Unique agreement supports the longest rafting season on Colorado’s Arkansas River —

Browns Canyon via BrownsCanyon.org

Here’s the release from the Arkansas River Outfitters Association via PR Newswire:

A successful water management agreement on the Arkansas River exemplifies Colorado’s dedication to its natural resources and the visitor experiences they support, according to the Arkansas River Outfitters Association (AROA).

The Arkansas River Voluntary Flow Management Program helps ensure there is water for whitewater rafting on the river well into August. The cooperative agreement among water users is unique in that it includes recreation in water management decisions.

AROA is part of the agreement with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and other agencies that not only supports summer flows for whitewater rafting, but also manages water year-round for a healthy fishery.

The program, which started in 1990, is a model management technique for all other rivers in the American West. It allows whitewater rafting outfitters to offer the longest boating season in Colorado, AROA Executive Director Bob Hamel said.

“The water program recognizes that recreation is part of our lifestyle, and that its economic impact is important,” Hamel said.

Whitewater rafting generated $179.8 million in spending among the state’s commercial users last year, according to the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

The Arkansas River is America’s most popular whitewater rafting destination, hosting nearly a quarter of a million visitors last season and attracting kayakers and private rafters from around the world. The river hosts more than 40 percent of the state’s commercial rafting market, in part due to the longer season, but also because its 100-plus miles of whitewater rapids offer something for nearly everyone.

Technical boating, mild family float trips, multi-day camping and inn-to-inn rafting, plus standup paddle boarding and kayaking, are popular trips among families and friends of all ages.

With the mountain towns of Salida, Buena Vista and Cañon City nearby, visitors lengthen their stays and plan additional outdoor fun like horseback riding, ATV tours and hiking the area’s concentration of 14,000-foot peaks.

More than 100 miles of the Arkansas River was designated Gold Medal in 2014, meaning anglers can expect trophy trout fishing on a long, contiguous river segment that constitutes nearly a third of the state’s Gold Medal miles.

For information about current water levels and booking a Colorado whitewater rafting adventure, contact an Arkansas River outfitter at http://www.ArkansasRiverOutfitters.org.

#Runoff news: Low-head dam hazards

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Alicia Stice):

In the past 10 years, more than 15 people have drowned on the river from various accidents. Lopez’s death was the first in years involving a low-head dam.

These [weirs] dot rivers across the country, including in Fort Collins, where there is one low-head dam every 1.5 to 2 miles along much of the Poudre.

In Colorado, there is no agency in charge of overseeing safety at these dams. Instead, the Division of Water Resources has a team charged with overseeing the risks associated with large dams at sites such as Horsetooth Reservoir that could pose a hazard if they failed, Colorado Division of Water Resources Dam Safety Chief Bill McCormick said.

“I think these are some of the most dangerous type of structures we have in the country because most people are unaware of the dangers,” said Bruce Tschantz, a Knoxville, Tennessee, water resources engineer who has studied low-head dams extensively. “People tend to overestimate their ability to overcome the current and underestimate the dangers.”

General currents upstream and downstream from a low-head dam. Graphic via Bruce a. Tschantz

In much of the country, low-head dams have been in place for more than 100 years to serve now defunct mills. In Colorado, many of these dams are still active, diverting water into irrigation ditches for agricultural use. While the structures are old, the danger is relatively new.

“The problem of safety around them is more a recent phenomenon as people are using the rivers more,” McCormick said.

The dams slow water upstream and divert it away from the main channel. The water that flows over them creates a rapid on the downriver side that mimics the hydraulics of a washing machine. The water can force victims underwater and spin them around, making it nearly impossible to swim back up to the surface.

“These structures are often very deceiving,” said Kenneth Smith, Indiana Department of Natural Resources assistant director…

Simple engineering solutions can make low-head dams built today much safer by breaking up the flow of water as it moves over the dam. Solutions could include a set of concrete stairs or large rocks on the downstream side of the structure. In many cases, those solutions could be added to existing dams, but that can be costly, and it can be difficult to track down the owners of these century-old structures.

Poudre Fire Authority has been in discussions about what might be done to make sure people know about the dangers of the dams, including the possibility of installing signs along the river warning people of where they are.

10th Annual Ridgway RiverFest this Saturday, June 24, 2017

From email from the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnershiip Coalition:

10th Annual Ridgway RiverFest 20 years in the making

In 1997, when the town of Ridway applied for its first grant to restore the Uncompahgre River in town limits, a group of visionaries imagined the area becoming a river recreation attraction for the community. Little did they know that the restored length of river and the 11-acre park on its west bank would become the site of a major watershed celebration, attracting about 500 people each year for 10-plus years.

The town is celebrating the 10th annual Ridgway RiverFest, a free community festival at Rollans Park (next to the Highway 62 bridge), on Saturday, June 24.

The first riverside celebration was organized by the town government in July 2003 when a Great Outdoors Colorado grant was awarded to the town for major river restoration. But, the official Ridgway River Festival was started by a local nonprofit, the Mosaic Community Project, in 2008. The nonprofit was formed by local mothers hoping to establish a charter elementary school in Ridgway. Though they were unsuccessful, they had lots of energy and wanted to give back to the community so they raised funds through various events and awarded grants to service projects proposed by local students.

The group funded the installation of a bench by local artist Lisa Issenberg next to the river, and a bike rack by Jeff Skoloda by the pedestrian bridge in Rollans Park. The river festival became its signature event from 2008 to 2013. In addition to a watershed education area and nonprofit booths, the festivals featured live music, food vendors, Colorado beers and margaritas, including frozen ones created by Glenda the Blenda bike. The bike had been created by the Mosaic Community Project as a way of raising funds at local events.

Since 2008 until today, the festival has also featured on-river activities and races including hard shell and inflatable boats as well as standup paddleboards. The highlight is the “Junk of the Unc” where competitors race on home-made river-crafts made of all kinds of repurposed materials.

In 2011, the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, a local group that aims to protect and restore local water resources through collaborative projects, joined in the festival organization. The group was created in 2007 to bring stakeholders together to monitor and improve the water quality in the Uncompahgre River and surrounding watershed, and became a nonprofit in 2013.

The partnership took over the organization of the entire festival in 2014. About half the proceeds from sponsorships, silent auction purchases and drink sales at the festival pay for the entertainment and other expenses, and the other half of the proceeds funds future water monitoring, mine remediation and other related projects.

Part-time staff and volunteer board members have kