their distance and avoid enclosed spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic, one logical response for many Coloradans has been to take to the water. Boating, kayaking and paddleboarding have exploded in popularity this year, according to reservoir managers across the state. Riding the wave of that trend are invasive mussels, attaching themselves to watercraft.
“With more opportunities … for a boat to be transporting something into our waters, there is, of course, a little bit more risk,” said Robert Walters, an invasive-species specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
By mid-September in Colorado, where the boating season officially will close in November, the state had already recorded more than 600,000 boat inspections. In an average year, it conducts about 475,000. At least 94 boats were intercepted with confirmed adult mussels, the highest number recorded in the state since it began boat inspections in 2008.
Native to Eastern Europe, zebra and quagga mussels have infested waters around the world. The creatures, each wrapped in a hard, sharp shell, cling to surfaces in fresh water and quickly breed. Mussels can devastate aquatic ecosystems and damage infrastructure such as pipes and hydroelectric equipment. The larvae of these aquatic nuisance species — as they are designated by the state — have been detected in several Colorado reservoirs over the years, but adult mussels have never emerged.
Mussels pose a particularly high threat in Colorado because of the state’s position upstream of other watersheds. Scientists suspect that zebra and quagga mussels would have difficulty establishing in a high-elevation river, but it’s still possible that they could be distributed downstream.
“We are at the top of the watershed,” Walters said. “So if something were to happen in one of our headwaters or really anywhere in the state of Colorado, it would have significant potential to impact those downstream of us.”
Keeping up with the crowds
CPW regularly tests the state’s reservoirs for mussel larvae, and so far there are no signs that the increased boating activity has spurred an infestation, which is a testament to the state’s thorough inspection program. Still, keeping pace with the increased boat inspections has been a challenge for many agencies, especially those dealing with pandemic-induced budget constraints.
“I think we’re pretty fortunate that we were even allowed to hire our normal staffing,” said Mark Caughlan, district manager at Horsetooth Reservoir, just west of Fort Collins. “But don’t get me wrong, it still wasn’t enough staffing to handle that massive influx of visitation that we saw.”
According to Caughlan, Horsetooth Reservoir normally gets around 1.2 million visitors a year. This year, the reservoir saw a 30% to 40% increase in visitation, much of which was boaters. The volume of visitors, the limited staff and the need to carefully inspect boats meant that some people waited hours to get on the water. Most reservoirs, including Horsetooth, put inspection stations at every boat ramp, making it improbable that any boat will touch the water before it’s checked out.
Adult mussels can stick to the outside of a boat or be sucked into the ballast tanks of wakeboard boats and ski boats. If mussels are found, inspectors spray the boat with a high-powered water jet to clear them off. The ballasts have to be emptied and washed to ensure that no larvae are inside. The full decontamination process can take up to 30 minutes depending on the extent of the infestation.
Even before boating exploded in popularity during the pandemic, the threat of mussels slipping through the cracks was increasing. In 2017, CPW intercepted 26 infested boats, which was a record at the time. That number increased to 51 in 2018 and to 86 in 2019.
Reservoir managers attribute the increase to surrounding states’ growing number of bodies of waters with mussel infestations, in particular Lake Powell, which became fully colonized by mussels in 2016. Boats leaving Lake Powell are required to undergo inspection by the National Park Service, but many boats slip through. Nearly 70% of the mussel-infested boats intercepted in Colorado come from Lake Powell.
Ruedi on the frontlines
The impact of Lake Powell’s mussel colonies on Colorado is most striking at reservoirs closest to the Utah border. Ruedi Reservoir, in the Fryingpan River Valley above Basalt, has seen more boats containing invasive mussels than any other body of water in Colorado, with 17 interceptions this year. Ruedi is particularly vulnerable to mussels. The turbines and pipes inside its hydroelectric dam are difficult to clean and could be destroyed if they are colonized. Mussels are also a filtering species, meaning they feed off the microinvertebrates, such as plankton, in their ecosystem. These microinvertebrates make up the base of the food chain, which helps sustain the renowned fishery downstream of the reservoir on the Fryingpan River.
“Given our proximity, I think we share a lot of the same boaters with Lake Powell,” said April Long, executive director at Ruedi Water and Power Authority. “Their mussel population is increasing, and I don’t believe that their ability to inspect is also increasing.”
Due to the pandemic, Ruedi delayed opening to boaters until June 1, but Long said the number of boats inspected there has still nearly doubled in 2020. Inspectors worked overtime hours through June and July to keep up.
Most boaters are cooperative — and officials want to keep it that way
Despite the long waits, inspectors across the state say most boaters are cooperative. Long worries that this could change if long lines become the norm, and she said the RWPA is discussing expanding its inspection staff next year.
“If they get frustrated with the amount of time that it takes to do these inspections or decontaminations, we may see some compliance shift to noncompliance,” she said. “We don’t want that to happen.”
While long lines could aggravate some boaters, Walters said boaters, generally, are invested in keeping the waters where they spend time healthy. The mussel colonies at Lake Powell have served as a firm warning for many Colorado boaters.
“If there is anything positive that I can say of the infestation out there at Lake Powell,” he said, “it’s that Colorado boaters love to go out there and seeing something like that happen to one of their favorite waters has really hammered home what this could potentially look like if it happened here in Colorado. From what I’ve seen, I think that’s made the boaters much more supportive of the program and that they don’t want to see that happen at their home waters.”
This story ran in the Oct. 24 edition of The Aspen Times and the Oct. 26 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
A decades-long effort to restore the Colorado River cutthroat trout to the upper reaches of Hermosa Creek has been completed, resulting in the largest continuous stretch of waterway for the native fish species in the state…
The upper reaches of Hermosa Creek were instantly recognized as an ideal place for a restoration project, both for its outstanding water quality as well as easy access through a Forest Service road that runs behind Purgatory Resort.
Over the years, barriers have been installed to isolate certain stretches of water and an organic poison known as rotenone has been used to clear out invasive species, like brown, brookie and rainbow trout.
All this to clear the path for cutthroat reintroduction.
Last weekend, CPW stocked an estimated 4,000 cutthroat fingerlings and an additional 475 mature cutthroats in the final stretch of the Hermosa Creek project, giving the waterway back to the native fish for the first time in 100 years.
And now, the project to restore 23 miles of cutthroat habitat is finally complete…
For the stretches of upper Hermosa Creek that have been restocked with cutthroats, populations are showing encouraging signs. White said there’s about 400 to 600 fish per mile, which he called a “nice, healthy population.”
Because the area is a popular draw for anglers, there is a strict catch-and-release policy. Local fish-guiding companies have said in the past that anglers come from all over the country to fish native cutthroats.
The Hermosa Creek project was a collaboration between CPW, the U.S. Forest Service and Trout Unlimited.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
RiversEdge West, a nonprofit based in Grand Junction, has been awarded $164,566 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency, to support the creation of what the group is calling a Western Colorado Sustainable Stewardship model to protect and sustain restoration work. A $40,000 grant from the Bacon Family Foundation also will help with that initiative and let RiversEdge West continue to provide leadership and support for the Desert Rivers Collaborative in Mesa and Delta counties. This includes planning and mapping work, and technical, coordination and fundraising assistance.
RiversEdge West formed the Desert Rivers Collaborative in 2012. The collaborative has completed more than 1,565 acres of riparian restoration on the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. Among the partners are private landowners, other nonprofits, state and federal agencies including Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management, volunteers, Mesa County, and municipalities including Palisade, Grand Junction and Fruita.
In addition, RiversEdge West co-leads, along with the Southwest Conservation Corps, the Dolores River Restoration Partnership. That collaborative effort has treated nearly 6,000 acres along 200 miles of the Dolores River in six counties and two states.
The partnerships have focused particularly on two invasive species — tamarisk and Russian olive. Shannon Wadas, associate director of RiversEdge West, said those species outcompete native plants, are less conducive to providing wildlife habitat, pose a higher wildfire risk, affect instream habitat relied upon by native fish, and can interfere with river and bank access for recreation…
That’s where the sustainability component of restoration work comes in. RiversEdge West is working to incorporate long-term monitoring of restored areas and training of partners in that monitoring. Wadas said monitoring protocols are in place already on the Dolores River and RiversEdge West plans to implement those on the Colorado/Gunnison restored areas as well.
It also plans to create, and provide partners with, a framework and guide to help with decisions regarding when and where restoration work should be completed. The CWCB money also will fund two-person “strike teams” with the Southwest Conservation Corps and Western Colorado Conservation Corps to do ongoing maintenance work such as treating tamarisk and Russian olive resprouts and secondary weeds, and doing revegetation.
Wadas said the sustainability efforts are intended to protect the investments already made in riverside restoration, and the hope is that the new sustainability model will be used not just by watershed groups across western Colorado.
Here’s an in-depth look at the methods and motivation to restore Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in Sand Creek in the Sangre de Cristo from Kevin Simpson writing for The Colorado Sun. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:
The multi-agency project to restore the native species has been years in the making. But the optics still can be shocking.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, according to signs posted in the area, had used a chemical called rotenone to kill all the fish in the [Sand Creek] lakes and Sand Creek, which meanders south down the mountain before veering west to eventually disappear, after 13 miles, into the depths of the Great Sand Dunes.
The project is part of a long-planned strategy to restore the native Rio Grande cutthroat trout to waters where its numbers have dwindled toward the edge of extinction.
Increasingly scarce in a dwindling native range and hybridized with other species like non-native cutthroats, which had been stocked alongside it many years ago, the Rio Grande cutthroat eventually will be reintroduced to the mountain lakes and streams where it once thrived…
The Sand Creek drainage was officially listed in a 2013 strategy document.
In 2019, meetings on both the Westcliffe and Alamosa sides of the mountain yielded no opposition — other than concern over the temporary loss of fishing — and little public comment. The project moved ahead, though a year later than originally scheduled due to a late fish spawn…
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for CPW’s Southwest Region, which includes the Sand Creek drainage, notes that the state agency has done similar projects before and will do more of them throughout Colorado.
“We don’t get a great deal of pleasure having to poison a stream, but it is necessary to restore native species,” he said in an email to The Colorado Sun. “This has been done in waters to restore the Rio Grande, greenback and the Colorado River cutthroat; and these projects will continue…
After the 2003 conservation agreement, federal and state authorities started doing reconnaissance in 2004 to determine if the drainage could be restored. Geography that essentially isolated water flow, and therefore fish migration, proved fortuitous.
Bunch points to several reasons why reintroduction of the Rio Grande cutthroat looms important. First, there’s federal policy that favors native species in national parks and preserves. Another has to do with the essential characteristics of a wilderness area. A third is for preservation of the species.
“This is an ideal opportunity to restore 13 miles of habitat for the Rio Grande cutthroat trout,” he said.
The stakeholders who signed the conservation agreement meet annually to discuss the status of its efforts. The key thing, Bunch said, is to prevent the listing of the Rio Grande cutthroat as an endangered species and ensure it has robust habitat…
Although the battle over listing the fish persists, all sides celebrate the ideas that in the case of the Sand Creek drainage, the area could become a refugium for the species, where the fish could naturally multiply and be used as a source for future stocking or restoration if some other habitat experiences problems — say, from wildfire.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):
The Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced that Reclamation will invest $3.3 million in 21 projects for WaterSMART Internal Applied Science Tools that build technical capacity within Reclamation.
“Information gained from these applied science tools will allow Reclamation and our partners to use best-available science for optimal water management under variable hydrologic conditions,” Commissioner Burman said. “The projects announced today will help inform specific water management decisions throughout the West.”
A project will assist New Mexico and reservoirs throughout the West. It will receive $199,764 to implement a known model to simulate regional climate and physical processes to estimate daily, monthly and annual evaporation across Elephant Butte Reservoir. These estimates will be compared to alternative estimates. The results will be used by the Albuquerque Area Office to support operations, to facilitate method comparison and identify future planning, operational and research needs on the topic. It will help with the development of alternative evaporation estimation techniques, production of daily evaporation time series at a reservoir and a broadening of weather prediction modeling capabilities.
Another project in Arizona will receive $200,000 to enhance precipitation and soil monitoring information in the Aravaipa watershed northeast of Tucson. Currently, there are only two weather stations within the watershed. The project includes the installation of two stations to monitor precipitation and soil moisture, which will better inform the Natural Resources Conservation Service forecasting models and United States Geological Survey surface water models. The work proposed in this project will help Reclamation and local partners predict flood risk, drought, erosion, and water quality concerns and better plan mitigation of these water management issues.
A third project will receive $120,000 to do predictive modeling to generate maps of invasive quagga and zebra mussel risk. The results will allow Reclamation to dedicate limited resources to high-risk locations and prepare facilities for potential control costs.
Applied Science Tools are part of the WaterSMART Program. Through WaterSMART, Reclamation works cooperatively with states, tribes and local entities as they plan for and implement actions to increase water supply reliability through investments to modernize existing infrastructure and attention to local water conflicts. Visit http://www.usbr.gov/watersmart to learn more.
The sound of revving chain saws and crackling tree limbs filled Palisade’s Riverbend Park on Monday morning as Western Colorado Conservation Corps crews sawed through invasive Russian olive trees and ripped up tamarisk…
The work to restore the native habitat along the Colorado River in the park is thanks to a partnership between the Town of Palisade and RiversEdge West, which is working to remove the invasive species.
RiversEdge West is using a grant to fund the Conservation Corps work, which will continue for four days this week, moving east of the boat ramp. Costigan explained how the non-native plants harm the river ecosystem.
“They out-compete with the native plants, and they don’t let the native willows and cottonwoods grow how they’re supposed to,” Costigan said. “They also grow in so thick, it blocks wildlife from accessing the water. So there are a lot of reasons that we want to remove these invasive plants.”
Troy Ward, Palisade director of Parks, Recreation and Events, said the collaboration with RiversEdge began last year and is expected to continue for some time to fully restore the riverbank in Riverbend Park…
As part of its grant, Rivers- Edge West will also help Palisade plant native vegetation in the area.
It has already planted several cottonwood trees in the bank it had previously cleared. In addition to cottonwoods, Ward said it will plant willows and native grasses…
The town also has a new wood chipper it was able to purchase with grant funds, which will allow it to reuse the wood chips elsewhere in its parks. This will keep the town from having to dispose of the plant material in a less useful way, Ward said.
“Instead of us having to send this to the landfill or burn it, we can now chip it and then we can create mulch that we can use to augment some of our soils on the badlands, if you will, out in the disc golf area,” Ward said. “If citizens want some of this mulch, we can make it available to them as well.”
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.
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.
Here’s the release from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies:
In the Grand Canyon reach of the Colorado River, two species play an outsized role in the fate of mercury in the aquatic ecosystem, and their numbers are altered by flood events. So reports new research, published in Science Advances, that is among the first to meld ecotoxicology and ecosystem ecology to trace how mercury flows through aquatic food webs and then spreads to land.
Mercury is an environmental contaminant that occurs in ecosystems globally. In its organic form, it is a potent neurotoxin that can harm people and wildlife. Mercury accumulation in animals and how it magnifies along food chains is well studied. Less well understood are the pathways mercury takes through food webs to reach top predators, such as fish and birds, and how those pathways might change after large ecosystem disturbances, such as floods.
Emma Rosi is an aquatic ecologist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and co-lead author on the paper. She explains, “By combining data on mercury concentrations in aquatic life with well-studied food webs, we were able to reveal how mercury moves through an ecosystem. We found that flooding and an invasive species both influenced the flow of this contaminant of global concern.”
The traits of organisms living in an ecosystem – their physiology, what they eat, and what eats them – determine contaminant movement and exposure. These factors have rarely been included in models of contaminant flux and fate. “Pairing contaminant concentrations and highly detailed food webs has the potential to improve the management of contaminants in ecosystems,” Rosi notes.
To study these pathways, the research team developed mercury-based food webs for six sites spanning 225 miles of the Colorado River, extending downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam in Grand Canyon National Park. Food web sampling took place seasonally over two years. At each site, they measured algae, invertebrates, and fish to determine who was eating what – and what that meant for mercury exposure at each level of the food web.
Insects (blackflies and midges) and invasive New Zealand mudsnails were the dominant invertebrates in the river. These animals play a vital role in moving energy and contaminants from the bottom of the food web to fish predators at the top. Fish included native Bluehead Sucker, Flannelmouth Sucker, Speckled Dace, and Humpback Chub, as well as non-native species such as Common Carp, Fathead Minnow, and Rainbow Trout.
The stomach contents of invertebrates and fish were assessed to identify what they ate and in what amounts. Algae, detritus, and animals were analyzed for mercury concentrations and, combined with the diet data, the team estimated the amount of mercury that animals were consuming throughout the year.
Food web complexity varied across the study sites. Just below the Glen Canyon Dam, food webs were simple with few species and food web connections. Further downstream, food webs had higher species diversity and more connections. Across the study sites, regardless of food web complexity, relatively few species were key players in the movement of mercury.
Algae and tiny particles of detritus were the source of 80% of mercury flowing to invertebrates.
In sites closest to the dam, invasive mudsnails dominated the food webs. Trout were the only fish in this part of the river, and they are unable to digest mudsnails. Mercury accumulated by the snails did not move up the food chain. Because the snails are fully aquatic, mercury cycled back into the river’s detrital food web when they died.
Blackfly larvae were the source of 56-80% of the mercury flowing to fish. Blackflies are preferred prey for fish, such as Rainbow Trout, and blackflies had higher mercury contaminations compared to other invertebrates. Blackflies that escape predation and emerge from the river as flying adults move mercury from the river to land. This can expose terrestrial predators, such as birds and bats, to mercury that started out in the river.
The amount of mercury that blackflies moved to land was dependent on the number of hungry fish in any part of the river. At some sites, fish ate nearly 100% of the blackfly larvae, leaving few left to emerge. At other sites, there were a lot more blackflies than the fish could eat. When these blackflies emerged as adults, the mercury inside them hitched a ride to terrestrial food webs along the river.
One year into sampling, the study sites were flooded as part of a planned dam release. The team was able to explore the effects of the flood on mercury movement in the food webs. At sites near the dam, the flood washed away large numbers of New Zealand mudsnails and led to a boom in blackfly populations. With the rise in blackflies, more mercury flowed to trout. Because trout gobbled up nearly all the blackflies in their larval form, very little of the mercury accumulated in these abundant insects was transported to land by the flying adults.
Rosi explains, “Changes to the animal populations in an ecosystem will impact how mercury moves through a food web. This was especially apparent at sites where flooding changed the proportion of blackflies relative to fish. Flooding dramatically altered mercury pathways in the simple tailwater food web near the dam, but not in the more complex food webs downstream.”
“Invasive species and dams are common in rivers globally, and both factors were at play in the Grand Canyon reach of the Colorado River.” Rosi says. “We found that flooding changed the species present at our study sites, and mercury flow changed with those shifts.”
“Understanding the factors that control the movement of mercury through food webs can help resource managers protect ecosystems that are susceptible to mercury pollution,” says David Walters, USGS scientist and co-lead author of the study.
Rosi concludes, “This study is exciting because it sheds light on the depth of understanding we can achieve when we merge ecological and ecotoxicological thinking. Species traits, animal populations, predator-prey interactions, and disturbance can all influence the movement of contaminants in the environment. Understanding the complex interplay of these factors can improve risk management of animal exposures in the environment.”
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife:
As the final winter frosts begin to thaw, reservoirs are opening to boating and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials are busy ramping up inspection stations for the upcoming season. Boat inspections for aquatic nuisance species (ANS) are mandatory in Colorado and required for motorized or trailered watercraft entering the state and prior to launching on most public waters within the state.
ANS boat inspections and COVID-19
Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, many local and federal waters are postponing opening to boating and ANS inspections at this time. Waters operated by CPW are continuing to open and provide recreation opportunities as weather permits. Boaters are reminded not to travel long distances to go boating or fishing while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect Colorado. Recreate at local reservoirs in compliance with the Stay-At-Home order from Gov. Jared Polis.
Boaters are reminded to stay at least six feet away from inspection station staff at all times.
Do not congregate in groups larger than 10 individuals and practice good social distancing in accordance with recommendations from the Centers for Disease and Prevention and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Local health orders may further limit group size; please be aware of local requirements.
Boaters should wait until the inspector calls them up to the station.
Boaters should stay in their vehicles, set the parking brake, turn their vehicles off, and remain in the vehicles unless instructed by an inspector to get out and assist with the inspection.
If you have a green seal receipt, please keep your window closed and show it to the inspector through the window glass. CPW reminds everyone to get a green seal and receipt after boating to speed up the next inspection.
CPW is diligently working to keep state parks’s waters open for boating so the public can enjoy the health benefits associated with being outside. However, visitors must enjoy parks responsibly during the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s important for everyone to follow the recommendations from CDPHE for easy, everyday actions to protect yourself and those around you.
Up-to-date information about how CPW is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is available on our website.
Reminder: Get your ANS stamp
An ANS stamp is required prior to boating in Colorado. The stamp helps CPW fund ANS inspections, monitoring, education, and other activities across the state.
Colorado boat owners who operate motorboats and sailboats on lakes and reservoirs must purchase a $25 ANS stamp annually. The cost of the stamp for out-of-state motorboats and sailboats is $50. Boaters from out of state can purchase online at http://www.cpwshop.com.
Colorado is one of just a few states in the country that doesn’t have an infestation of adult mussels in any of its waters,” said Elizabeth Brown, invasive species program manager for CPW. “That’s directly attributable to our mandatory inspection and decontamination program that’s been in place for over a decade now.”
There have been 281 watercraft infested with zebra or quagga mussels intercepted in the state since the program’s inception. Last year, inspectors intercepted 86 infested watercraft, a huge increase from 51 in 2018 and 26 in 2017.
“CPW is very confident in the statewide inspection and decontamination system to protect our waters. However, this program relies on the compliance of the boating community,” said Reid DeWalt, Assistant Director for Aquatic, Terrestrial and Natural Resources for CPW. “Boaters need to know the rules and follow them if we are going to be effective at keeping zebra and quagga mussels out of the nation’s headwaters.”
Aquatic nuisance species, such as zebra and quagga mussels, pose a serious threat to natural resources, recreation and the water infrastructure of the state. Mussel infestations cause a variety of major problems. Because mussels consume plankton, they disrupt the food web and out-compete sport fish and native fish. Mussels clog infrastructure, including reservoir dams, outlet structures and distribution systems that carry water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses. Mussels also infest boats and damage engines.
Mussels have caused billions of dollars in damage, especially in the upper Midwest. Nearby states where mussel infestations exist include Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Invasive mussels could have devastating ecological, economic, and recreational impacts if infestations were to establish here.
“Keeping Colorado’s waters free of invasive species is critical to maintaining efficient water delivery and infrastructure systems, and providing high-quality fishing and boating opportunities for our residents and visitors,” Brown said. “The success of the ANS Program is due to the dedicated inspection and decontamination staff across the state. We are grateful to those individuals that are working on the front lines to provide recreation and protect our waters.”
A complete list of Colorado inspection sites and hours of operation, along with information about the ANS stamp, can be found on CPW’s boating page. Always check with your destination reservoir before going to verify hours of operation.
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.
An endowment fund to protect the Yampa River opened applications for its first grant cycle Tuesday, Feb. 11.
The Yampa River Fund, launched in September 2019, plans to award approximately $100,000 to $200,000 in grants during this cycle, according to its manager Andy Bauer. Applications will be accepted through March 24.
A partnership of 21 public, private and nonprofit entities representing the entire Yampa River Basin collaborated to create the board that governs the Yampa River Fund. Its mission, according to Bauer, is to fund projects to improve river health, protect the water supply and boost river flow in dry years.
This comes amid concerns over the health of the Yampa River, the supply of which is vital to local agriculture and a key component to recreation from rafting in the summer to snowmaking in the winter.
Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs water resource manager and chair of the Yampa River Fund board, cited three primary issues the fund aims to address: warming waters, the proliferation of northern pike and the deterioration of riparian forests.
Recent measurements have shown river temperatures are reaching dangerous levels. Romero-Heaney cited the 2018 Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan, which found that summer water temperatures were surpassing healthy levels by about 5 degrees. Such temperatures kill off cold-water fish species, namely trout.
Non-native northern pike, which are aggressive predators, have decimated native species. Wildlife agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife encourage the fishing of pike through contests and the implementation of pike removal projects to limit their numbers.
Asked about the deterioration of riparian forests along the Yampa River, Romero-Heaney pointed to the last century of land management as a major factor. The number of cottonwoods has seen a particular decline, which decreases the amount of shade over the water and contributes to further warming.
Despite these issues, the Yampa River is healthier than many waterways in the country. The river remains largely free-flowing, unlike many rivers controlled with extensive dams. It is the largest, unregulated tributary remaining in the Colorado River system, according to the National Park Service. It also has been protected from extensive development along its banks, Romero-Heaney said…
As manager of the fund, Bauer listed three types of projects that will be prioritized during the grant cycle. Those include projects to sustain healthy flows, restore riparian habitats and improve infrastructure along the river, such as diversion structure and irrigation systems.
Eligible applicants include state and local government entities, public districts and irrigation entities, mutual ditch companies, homeowners associations and nonprofits, according to a news release from the Yampa River Fund. Bauer encourages private landowners to partner with these entities to secure funding.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):
More boats requiring decontamination because of infestations of destructive mussels entered Colorado last year than in 2018, but the statewide inspection program coordinated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife again succeeded in keeping invasive mussels out of the state’s lakes and reservoirs.
While Colorado remains mussel free, CPW officials are concerned that the number of boats entering Colorado that need decontamination continues to increase. CPW will not let down its guard to keep invasive aquatic species out of the state.
“The Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Program continues to meet the challenge of protecting the state’s water resources and infrastructure from the establishment of Aquatic Nuisance Species,” said Elizabeth Brown, the agency’s invasive species program manager. “Colorado remains free of adult zebra and quagga mussel reproducing populations, while some nearby western states without mandatory inspection programs continue to detect infestations. Colorado has prevented the introduction of this invasive species due to the diligent efforts of watercraft inspection and decontamination, early detection monitoring, education and enforcement efforts.”
Other western states that have mussel infestations include: Arizona, Utah, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and California. Where there are infestations, mussels can clog up pipes and important infrastructure, cover docks, shorelines, rocks, any hard surface and can ruin powerboat engines.
Throughout the state last year, 481,543 boat inspections were conducted, 7,000 more than in 2018. A total of 22,947 boats, 281 with attached mussels, were decontaminated, compared with 19,111 in 2018. Unfortunately, the number of intercepted boats fully infested with mussels increased by 40 percent, from 51 in 2018 to 86 in 2019. In 2017, only 16 mussel-infested boats were intercepted.
Brown said she’s very concerned about the substantial increase in infested boats entering the state.
“This growth trend is directly related to the growing threat invasive mussels pose to Colorado’s water infrastructure, natural resources and outdoor recreation. Along with work by our partners, CPW’s Invasive Species Program is critical to maintaining opportunities for recreation, preserving natural heritage and protecting water supply and delivery infrastructure for municipal, industrial and agricultural use,” Brown said.
A fully formed adult zebra or quagga mussel has never been detected in Colorado waters. However, the larval stage of the mussels, known as veligers, were detected as recently as 2017 in Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County and the reservoir is still considered suspect for quagga mussels. For detection, biologists perform three types of sampling to target the three life stages of mussels. CPW confirms all visual detections with DNA analysis to confirm the genus and species of the mussel. If no additional detections are verified in 2020, Green Mountain Reservoir will be delisted.
In 2019, crews sampled 179 standing, and four flowing waters statewide for veligers. In addition to the sampling efforts performed by CPW, the National Park Service contributed 38 plankton samples. There were no detections of zebra or quagga mussels in Colorado.
CPW works in partnership with dozens of other agencies, counties and municipalities throughout the state. Help from the partners is critical in maintaining a mussel-free Colorado, Brown said.
In 2019, CPW authorized 72 locations to perform watercraft inspections and decontaminations.
Following is a list of the Colorado waters where the most inspections are conducted:
In the city of Lakewood, the Bear Creek Greenbelt is the place to be for residents who love the outdoors. Each year, the park, located at 2800 S. Estes St., attracts thousands of cyclists, hikers and others who get the opportunity to enjoy a scenic route to Denver, Bear Creek Lake Park or other places.
With a grant secured from the Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) Board, the Colorado Youth Corps Association, a statewide coalition of eight corps that train children, young adults and veterans to work on conservation projects, will work with Lakewood to make the Bear Creek Greenbelt an even better place.
At the beginning of last month, the GOCO Board awarded the city of Lakewood a $34,000 grant to help remove Russian olive trees. The removal will be done through a partnership with Lakewood and Mile High Youth Corps, one of the corps that is part of the Colorado Youth Corps Association.
Russian olive trees usually reach 12 to 45 feet tall, according to Utah State University Extension. They’re typically found along floodplains, riverbanks, stream courses, marshes and irrigation ditches in the western area of the country and can displace native riparian vegetation, according to the university. The tree can also choke irrigation ditches and damage tires.
“Really, the big benefit is to protect and restore wildlife habitat. It’s part of a larger restoration effort that is going to have an impact on people and the landscape,” said Madison Brannigan, program officer at GOCO. The organization uses proceeds from the Colorado Lottery to preserve, protect and enhance the state’s wildlife, parks, rivers, trails and open spaces.
The other part of the restoration effort at the Bear Creek Greenbelt will involve planting native trees and shrubs, removing weeds, seeding native grass, installing fencing, planting wetland vegetation and improving water quality, according to a release…
Outside of training, members of the Colorado Youth Corps Association earn a payment and education award to use toward college or payment for student loans…
In total, the GOCO Board awarded $61,000 worth of grants in Jefferson County to fund Colorado Youth Corps Association projects. Outside of Lakewood, the Foothills Park and Recreation District received a $27,000 grant to remove invasive species and to support habitat restoration.
The other big story of the decade was the environment. As the drought steadily worsened in the early teens, President Ben Shelly found himself between a rock and a hard place. A proposed settlement of the water rights on the Little Colorado River, which would have included the Nation sacrificing a portion of its water rights in exchange for infrastructure, proved so wildly unpopular that he was forced to back down, leaving the Nation to take its chances in court.
A plan to round up Dinétah’s feral horses, which ranchers accused of drinking up and fouling the ever-scarcer watering holes, stirred an international uproar from humane organizations and even actor Robert Redford. It was eventually abandoned and the animals remain a problem, now numbering in the tens of thousands with few natural predators.
Water issues continued in 2015 as an estimated several hundred Navajos — including President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer — joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in protesting the construction of an oil pipeline beneath the tribe’s main water source, braving sub-zero temperatures, tear gas and rubber bullets.
In the summer of that year, the Diné had their own water issue to contend with, watching in amazement as the Animas River ran orange with dissolved metal compounds from an abandoned gold mine near Silverton, Colorado — the result of a botched containment effort by the US. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Navajo Nation joined the states of New Mexico and Utah in suing the agency and its contractor. As of this writing the litigation is still pending.
Then there was Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama on Dec. 28, 2016, and reduced by 85 percent by President Donald Trump less than a year later. That’s also slogging through the courts.
But by far the biggest environmental story was the rapid dethronement of King Coal, which for decades had propped up state, local, and tribal economies in the Four Corners.
As prices for natural gas and renewable energy declined, power plant owners beat a hasty retreat from the dirty fossil fuel that had sustained generations of Navajo miners and a good chunk of the Navajo and Hopi tribes’ budgets.
In 2013, the Navajo Nation managed to stave off the closure of BHP Billiton’s Navajo Mine by creating a company to buy it, but there was no stopping the demise of the Navajo Generating Station and the two mines on Black Mesa that fed it.
Environmentalists had for years been pressuring the tribal government to create a plan to replace the revenue that would be lost when the plant closed, preferably by converting it to a sustainable energy producer, but as the last coal shovelful of coal was turned this past November, the only plan was to dig into the Permanent Trust Fund former President Peterson Zah had created in 1985 for just this eventuality.
Meanwhile the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, the tribal enterprise created to buy the Navajo Mine and then lead the Nation into a more sustainable energy future, purchased three more coal mines in Wyoming and Montana — a move that shocked not only environmentalists but the president and Council.
The San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow, New Mexico, is next on the chopping block, slated to close in 2022 unless the state’s Public Regulation Commission approves a plan to convert it to a carbon capture facility.
We’re reporters of the news, not prognosticators. But it’s not too risky to predict that all these environmental issues will extend into 2020 and most likely beyond, joined by ones no one has even thought of yet as irreversible climate change takes hold.
Here’s a report from Andrew Davey writing for Nevada Today. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:
Around this time last year, Commissioner Brenda Burman delivered this ultimatum to CRWUA attendees: “Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin.” This year, as in just yesterday, Burman said, “It was truly remarkable to have the divergent interests of the basin forge a compromise and make the difficult agreements to complete the DCP.”
And unlike last year, when Burman urged officials from across the Colorado River Basin to finish the DCP already, this year she urged patience on matters like renegotiating the 2007 agreement that turned Lake Mead into a sort of regional water bank. On that, Burman declared, “It’s not yet time to take up that task.”
Yet despite Burman’s more relaxed approach, some at CRWUA want to see more “fierce urgency of now”. While the DCP successfully fended off the threat of federal water rations, and while Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack is currently running 15% above average, ongoing legal concerns and the ever escalating threat of climate change may yet upend the delicate peace that the DCP has ushered in for now…
While Burman voiced confidence in the states’, municipal water agencies’, and Native American tribal authorities’ ability to cooperate, some of these very local officials were voicing notes of warning and caution. Shortly after Burman’s presentation on the main stage, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Director of Water Resources Colby Pellegrino noted their use of data from the U.S. Geological Survey and UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) showing less Colorado River water for everyone to work with in the next 50 years.
As Pellegrino described this challenge, “It’s a pretty severe stress test for our water resource portfolio.” Pellegrino then noted how SNWA and the larger community have already been rising to this challenge with conservation programs like outdoor watering schedules and turf removal. As Pellegrino put it, “There’s significant water savings to be achieved by changing the mindset of how we use it.”
Later in the day, I caught up with Pellegrino to talk some more about her presentation and the challenges that lie ahead for her agency and the entire region. When asked how SNWA plans to handle those future challenges, she replied, “Conservation is still right here, under our noses, the quickest and most cost effective way.”
[Friday], it was Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s turn to make news here in Nevada. And make news he did, as Bernhardt announced the federal government will launch an early start of its review of the 2007 Interim Guidelines (as in, the 2007 agreement that launched the ICS program to manage the Lower Basin’s water supply).
Soon after his main floor presentation, Bernhardt spoke with reporters about this and other pressing water issues. On his announcement to jump-start review of the Interim Guidelines, Bernhardt said, “We have an opportunity right now. We have the people in place. We might as well build on the success we have here.”
So what can we expect in this review? And for that matter, what kinds of future changes might we expect in federal oversight of the Colorado River? When I asked Bernhardt whether he’d take into account climate science and the changing needs and consumption patterns of the increasingly urban American Southwest, he replied, “I’ve never taken a position of what we need to tell a city or county what they need to do.”
Yet as Bernhardt’s discussion with reporters continued, the conversation occasionally veered into other environmental matters. And when a couple reporters asked about the proposed oil and gas leases on public lands that have run into local opposition, including right here in Nevada, in the Ruby Mountains outside Elko and in parts of Lincoln County that supply drinking water for Mesquite, Bernhardt declared, “The president was clear when he ran for office what his policy is on energy. He supports an ‘all of the above’ approach.” Bernhardt also suggested these leases are required by federal statute, even though the Obama administration took a more cautious and targeted approach toward such fossil fuel extraction on public lands…
Funny enough, one of my takeaways from my conversation with SNWA’s Colby Pellegrino on Thursday was that regardless of what becomes of the long-fought pipeline plan, SNWA has enough water available to keep the Las Vegas region going for the next 50 years. Also, I noticed that regardless of the Trump administration’s curious comments on climate change and “all of the above” approaches to water infrastructure and fossil fuels, SNWA officials recognize the clear and present danger of climate change, and they’re already acting on it.
And it may not just be SNWA doing this. Even as Trump appointees are skirting around acknowledgement of climate science, fossil fuel pollution, ongoing regional tensions, or the reality of urban and suburban growth in the Colorado River Basin, federal civil servants continue to collect data, analyze trends, and manage the water we all share. We’ll talk more about that next week.
Still, there’s a rather large gap between the rhetoric and overarching policies of the Trump administration and the promises of strong climate action that U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), former Vice President Joe Biden, and the other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are providing. And yet, we don’t hear as much about the Colorado River and our fragile water supply as you’d expect considering their environmental and geopolitical importance. Yet no matter how much we ignore it, all we have to do is glimpse at Lake Mead to remember how important it truly is to our very livelihood.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told federal, state and local water managers that abiding by the promises they made will be crucial to ensuring that more painful cuts aren’t required…
“We need to be proud of what we’ve done,” Burman told hundreds at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference at a Las Vegas Strip resort, while also warning of “tougher challenges in the future.”
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will start taking less water from the river Jan. 1 under a drought contingency agreement signed in May. It followed lengthy negotiations and multiple warnings from Burman that if the seven states didn’t reach a deal, the federal government, which controls the levers on the river, could impose severe water restrictions.
California would voluntarily cut water deliveries if reservoir levels keep falling at the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead…
Cuts will most affect farmers in Arizona. The Central Arizona Project will stop storage and replenishment operations and cut water for agricultural use by about 15%. The agency gets more than half of Arizona’s entitlement of water from the Colorado River…
The drought contingency plan is a voluntary agreement to use less water than users are allowed, and its success is measured at the surface level of Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam east of Las Vegas.
The agreements are designed to prevent a more drastic drought-shortage declaration under a 2007 pact that would cut 11.4 percent of Arizona’s usual river water allocation and reduce Nevada’s share by 4.3 percent. That amount of water, combined, would serve more than 625,000 homes.
California would reduce its Colorado River use by about 6 percent.
Due to a relatively wet winter, Lake Mead is now 40% full and Lake Powell, an upstream reservoir, is at 53% capacity, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patricia Aaron said. A year ago, Lake Powell was 43% full, and Lake Mead was at 38%…
Water managers have called the last 20 dry years a drought, but climate researchers warn the river will continue to carry less water in coming years.
“Respected climate scientists have conservatively estimated declines in river flows of 20% by the middle of the 21st century and 35% by the end of the century,” researchers Anne Castle of the University of Colorado Law School and John Fleck of the University of New Mexico wrote in a study released in November.
The report refers to a “structural deficit” under which states and Mexico are promised more water than the river usually carries and encourages the seven states to clarify rules for handling future shortages.
Bill Strengthens Preventative Efforts to Protect Water Infrastructure and Ecosystems from Invasive Mussels
Today, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced the Stop the Spread of Invasive Mussels Act of 2019, new legislation to slow the movement of aquatic invasive species, like zebra and quagga mussels, into Colorado, Montana, and other Western States.
“Because of our strong watercraft inspection efforts, Colorado is one of the few headwater states still free of zebra and quagga mussels, but there’s an ever-present risk of infestation from neighboring states,” said Bennet. “There is a lot on the line for water users and local economies. Our bill provides states and municipalities the resources they need to keep watercraft inspection and decontamination stations up and running, and prevent the spread of invasive mussels into Colorado.”
“Water is the most essential need of Montana communities, and a powerhouse for our recreation economy,” said Daines. “Our bipartisan bill helps continue the fight to prevent aquatic invasive species, like quagga and zebra mussels, from damaging pristine Montana ecosystems. Empowering our local communities with the resources they need to ensure our waterways, rivers, and lakes remain free from these invasive species is critical to our Montana way of life.”
“Invasive aquatic mussels present a serious threat to Montana’s water infrastructure and outdoor economy, and we’ve got to do more to stop them at the source. This bill is simple—it helps do that by building and staffing new inspection stations so we can better contain their spread and avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in mitigation down the line,” said Tester.
Aquatic invasive species pose a significant threat to Western rivers and reservoirs. Once established, these intruders are nearly impossible to eradicate and wreak havoc on crucial water infrastructure, limit recreation opportunities, and harm ecosystems and local economies. As invasive mussels spread across the West, preventative measures – like watercraft inspection and decontamination stations – are key to limiting their spread.
The Stop the Spread of Invasive Mussels Act would:
Strengthen prevention efforts by providing the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) explicit authority to partner with states and municipalities to fund watercraft inspection and decontamination stations;
Provide all federal agencies who participate in the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force the same authorities to limit the movement of invasive species into and out of U.S. waters, eliminating problematic differences between the various agencies;
Ensure that all at-risk basins are eligible and prioritized for watercraft inspection and decontamination funding.
In the 2018 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), Bennet secured a provision to protect Colorado’s watersheds from invasive species. That bill directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to establish, operate, or fund watercraft inspection stations in a number of Colorado river basins. Bennet first introduced this provision as an amendment to the 2016 WRDA, but it was not included in the final bill.
Following the August 2017 detection of quagga mussel larvae in the Green Mountain Reservoir, Bennet led the Colorado delegation in sending a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging a rapid response. In 2010, Bennet introduced the Invasive Species Emergency Response Fund Act to establish a loan fund for Western states to combat invasive species.
“Containing the spread of invasive quagga and zebra mussels is a high priority for western states and we appreciate Senator Bennet’s, Senator Daines’s, and Senator Tester’s bipartisan leadership in enabling state and federal agencies to more effectively combat the spread of invasive mussels. Every year, these invaders cause substantial damage to water delivery systems, hydroelectric facilities, agriculture, recreational boating and fishing, and native wildlife,” said Jim Ogsbury, Executive Director of the Western Governors’ Association.
“This legislation is will be an incredible help to prevent the spread of zebra and quagga mussels, and other aquatic invasive species, which are a serious threat to Colorado waters,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs. “We are fortunate that in Colorado our multi-jurisdictional mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination program has so far prevented the spread of these invasive aquatic species. We appreciate the leadership of Senator Bennet and his colleagues for introducing this legislation which will increase state and federal collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries to protect western watersheds from these harmful and costly invaders.”
“This legislation will provide the authorization needed, as well as a funding opportunity, to improve the joint implementation of mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination stations that may significantly benefit Colorado and the Western U.S.,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow. “This partnership is critical to protecting our natural resources, outdoor recreation, and water supply systems used for drinking water, hydropower, agriculture and industrial uses for future generations.”
“The spread of quagga and zebra mussels throughout our nation’s water storage and delivery infrastructure is alarming,” said Andy Mueller, General Manager of the Colorado River District in Western Colorado. “This legislation will help to protect West Slope water users and bolster state-led efforts to inspect and prevent mussel infestations in our waterways. I want to thank Senator Bennet for his leadership on this important issue.”
The bill text is available HERE and a section-by-section is available HERE.
Here’s the release from Governor Gordon’s office (Michael Pearlman):
Reflecting his goal of making Wyoming a national leader on combating invasive species, Governor Mark Gordon announced today he has launched an initiative to address terrestrial invasive plants in the state.
The initiative will be comprised of two teams– a Policy Team and a Technical Team, each comprised of local, state and federal government representatives, private citizens representing industry and agricultural groups, as well as scientists and practitioners.
The two teams will work cooperatively to develop recommendations for the Governor in the context of a large-scale strategy for invasive species management. Terrestrial invasive species represent a significant threat to Wyoming’s forests, rangelands and agricultural lands with varying levels of impact.
“Wyoming is faced with threats from multiple invasives species, both on land and in our waters,” Governor Gordon said. “I have specifically asked these groups to address terrestrial plants and provide recommendations on how to take the first step towards tackling some of the toughest questions. Our best efforts should begin close to home.”
The first meeting of the two teams will take be held at 9:30 am on October 10 at the NRCS Building, located at 100 East B. Street, room 3002 in Casper.
Policy Team members are Steve Meadows (chair), Wyatt Agar, Brian Boner, Jacque Buchanan, Josh Coursey, Jessica Crowder, John Elliot, Jack Engstrom, Colleen Faber, Jamie Flitner, Slade Franklin, Rob Hendry, Mark Hogan, Matt Hoobler, Astrid Martinez and Tom Walters.
The Technical Team includes Justin Derner (chair), Bob Budd, Ben Bump, Todd Caltrider, Justin Caudill, Scott Gamo, Lindy Garner, Ken Henke, Brian Jensen, Julie Kraft, Rod Litzel, Brian Mealor, Dwayne Rice, Pete Stahl, Amanda Thimmayya and Mahonri Williams.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandnowski):
Anglers who participated in the 2019 smallmouth bass tournament at Ridgway State Park, again, helped Colorado Parks and Wildlife on its mission to preserve native fish species.
For the fifth year in a row, licensed anglers caught hundreds of smallmouth bass that are a threat to Colorado’s native fish that live downstream in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers. A total of 79 registered anglers removed 1,498 smallmouth bass in the month-long tournament that ended July 27. Smallmouth bass are non-native and were introduced illegally to Ridgway Reservoir about 10 years ago. They are predators and could wipe out populations of native fish downstream.
“In the five years of the tournament we have reduced the population of smallmouth bass in the reservoir by 79 percent,” said Eric Gardunio, aquatic biologist for CPW in Montrose and the organizer of the tournament. “It is truly amazing what these anglers can do. They are participating directly in wildlife management in Colorado.”
Before the first tournament in 2015, Gardunio estimated there were 3,632 adult smallmouth bass in the reservoir. Adult fish measure six inches in length or more. Now it is estimated that only 763 adult fish live in the reservoir.
“We are making substantial headway in suppressing the population of smallmouth that were introduced illegally to Ridgway Reservoir,” Gardunio said.
The Ridgway tournament targets smallmouth bass because they could escape from the reservoir and migrate downstream to a section of the Gunnison River that is considered “critical habitat” for native fish.
“The work by CPW staff along with the help of anglers shows that through targeted management techniques we can enhance survival of rare aquatic species,” said John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for the Southwest Region for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
With assistance from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, CPW was able to offer $12,000 in prize money to tournament participants.
Chase Nicholson of Ouray was the big winner this year, catching 571 smallmouth and the top prize of $5,000 for most fish caught. He also won $500 for smallest fish caught – 3.3 inches. Nicholson tied with Tyler Deuschle of Delta for biggest fish caught, 17.2 inches they split the $500 prize. Second place for most fish caught went to Lawrence Cieslewicz of Montrose, who caught 283. He also won the grand-prize raffle for an additional $2,500. Chris Cady from Delta turned in 128 fish and placed third for most fish caught.
The heat of a warming planet, like an artist’s palette knife on a canvas, etches its way across Western forests, slowly altering ecosystems that have flourished for centuries.
Stevens-Rumann, a 33-year-old assistant forestry professor at Colorado State University, was [on site to observe the aftermath of the Spring Fire to measure and mark what comes next. In all likelihood, the ponderosa pine forest that had been there would not return.
Aspen and scrub oak have already sprouted, but all the pine trees and their cones were destroyed. No pine saplings poke through the charred soil.
Across the Rockies and even into the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Northwest’s Cascades, forests are changing or simply vanishing. Wildfire has played a big role. Insect infestations have also had a hand, as has drought.
Behind it all is one driving force — climate change. Scientists charting the fate of forests see it, whether they are entomologists or botanists or wildfire ecologists like Stevens-Rumann. The heat of a warming planet, like an artist’s palette knife on a canvas, etches its way across Western forests, slowly altering ecosystems that have flourished for centuries.
“We are really moving out of a climate that is suitable for forests,” Stevens-Rumann said. “Old trees can persist, but when change comes in a disturbance like a wildfire and the ecosystem resets, the forests don’t come back.”
The transformation isn’t quite that simple. Lower elevation forests, like those along the Front Range, are most at risk, but as the forest rises into the mountains, the nature of the woods may change with spruce, fir and pine competing for survival even as new pests push into those higher, and now warmer and drier, mountain reaches.
“As ecosystems change, there are going to be winners and losers,” said Thomas Veblen, a biogeographer and distinguished professor at the University of Colorado. “The regulator function of the forest could diminish … leading to more runoff and flash floods. With a reduction of the forest canopy, we are going to see the potential for greater erosion. The question is how much of the forest will fail to regenerate.”
Fire changes the forest’s composition
Colorado’s Front Range has had five ecotones — shifts in plant and animal communities — from grasslands at 5,500 feet above sea level to alpine tundra at 11,300 feet.
“When we go to higher elevations under warming temperatures, we do expect the species from lower elevations to do better after a fire or other disturbance,” Veblen said.
After six years as a forest firefighter in an elite hotshot crew, Stevens-Rumann, curious about what happens after the fire is out, became a wildfire ecologist.
In a study of 1,485 sites that burned in 52 wildfires in forests from Colorado to northern Idaho, a team led by Stevens-Rumann found tree regeneration was significantly reduced at the sites that burned after 2000.
Fewer than half the spots had signs of growing back with a density of trees similar to the pre-fire forest, and nearly one-third of the sites had no trees at all.
These forests ranged from lower elevation dry conifer forests, containing ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, to moister conifer forests of Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine. The highest elevation forests in the study were around 9,000 feet.
The researchers measured the site temperatures and moisture, and classified the areas by the severity of the burn.
It appeared that the hotter and drier the site, the less chance of a forest coming back. “There is an ecotone shift already underway,” Stevens-Rumann said. “We may see aspen and scrub oak replace pine and at higher elevations, maybe pine replace fir.”
This is happening across the Front Range. An analysis of five Front Range forest fires between 1996 and 2003 — Bobcat Gulch, Overland, High Meadow, Buffalo Creek and Hayman — found that 23% of the forest cover has been lost.
“Below 8,200 feet, we saw little generation; above 8,200 feet, where it tends to be cooler and moister, we saw more,” said Marin Chambers, a researcher at the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and the study’s lead author.
Savage wildfires disrupt the trees’ lifecycle
At the site of the 2002 Hayman Fire — the largest in the state’s history, consuming 135,114 acres northwest of Colorado Springs — the most intensely burned areas have come back as grasslands.
The problem, Chambers explained, is that while fire releases the seeds of pine cones, they do not travel very far. And the hotter, drier and more open sites where they land are less hospitable.
Fire has been an essential component of the pine forest ecosystem. The pine and fir trees are “serontinous” — depending on fire to release their seeds and simultaneously clear an ashy, nutrient-rich bed for new seedlings.
Two things, however, have altered the natural cycle. First, a century of fire suppression — think Smokey the Bear — has prevented regeneration, creating forests of mostly large, old trees. Additionally, it has built up dead wood on the forest floor that aids fires to burn more intensely when they do happen.
And now those fires are coming more quickly and more savagely. Since 2000, there has been vastly more acreage burned in Colorado than in the three previous decades, with peaks of more than 300,000 acres scorched in 2003 and about 160,000 acres destroyed in 2013.
Across the West, about 20 million acres burned between 1979 and 2015. The average fire season grew by 26 days, a 41% increase, and high-fire-potential days increased by 17, according to a study by John Abatzoglou, a University of Idaho geographer.
Abatzoglou measured drought conditions and water availability, as well as temperature, and estimated that climate change contributed to about half the forest fire acreage as heat parched the forests, creating more dry fuel.
The analysis also found that significant declines in spring rains in the southwestern U.S. during the period from 1979-2015 and in summer precipitation in the Northwest add to the fire problem.
Another Abatzoglou study projects the shortening of the snowpack season except for in the high Rockies and parts of the Uinta and Bighorn ranges in Utah and Wyoming, as well as more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow.
How much hotter has it been? The average observed summer temperature in Colorado between 2005 and 2009 was nearly 67 degrees Fahrenheit — the hottest it has been in a century, up almost 2.5 degrees since 1989, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The temperature itself poses an ecological Rubicon. A study of 177 burn sites from 21 forest fires in the northern Rockies documented the same phenomenon Stevens-Rumann saw: fewer trees growing in the lower elevation patches and no trees at about one-third of the sites, with grasses, sedges and a wild, purple evening primrose called fireweed taking root.
The study also calculated that at summer average temperatures above 63 degrees, fir tree regeneration would be “minimal.” Ponderosa pine is slightly more heat tolerant at temperatures up to 66 degrees, the study said…
So much is at stake. And it’s not about the view.
There is much more at stake in the fate of the high-country forests than just a majestic view. The snowpack that falls in the woods, and is essential to nourishing the forest, and it is also the main source of drinking water for the state.
“Every person in Colorado gets a touch of the forest ecosystem every day when they open up the tap,” West said. But thinner forests would lead the dwindling snowpack to run off more quickly.
Even without the spruce beetle, the high-elevation forests are under threat. In a study of Colorado Front Range forests between 9,500 feet and 11,150 feet, researchers found a decrease in new spruce and fir as a result of declining snowpack and rising summer temperatures.
Above-average snowpack was found to be a key in the establishment of new Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, according to one of Veblen’s studies. Conversely, declining snowpack along with cooler, wetter summers was related to a decrease in the number of fir and spruce establishment events from 1975.
A study of high-elevation areas in Rocky Mountain National Park warned that these ecosystems were “at higher risk of species redistribution as they are more insular and experience more rapid changes than environments at lower elevations.”
In some places, climate change is pushing forests higher or farther. In Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve, boreal forests have moved as much as 300 feet north onto what was formerly treeless tundra.
In Yosemite National Park researchers have found whitebark and lodgepole pines pushing into montane meadows as high at 10,000 feet.
Researchers suggest new approach needed to address Anthropocene risk
A team of international researchers led by Colorado State University is calling for a new approach to understanding environmental risks in the Anthropocene, the current geological age in which humans are a dominant force of change on the planet.
Patrick Keys, a research scientist in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at CSU, is the lead author of “Anthropocene risk,” a perspective paper published July 22 in Nature Sustainability that suggests adopting a holistic approach to understanding environmental risks. Keys said the team hopes that the article is “productively provocative.”
“The Anthropocene is a time of rapid global change – socially, environmentally, and geophysically,” he said. “Typical notions of neatly and cleanly delineating complex environmental risks are changing in unexpected ways. It’s becoming clear that a more holistic perspective, including social history, power relations, and environmental ethics may be important components of Anthropocene risks.”
As an example, Keys said it’s a common belief that the civil war in Syria has been driven by drought and climate change. While those two factors more than likely played a role in what led to the civil war, it also ignores other aspects such as incentives by Syrian government officials that kept farmers on agriculturally precarious land for decades. Keys said those incentives made it possible for drought and climate change to have such an impact.
“If we ignore the social and political economic factors that deliver us to this present, we will attribute an event to being caused by the environment when, in fact, that was just one cause or the icing on top of the cake. If we look at things only in the present, we will come up with solutions to a problem defined in the present, but we may not be defining the problem correctly.”
This point of view stems from Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for Development (GRAID), a program based at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where five of the paper’s co-authors currently work.
In the paper, the research team explores four different cases outside of Europe and North America to highlight this way of looking at environmental risks and underline why people studying such risks must take a broader approach.
“As the Anthropocene unfolds, navigating new and emerging risks will require considering changes that happen over years, decades, centuries, or even millennia.” Keys said. “In this increasingly interconnected and accelerating world, it’s on us to really educate ourselves about how to interact intelligently and meaningfully to work toward a more sustainable world.”
FromThe Associated Press (Felicia Fonseca) via Tucson.com:
That the tiny beetles brought to the U.S. from Asia in an experiment to devour invasive, water-sucking tamarisks showed up at the Verde River in central Arizona is no surprise. But it’s further evidence they’re spreading faster than once anticipated and eventually could pervade the Southwest U.S, raising wildfire risks and allowing less time to uproot the tamarisks, also called salt cedars, and replace them with native trees.
Without those efforts, an already highly flammable tree will burn more intensely, and an endangered songbird that nests in tamarisk might not have a home.
The federal program to use the beetles to chew up tamarisk trees began as an experiment in rural Nevada in 2001 and was approved for more widespread use in 2005, as long as they were at least 200 milesfrom Southwestern willow flycatcher territory. It ended in 2010 as the beetles intruded on the birds’ habitat. An unintentional release in southern Utah also helped the insects spread into Arizona.
Johnson believes the quarter-inch beetles hitchhiked to the Verde River on clothing, a backpack or a boat. Normally, they are wind travelers but would have had to catch quite a gust to get to the river from the closest drainage where they’ve been recorded, he said.
Johnson has sent samples to a geneticist in Colorado to determine if the beetles can be traced to a population north of Arizona or a subtropical one from Texas that multiplies quicker.
Arizona once was projected to be too hot for the beetles to survive, but they’ve evolved as they’ve expanded their reach.
Dan Bean with the Colorado Department of Agriculture found even more this summer in far southwestern Arizona along the California border, where temperatures regularly top 100 degrees.
The concern now is the beetles establishing themselves in the Gila, Salt and San Pedro watersheds, which have higher concentrations of flycatcher habitat.
The beetles aren’t known to feast on anything other than tamarisks, though one beetle can’t eat much on its own. In the thousands, they can consume entire trees, Bean said.
The tamarisk leaves can grow back within the season, but repeated attacks can be fatal for the trees — a welcome result in places flycatchers don’t live.
Dead tamarisks can litter the ground with leaves and increase wildfire risks.
The trees already are notorious for burning hot and black, and beetle predation would provide more fuel.
Ben Bloodworth works with Rivers Edge West, formerly the Tamarisk Coalition, which has been tracking the beetles’ movement for years.
The group has mapped the beetles along the Green River in Utah, the Rio Grande and Pecos River in New Mexico and Texas, the Arkansas River in Colorado, the Colorado River — a major source of water for 40 million people in seven Western states — and other waterways.
“Eventually the beetles will be throughout the entire Southwest, and really what we need to do is, in areas where it’s appropriate, get in ahead of the beetle (and) plant willows and cottonwoods and other native species that can provide habitat for the willow flycatcher,” Bloodworth said.
The beetles and the songbird have been the subject of legal fights. The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in 2013.
The lawsuit alleged the damage caused by the insects through the beetle release program violated the Endangered Species Act, and argued the federal government should be held liable.
As part of a settlement, the USDA released a draft conservation plan in June for the flycatcher, which is found in parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah. Under the plan, the agency would aid existing conservation programs, contribute money and monitor beetle impacts. The public has until Aug. 8 to weigh in.
The beetles would not be in the United States if not for the tamarisk that thrives along riverbeds.
As confirmed cases of invasive mussel contamination on out-of-state boats reach record numbers in areas close to Boulder County, local authorities say the problematic species’ profile remains low, as it traditionally has, within county borders.
Reservoirs popular with recreational users in Boulder County have policies governing what boaters have to do before putting in, efforts to decontaminate all crafts entering local waters and biology to thank for the good news…
At Longmont’s Union Reservoir, inspectors in the past 10 years have come across only two vessels contaminated with invasive mussels, and so far, none have been found this year, according to John Brim, a city parks and open space ranger.
Because only wakeless boating is allowed at Union Reservoir, it doesn’t attract boats used most often at out-of-state bodies of water known to harbor the invasive species; Lake Powell is especially notorious…
At Boulder Reservoir, cases of contaminated boats are slightly more common, with one confirmed contamination this year, and about five suspected mussel contaminations, with several of those confirmed, since 2008, according to Boulder Reservoir Manager Stacy Cole…
Between 15 and 20 decontaminations have taken place this year in Boulder, including one Monday, for boats that haven’t received a permit tag from the city or those that have and since were used on an out-of-state waterway.
“Parks and Recreation staff use a mobile decontamination unit which flushes the system including ballast tanks with high-temperature water — 140 degrees Fahrenheit — necessary to kill mussels,” Boulder spokesperson Denise White said. “The city also adds potassium hydroxide to the decontamination water to kill any possible mussels before the wastewater enters the city’s sanitary sewer system.”
Boulder boosted its precautions for this year, requiring not only an initial decontamination process for untagged boats and those coming in after a stint outside Colorado, but also an ensuing seven-day quarantine period on dry land at Boulder Reservoir and a second decontamination before the vessel is allowed back in the water. Cole said there was no particular incident that prompted the city’s move. Rather, the growing number of mussel-infested waterways in surrounding states has prompted such prevention initiatives across the state, she said…
Boaters can receive their first decontamination for free from state officials in Denver, and then pay Boulder for their second decontamination at rates that vary from $35 to $175 depending on the size of the watercraft…
Broomfield protects itself from the pesky organism by disallowing boating on all its waterways.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):
The number of boats infected with mussels intercepted in Colorado by inspectors in 2019 is already even with the total from last year – and we’re only halfway through the boating season.
“I am just being completely over-run by mussel infested boats,” said Robert Walters, CPW’s assistant manager for the aquatic nuisance species program. “We are already up to 51 interceptions this year. We are having interceptions just about every day at waters throughout the state. And most of the boats are coming out of Lake Powell.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is warning boaters that they must clean, drain, dry and disinfect their boats before traveling to any reservoir in Colorado, especially when boats are brought in from out-of-state. Boats coming in from heavily infested Lake Powell are especially problematic. While boats are supposed to be inspected as they leave the desert impoundment, inspection stations there are overwhelmed and not all boats are thoroughly inspected. Mussels have even been found on paddleboards and canoes that have been in Lake Powel.
All boats that are not previously “sealed” at Colorado reservoirs receive a thorough inspection and engine flush at inspection stations. Any boats found with mussels must be completely decontaminated, a process that can last a week or more.
Colorado’s reservoirs are mussel free and the state and cooperating agencies operate a robust inspection program. But if an infestation occurs, it could be devastating for reservoirs and water-based recreation.
The number of boats infected with mussels is increasing. In 2018, 51 boats with adult mussels were found at inspection stations, far more than the previous record of 26 boats in one year. Since the ANS program started in Colorado in 2008, CPW staff and other entities have completed nearly 4.5 million boat inspections, more than 90,000 boats have been subject to decontamination procedures and more than 200 vessels with confirmed mussel infestations have been intercepted and decontaminated.
Mussel infestations cause a variety of major problems. Because mussels consume plankton, they disrupt the food web and out-compete sport fish and native fish. Mussels clog infrastructure, including reservoir dams, outlet structures and distribution systems that carry water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses. Mussels also infest boats and damage engines.
Mussels have caused billions of dollars in damage, especially in the upper Midwest and Lower Colorado River. Nearby states where mussel infestations exist, include Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma.
Kirstin Copeland, manager at Ridgway State Park, explained that the companies and organizations that own most of Colorado’s reservoirs could shut down all water-based recreation.
“They are concerned about potential damage to their infrastructure,” Copeland said. “They could say no to all boating.”
All boat owners who have been to Lake Powell should take extra care to inspect every inch of their craft and trailer – including lines, anchors, seat cushions, live wells and paddle craft. Owners can also call CPW if they have questions about the aquatic nuisance program and inspections.
Range fires get bigger every year, threatening sagebrush habitat and rural towns.
Between the town of Elko, Nevada, and the Idaho border stretches some of the most remote land in the Lower 48, rolling hills and arid basins as far as the eye can see. Last July, this section of the Owyhee Desert was scorched by a fierce, fast-moving blaze with 40-foot flames, the largest wildfire in state history. In the end, the Martin Fire burned 435,000 acres, including some of the West’s finest sagebrush habitat. Now, the raw range wind whips up the bare earth into enormous black clouds that roil on the horizon.
Once rare, fires that large, hot and destructive are now common in the Great Basin, a 200,000-square-mile region of mountains and valleys that includes all of Nevada and much of Utah, as well as parts of California, Idaho and Oregon. But despite the rising fire risk, a general lack of attention is putting the rangeland in growing danger.
The fire problem “risks permanent loss” of the ecosystem, according to Jolie Pollet, a fire ecologist and the Bureau of Land Management’s division chief for fire planning and fuels management. This is a genuine crisis, she said, and it demands greater urgency and attention than it is currently getting.
“The general public, especially urban areas, doesn’t seem to have an appreciation for the impacts on these landscapes, since the areas are so sparsely populated,” she said.
The new ferocity of rangeland fires has an old culprit: cheatgrass, an annual originally from Eurasia that was brought to this country in cattle feed, packing material and ships’ ballast in the late 1800s. It has since proliferated through overgrazing and development. The grass burns easily and often, and it thrives on fire. In intense blazes, when native shrubs perish, cheatgrass simply drops its seeds and then expands into the burned areas. The areas of greatest fire risk in the Great Basin have a high correlation with the areas of highest cheatgrass incursion, and the increasingly dry and arid climate brought by climate change is encouraging its spread. The Great Basin now has the nation’s highest wildfire risk.
Historically, sagebrush habitat burned about once every century or less, but now it happens around every five to 10 years. Over the past two decades, more than 15 million acres of sagebrush have been permanently lost to fire, according to the BLM, 9 million of them since 2014. Overall, since 2000, more acres of shrubland or grasssland have burned than forest.
If sagebrush decline continues, the approximately 350 species that depend on it are in serious trouble. The Martin Fire burned some of the best sage grouse habitat in the country and destroyed more than 35 grouse mating grounds, or leks. The fires also harm watersheds, cause erosion and destroy wildlife corridors used by pronghorn antelope, mule deer and elk.
The impact on rural Americans is equally severe. Counties and ranchers must deal with infrastructure loss, including troughs, fencing, and damage to roads and powerlines. Many ranchers struggle with the additional costs, said Ron Cerri, a rancher and commissioner in agriculture-dependent Humboldt County, where the Martin Fire burned. Ranchers may lose hayfields in a blaze, for example, and six months of hay for 500 cattle costs about $216,000, according to Cerri. Cattle often die in the flames, and ranchers have to put down animals crippled by the smoke. Jon Griggs, a Nevada rancher whose land burned in 2007, called it the worst part of the job.
Because sagebrush ecosystems are neglected, they get less funding, making the fire threat even worse. Indeed, the BLM receives even less money than the already-underfunded Forest Service. For 2019, the Forest Service got about $400 million in annual funding for fuel management, and about $1.3 billion for firefighting preparedness. The BLM received $85 million and $180 million respectively, even though it manages about 50 million more acres of public land. The BLM also received $11 million for fire recovery, a microscopic amount, given the scale of the problem.
When the BLM runs out of firefighting money, it’s forced to raid other programs, as the blazes quickly burn through agency budgets.
“The agencies run out of money and all the other programs get gutted,” said University of Montana wildlife biology professor Dave Naugle. “In the long term, it really hurts conservation.”
Last year, Congress passed a measure that allows the BLM to access emergency fire funds without draining other initiatives. But the provision doesn’t kick in until next year, and even when it does, the BLM will remain seriously underfunded for firefighting, prevention and restoration.
Meanwhile, wildfires are already burning across the West, and the cheatgrass is beginning to dry up, turning from its spring purple to the yellowish hue that signals its readiness to burn.
Pollet put it succinctly: “I’m scared for 2019.”
Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Mike Porras):
The illegal, unapproved relocation of fish from one body of water to another continues to cause significant problems for management agencies, water providers and ethical anglers across Colorado.
Recently joining the list of reservoirs impacted by the presence of illegally introduced northern pike is northwest Colorado’s Kenney Reservoir. In the fall of 2018, Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologists confirmed the presence of the nonnative predator in the estimated 335-surface-acre reservoir located near the town of Rangely. Authorities believe the northern pike were most likely dumped illegally into the reservoir, or the White River, by a ‘bucket biologist,’ a pejorative term used to describe someone that moves live fish in an effort to create their own personal, unapproved fishery.
“Releasing fish unlawfully and selfishly is self-defeating and will not work as intended,” said Lori Martin, CPW’s Northwest Region senior aquatic biologist. “Because northern pike are indiscriminate predators and consume any fish they catch, we will not throw our hands in the air and ignore the problem. We will take action one way or another to deal with this illegal introduction because it is very harmful and the stakes are so high. This hurt existing fisheries and it certainly has negative impacts on anglers, the majority of whom are law-abiding and ethical.”
CPW says illegal fish stocking can result in fines up to $5,000 and the permanent loss of hunting and fishing privileges. In addition, anyone convicted of illegal fish dumping will likely have to pay up to hundreds of thousands of dollars to reclaim the body of water.
The presence of northern pike has prompted CPW and reservoir owner Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and other partners, including the Town of Rangely, Rangely Area Chamber of Commerce, Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to initiate an angler harvest incentive targeting all northern pike found within the District’s boundaries. Beginning June 1 and continuing through Nov. 30, licensed anglers can earn $20 for each northern pike caught and removed from Kenney Reservoir, the White River and other waters, from approximately Stedman Mesa to the Utah border.
Kenney Reservoir is very popular with anglers and currently recognized as an excellent channel catfish, black crappie and common carp fishery. In addition, CPW stocks rainbow trout annually at the expense of the State of Colorado; however, due to the presence of northern pike, Martin says the agency will have little choice but to cancel the remaining catchable trout plants in Kenney Reservoir in 2019. She says until the issue is resolved, she is not sure when they can resume stocking.
“Moving any live fish is a criminal act and can cause great damage to an existing fishery, threaten our native fishes and cost the sportsmen and women of Colorado thousands of dollars annually,” said CPW’s Area Wildlife Manager Bill de Vergie of Meeker. “We would prefer to dedicate our time and sportsmen’s dollars on other projects that directly benefit the angling public, rather than spend money and manpower on fish removal efforts.”
Research conducted by partners in the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program has shown that the unapproved presence of nonnative predators like northern pike and smallmouth bass in critical, native fish habitat is among the most significant impediments to the recovery of Colorado’s endangered fishes – Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail and razorback sucker. The rare species exist nowhere else in the world except in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the White River, upstream to the Rio Blanco Lake dam west of Meeker and downstream of Kenney Reservoir, is designated critical habitat for the Colorado pikeminnow, and the lower 18 miles of the White River in Utah is designated as critical habitat for razorback sucker. Smallmouth bass, northern pike and other nonnative species in these river stretches have proven detrimental to native fishes.
Other Northwest Region reservoirs dealing with the repercussions of unlawful stocking of northern pike include Green Mountain Reservoir and Wolford Mountain Reservoir. CPW and the Colorado River Water Conservation District initiated angler harvest incentives at both reservoirs several years ago, similar to the one planned at Kenney Reservoir. Licensed anglers can earn $20 for each northern pike caught and removed.
To participate in the angler harvest incentive within the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District’s boundaries, anglers should bring their freshly caught northern pike to the District office at 2252 East Main Street in Rangely during typical business hours, 7 a.m.- 4 p.m. Monday – Thursday, and 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. on Friday. The District will administer the cash harvest incentive with funds provided by CPW through a Colorado legislative bill that appropriates severance tax dollars to the Species Conservation Trust Fund.
To collect CPW’s angler harvest incentive at Green Mountain Reservoir, anglers can bring freshly caught northern pike to the Heeney Marina during business hours. Call 970-724-9441 for more information. To collect the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s angler harvest incentive at Wolford Mountain Reservoir, take the freshly caught northern pike to the campground host, or call 970-724-1266.
For each body of water, anglers must present their fishing license to qualify for the harvest incentive.
“Our removal efforts thus far have been effective at reducing the number of northern pike in Kenney and we believe the population is still relatively small,” said Martin. “But northern pike are prolific and it doesn’t take long for a small population to grow, especially if no management action is taken. We encourage anglers to participate and help us eliminate northern pike from Kenney and the surrounding area. If the pike population continues to grow, we may have to resort to less palatable options for managing against northern pike in the future.”
For more information about the angler harvest incentives contact CPW Northwest Region Senior Aquatic Biologist Lori Martin at 970-255-6186.
To report unlawful fish stocking anonymously, call Operation Game Thief at 877-265-6648. Rewards are available for information that leads to an arrest or citation.
On May 1 state officials kicked off the summer boating season in Grand County with the opening of the Stillwater Boat Ramp on Lake Granby. Since then several other boat ramps across Grand County have been opened to the public. According to information from Elizabeth Brown, invasive species coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Grand Lake Boat Ramp was opened May 17 along with the Sunset Boat Ramp on Lake Granby and the Green Ridge Boat Ramp on Shadow Mountain Reservoir…
Historically boaters were able to launch boats onto the waters of Grand County any time of year, even when boat inspectors were not present. However, beginning in 2018, federal officials began requiring that all boat ramps leading onto the waters of Grand County remain locked whenever boat inspectors are not present.
The boat inspection program is part of an invasive species prevention program operated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The program is primarily focused on preventing the establishment of quagga and zebra mussels, both of which are invasive species, in the waters of Colorado. Brown confirmed that currently no waters in Colorado are infested with either of the small bivalves. In 2017 12 juvenile quagga mussels were found in Green Mountain Reservoir. According to Brown additional searches were conducted that year that revealed no additional mussels. Follow up testing of the reservoir over the past year has yielded no additional mussels.
A private business, Rocky Mountain Recreation, is contracted by the state each year to provide boat inspectors in Grand County. That contract alone, which does not include any personnel costs derived from state or federal employees, is $468,000. That tally includes the cost of inspections at Williams Fork Reservoir along with inspections on the Three Lakes. Statewide the total program is roughly $4.5 million…
According to Brown there were 3,084 inspections conducted on Grand Lake last year, 4,500 on Shadow Mountain Reservoir and 12,600 on Lake Granby. That figure includes boats that were inspected on their way into the lakes and on their way out as well.
The establishment and naturalization of non-native Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) in southwestern US riparian habitats is hypothesized to have negative implications for native flora and fauna. Despite the potential for Russian olive establishment in new riparian habitats, much of its ecology remains unclear. Arid river systems are important stopover sites and breeding grounds for birds, including some endangered species, and understanding how birds use Russian olive habitats has important implications for effective non-native species management. We compared native bird use of sites that varied in the amount of Russian olive and mixed native/non-native vegetation along the San Juan River, UT, USA. From presence/absence surveys conducted in 2016 during the breeding season, we found 1) fewer bird species and functional groups used Russian olive habitats and 2) the composition of species within Russian olive habitats was different from the composition of species in mixed native/non-native habitats. Our results suggest Russian olive may support different bird compositions during the breeding season and as Russian olive continues to naturalize, bird communities may change. Finally, we highlight the paucity of research surrounding Russian olive ecology and stress the need for rigorous studies to improve our understanding of Russian olive ecology.
Click here to go to the Invasive Mussel Collaborative website:
This webinar is part of a miniseries on the genomics of invasive mussels hosted by the Invasive Mussel Collaborative. Part one of the miniseries covers the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s prize competition “Eradication of Invasive Mussels in Open Water.” The first prize awarded in this competition proposed a novel genetic modification-based method for control…
Sherri Pucherelli: Invasive Mussel Prize Competition
Steve Suhr: Eradication of Invasive Quagga and Zebra Mussels using Engineered Disseminated Neoplasia
FromYale 360 (Jim Robbins). Here’s an excerpt click through for the photos and to read the whole article:
The Colorado River has been dammed, diverted, and slowed by reservoirs, strangling the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. But in the U.S. and Mexico, efforts are underway to revive sections of the river and restore vital riparian habitat for native plants, fish, and wildlife. Fifth in a series.
From the air, the last gasp of the Colorado River is sudden and dramatic. The pale green river flows smack into the Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, and virtually all of it is immediately diverted into a large irrigation canal that waters a mosaic of hundreds of fields — alfalfa, asparagus, lettuce, and other vegetables, their vivid green color clashing against the sere desert. The slender thread of water that remains in the Colorado’s channel continues to flow south, but is soon swallowed up by a sea of sand, far short of its delta, which lies 100 miles farther on.
The Colorado River once surged through the delta during high flows, carrying so much water at times that shallow draft steamboats chugged hundreds of miles up the river into the U.S. with loads of freight. The water in the delta nourished a vast fertile landscape, a fitting end to a river known as the Nile of North America.
“The river was everywhere and nowhere,” the naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote during a 1922 canoe trip to the delta, describing the waterway as it ebbed, flowed, braided, and stalled into pools, nourishing a rich and diverse ecosystem of “a hundred green lagoons,” a “milk and honey wilderness” with thick stands of cottonwoods and willows that provided habitat for hundreds of species of birds. The delta’s marshes, mudflats, and white sand beaches were home to clapper rails, bitterns, mallards, teal, and clouds of egrets.
Bobcats, puma, deer, and wild boar wandered the delta’s forests. Leopold was searching for the jaguar that roamed there, but didn’t see any…
As a natural river, before it was dammed, the Colorado was a massive, dynamic waterway. It flowed from elevations above 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, then dropped to sea level, which meant that it moved at high water with tremendous force, liquid sandpaper carving out red rock canyons. It flooded the desert plains, carving new channels and braids with every inundation. When it receded, it left behind a mosaic of fecund marshes, wetlands, and ponds.
In its natural state, the Colorado had more extreme flows than any river in the U.S., ranging from lows of 2,500 cubic feet per second in the winter to 100,000 cubic feet per second in the summer. In 1884, an all-time historical peak flow reached 384,000 cubic feet per second in Arizona.
But extreme flows are too capricious to support a civilization, so over the past century or so humans have built a network of expensive dams and reservoirs, pipelines, canals, flumes, and aqueducts to tame and divert the flow. Yet these projects also strangled the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. By design, the river will never again function as a free-flowing stream.
Now, however, experts and environmentalists are rethinking this technological marvel of a river, and looking at ways a natural Colorado can flourish — to some degree, and in some places — with the permission of the engineers. One of those places is in the delta.
The water that flowed in the once-lush delta has been replaced by sand, and the cottonwoods and willows have surrendered their turf to widespread invasive salt cedar and arrowweed. Without the river and its load of nutrients, marine productivity in the Gulf of California — where the Colorado River once ended — has fallen by up to 95 percent. But despite the dismal forecast for the future of water on the Colorado, some conservationists are hoping to return at least a portion of the delta to its former glory.
“We are trying to restore a network of sites that creates a functional ecosystem,” said Francisco Zamora, who manages the project for the Sonoran Institute. “We’ve acquired water rights, but use them for habitat instead of cotton or wheat.”
The delta is one of a disconnected series of restoration projects that government agencies, local groups, and environmental organizations are undertaking along the Colorado. Numerous efforts are focused on tributaries to the main stem of the river, seeking to enhance resiliency by increasing the flow of water and protecting and restoring riparian habitat for fish and other wildlife.
For example, a coalition of groups — including state agencies, nonprofits, and the Arizona cities of Buckeye and Agua Fria — have been removing invasive salt cedar, planting native species, and building levees to reclaim a 17-mile stretch of the Gila River. Invasive salt cedars are a region-wide problem on the lower Colorado, with a single tree sucking up 300 gallons a day. The invasive forest on this stretch of the river uses enough water to serve 200,000 households.
In the upper basin, meanwhile, a number of groups and local landowners are working to restore a 15-mile-long floodplain with globally significant biodiversity on a narrow section of the Yampa River, another Colorado tributary. Called Morgan Bottom, the section has been damaged by deforestation and poor agricultural practices, threatening bald eagles and greater sand hill cranes, as well as a rare riparian forest of narrowleaf cottonwood and red osier dogwood.
But there are limits to how natural the Colorado River can become, especially along the river’s main stem. “We should not kid ourselves that we are making it natural again,” said John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program and the author of a book about the restoration of the Colorado. “We are creating an intensively managed system to mimic some nature because we value it.”
Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable.
Indeed, some of the remaining naturalness on the Colorado is, paradoxically, because of the human-made system. “The geography of the Colorado gives it hope because L.A. and southern California, which everybody loves to hate, guarantee that a lot of water stays in the system through the Grand Canyon,” says Jack Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University and a member of the Colorado River Research Group. “The best friend endangered fish ever had in the Colorado River Basin is that giant sucking sound” of California withdrawing water.
Widespread protection efforts are focused on native fish in the Colorado. The river once was home to an unusual number of endemic fish. But dams, irrigation, and the introduction of bullhead, carp, and catfish did them in. While the upper basin still has 14 native fish species, the lower basin, according to one study, “has the dubious distinction of being among the few major rivers of the world with an entirely introduced fish fauna.”
The Colorado pike minnow — something of a misnomer for a fish that historically grew to 6 feet in length and weighed up to 80 pounds — once swam through the entire system from Wyoming to Mexico. It is now listed as endangered, with two distinct populations remaining in the upper Colorado and the Green River.
The humpback chub lived in various canyon sections, and though once seriously endangered, it has fared better in recent years through transplantation efforts, growing from 2,000 to 3,000 fish to 11,000. Officials say it may soon be taken off the endangered list.
Razorback suckers, once common, are now rare. The bonytail, a type of chub that is one of North America’s most endangered fish, no longer exists in the wild. A handful of these fish exist in hatcheries, and attempts are underway to restock them in the river throughout the basin.
Because of the Colorado’s extensive infrastructure, serious disruption of the river’s ecology is inevitable. Dams trap most of the river’s sediment in reservoirs, which means there is no material to rebuild beaches, sandbars, and important fish habitat downstream.
Dams also deprive the river downstream of nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, and stratify water temperatures. The native fish in the Colorado adapted to a wide range of temperatures, from cold to very warm. They also evolved to tolerate high flood flows along with extremely dry periods. Now, the water is cold in the summer for miles below the dams, and the humpback chub and other fish that had adapted to a range of water temperatures and flows suffer.
Something called hydro-peaking also has had serious impacts on the food web. Dams generate power according to demand. As people come home from work and switch on the stove, air conditioning, and lights, demand soars and dams release more water to produce power. “Prior to the construction of dams, there were almost no major daily changes in river levels,” said David Lytle, a professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University. When fluctuations in water levels occur, they “can interrupt the egg-laying practices of some species. It’s a serious problem.”
Insects lay their eggs just below the water level, and if levels drop rapidly it can dry them out. A recent study found that below the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, there was a complete absence of stoneflies, mayflies, and other species — insects that are vital food for fish, bats, birds, and other creatures.
Because of the ecological effects of the Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado is one of the least productive sections of river in the world. The Colorado here will always be highly unnatural, a novel, human-created ecosystem with some natural elements.
Today, there is a large and growing backlash against dams in America and elsewhere as the immense damages they have inflicted on rivers become manifest. Few dams, though, are as reviled as the Glen Canyon, which was built in 1963 and took 17 years to fill Lake Powell.
Before the Glen Canyon was dammed, those who saw it say it was not unlike the Grand Canyon, with towering walls of red, tan, and ochre. Early Native American sites were plentiful. Environmental activist Edward Abbey decried the dam, and in his novel the Monkey Wrench Gang fantasized about using houseboats packed with explosives to blow it up. In 1981, members of Earth First!, a radical environmental group with a connection to Abbey, rolled a black plastic “crack” down the face of the dam to symbolize its demise.
Removing the dam was part of the reason the Glen Canyon Institute was formed, but activists have now dropped that idea, says Rich Ingebretsen, a Salt Lake City physician who founded the group. Today, he advocates draining Lake Powell to fill Lake Mead, which is downstream and where the need for water is by far the greatest. The “Fill Mead First” campaign would restore a free-running Colorado River to what was once Lake Powell.
“You’d get much of Glen Canyon back,” said Ingebretsen. “A free-flowing river through the Grand Canyon means you’d restore the river — riparian zones, animals that belong there, a beautiful canyon with arches and bridges and waterfalls. Much of that would come back very quickly.” There would also be increased water in the river, he says, because so much of the Colorado is now lost from Lake Powell; scientists estimate that the lake loses three times Nevada’s allotment of water because of evaporation. As levels in Lake Mead drop due to prolonged drought, a growing number of people are taking this idea more seriously.
Paradoxically, two of the Colorado River’s most important wetlands for wildlife are the product of runoff from irrigated farm fields — and are now at risk from a changing climate and agreements to reduce water use.
In the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico, the 40,000-acre La Cienega de Santa Clara wetland was inadvertently created in the 1970s when U.S. officials built a canal to dispose of salty wastewater from agricultural fields in Arizona. As the water began spilling into the desert, myriad forms of life began to appear. Now its cattail-studded marshes and mudflats are considered one of the most important wetlands in North America, home to 280 species of birds — including the endangered Ridgeways rail — on what was once hard-baked desert.
Meanwhile, in California, the Salton Sea was once a shallow inland lake whose levels routinely fluctuated. In 1905, an effort to increase Colorado River flow into the Imperial Valley led farmers to allow too much river water into their irrigation canal, overwhelming their system; for two years the water poured into the 35-mile-long, 15-mile-wide Salton Sea and expanded it.
But as less water becomes available to agriculture and rising temperatures cause more water to evaporate, scientists are concerned that these wetlands will dry and shrink faster than they already have. A 2003 agreement, for example, allows agricultural water in the Imperial Valley to be sent to San Diego for municipal uses. That could cause water levels in the Salton Sea to drop by more than 40 percent, dramatically reducing bird habitat and increasing toxic dust because wetlands would dry out. Local, state, and federal officials have devised a plan — still not fully funded — to restore 15,000 acres of wetlands, at a cost of more than $700 million.
The largest project to restore some semblance of nature to the Colorado River, though, is in the delta. An unusual agreement in 2012 between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 319, mandated that the two countries would provide water and funding to revive sections of the delta and release a one-time pulse of 105,000 acre-feet to again connect the river to the delta temporarily. Scientists would then study the effects.
In 2014, for the first time in decades, the river flowed again in Mexico — for eight weeks. San Luis Rio Colorado — once a Colorado River town, but now a dusty desert settlement — became a river town for two months, to the delight of locals, many of whom had never seen the river. The pulse offered a glimpse of what reclamation efforts might look like. “It gave us an idea of how the river behaves, and the best sites for restoration,” said Zamora.
Minute 319 and its 2017 replacement, Minute 323, have funded the restoration of sections of the river. A group of nonprofits — including the National Audubon Society, the Sonoran Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and a Mexican group called Pronatura Noroeste — is working on a project called Raise the River to revive a significant swath of the delta.
In 2008, the group secured rights to 1,200 acres along the desiccated river channel. Since then, local residents have torn out acres of salt cedar and planted irrigated fields of cottonwood, willow, and other endemic species — more than 200,000 trees in all. A small supply of water mandated by the treaty, along with excess water that flows off of irrigated fields, have been dedicated to the restoration.
On a recent visit, I joined Zamora and botanist Celia Alvarado on a short boat ride to Laguna Grande, a 6-mile section of restored river and estuary. We skimmed across still water the color of weak tea, minnows darting away from our paddles. Thick groves of cottonwoods and willows lined the river. Zamora remarked that bobcats and beaver lived there now, along with blue grosbeaks and yellow-billed cuckoos. “Impacting the target species is key,” he said.
And what about the jaguar? I asked. It has not returned, he said. Will it come back?
“Yes,” said Zamora, smiling. “Someday. If they allow me to introduce them.”
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewanowski):
In order to keep destructive quagga and zebra mussels out of lakes and reservoirs in Colorado, boaters will help to provide crucial funding for the state’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Inspection Program starting in 2019.
“Colorado is one of just a few states in the country that doesn’t have an infestation of adult zebra or quagga mussels in any of its waters,” said Elizabeth Brown, invasive species program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “That’s directly attributable to our watercraft inspection and decontamination prevention program that’s been in place since 2008.”
Earlier this year, the Colorado General Assembly approved a bill that requires those who operate motorboats and sailboats on waters of the state to purchase an ANS stamp annually. The cost of the stamp for Colorado residents is $25. For boaters coming to Colorado from other states or provinces the stamp will cost $50. The stamp fee is separate from the annual boat registration permit but will be included in the cost of registration for in-state boats. The stamp and registration is currently available for residents at CPW offices and the agency website. Boaters coming from other states can buy their stamp online, at CPW offices or at any sales location beginning January 1, 2019.
Mussel infestations cause a variety of major problems. Because mussels consume plankton they disrupt the food web and out-compete sport fish and native fish. Mussels clog infrastructure, including reservoir dams, outlet structures and distribution systems that carry water for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses. Mussels also infest boats and damage engines.
Mussels have caused billions of dollars in damage, especially in the upper Midwest and Lower Colorado River. Nearby states where mussel infestations exist include Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma.
Since the ANS program started in Colorado in 2008, CPW staff and other entities have completed 4.4 million boat inspections, more than 90,000 boats have been subject to decontamination procedures and 195 vessels with confirmed mussel infestations have been intercepted and decontaminated. The threat of boats transporting mussels also appears to be growing: This year 51 boats with adult mussels were found at inspection stations, far more than the previous record of 26 boats in one year.
The new fee will cover half of the cost of the inspection program. The remainder will be paid by CPW and a variety of stakeholders, including federal agencies, local governments, water providers and other partners.
“We appreciate that Colorado boaters have been very cooperative with CPW on the ANS inspection program. And we all need to continue to be vigilant,” Brown said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists counted 50 yearling razorbacks during a recent survey in the upper Colorado River Basin — the result of water releases in 2016 and 2017 from the Navajo Reservoir aimed at helping the fish, agency officials said this week.
Federal operators of the reservoir let out 5,000 cubic feet of water per second for 50 days, more than doubling regular flows in the San Juan River. This increased flow created nursery pools, the habitat razorbacks and three other endangered native fish need to spawn and survive.
Saving razorbacks and other fish “is going to be totally dependent ” on putting more water into rivers, said Tom Chart, director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a 25-year, $360 million government-run rescue effort.
“We’re not going to be able to restore the natural hydrological conditions. We understand that,” Chart said. “But we can recreate conditions that help young fish much more regularly.”
Yet the intensifying climate shift toward heat and aridity in Southwestern states, combined with population growth, constrains biologists’ push to put more water into rivers for environmental purposes. No water could be released this year from the Navajo Reservoir, which straddles Colorado and New Mexico and holds 1.7 million acre-feet, Bureau of Reclamation engineer Susan Behery said. Probably none will be spared next year, either, because water managers are prioritizing storage after a near-record low snow year left the reservoir half full.
Raising, stocking razorbacks
For more than 30 years, federal biologists responsible for emergency rescues of endangered species have relied on raising razorbacks in hatcheries and copiously stocking them into Colorado River tributaries. Razorbacks evolved in wild free-flowing rivers, enduring for millions of years, until widespread dams and diversions reduced and regularized nature’s fluctuating flows. The razorback had nearly blinked out by 1980 with only 100 survivors — weakened by the disruption of flows and attacked by non-native predators such as bass, walleye and pike that state wildlife agencies have introduced for recreational sport fishing…
Federal survey crews counted the 50 yearling razorbacks along the San Juan River downriver from the Navajo Reservoir. That’s the most fish counted since the surveys began two decades ago. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists calculated that this many yearlings could mean there are thousands of razorbacks along a 180-mile stretch of the river before it reaches Lake Powell.
Navajo tribal biologists have embraced the effort to save razorbacks and other imperiled native fish. A Navajo team this year helped move 300 razorbacks over a barrier for spawning while weeding out non-native predators.
“We are trying to preserve the razorback for our future generations,” said Navajo fish biologist Jerrod Bowman. “So that our kids can see razorbacks. … Our numbers are really looking great.”
“Far from the self-sustaining populations”
The problem with officially upgrading the status of fish, Bowman said, is that just the presence of yearlings may not establish that a species has become self-sustaining as required. Razorbacks usually don’t reproduce until they’re at least 2 years old. Adults can live up to 40 years.
Under President Donald Trump, federal wildlife officials have faced pressure to upgrade and de-list endangered species when scientists still aren’t certain about survival, said ecologist Taylor McKinnon, a public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced today that Reclamation has selected three submissions for its prize competition seeking ideas to eradicate mussels in open water. Steven Suhr and Marie-Claude Senut will receive a full award of $80,000 for their idea while Wen Chen and Absar Alum with Stephanie Bone will each receive $10,000.
“Providing water managers with new tools to control invasive quagga and zebra mussels is an important part of protecting infrastructure and ecosystems,” Commissioner Burman said. “Reclamation is committed to working with our partners to prevent the spread of quagga and zebra mussels in the West.”
The prize competition was a theoretical challenge and sought innovative solutions to eradicate invasive quagga and zebra mussels from large reservoirs, lakes and rivers in a cost-effective and environmentally sound manner. Invasive mussel infestations pose a significant logistical and economic challenge for local communities, recreationists and water managers. There is no practical method available today for the large-scale control of invasive dreissenid mussel population once they become established.
Steven Suhr and Marie-Claude Senut, founders of Biomilab, LLC, proposed using genomic modification to induce a lethal malignant hemic neoplasia in mussels that can be transferred from one mussel to another by proximity. They suggested utilizing the CRISPR/cas9-mediated genome modification to target the function or expression of endogenous dreissenid mussel p53 or telomerase reverse transcriptase genes, or to introduce the viral SV40 Tag gene. This submission for the prize competition received $80,000.
Wen Chen, a research scientist at Harvard Medical School, proposed utilizing single stranded DNA/RNA oligonucleotide-based aptamers to target the modified amino acid 3,4 dihydroxyphenylalanine (DOPA) or dreissenid specific foot proteins to interrupt attachment, eventually leading to mussel mortality. The use of aptamers to target DOPA and foot proteins to interrupt mussel settlement is a novel idea and received $10,000.
Absar Alum of BioDetek with Stephanie Bone proposed genome modification to develop male mussels that produce sperm containing a light triggered optogenetic switch to drive upregulation or downregulation of cyclin-b expression resulting in death of the fertilized egg. This strategy relies on sunlight penetration into the upper portions of a water body to turn on the optogenetic switch in free-floating, transparent developing eggs and embryos. It was found to be a novel idea and received $10,000.
A total of 238 solvers signed up to solve this challenge and more than 100 solvers submitted solutions. Of those solutions submitted, 67 were deemed viable and were judged. Reclamation collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Molloy & Associates on this prize competition. To learn more about this prize competition please visit https://www.usbr.gov/research/challenges/mussels.html.
The results of this prize competition will support a broader effort by the federal government, as well as work by the Western Governors’ Association, western states, and tribes to protect western ecosystems, water infrastructure and hydroelectric facilities from invasive mussels. To learn more, please visit https://www.usbr.gov/mussels.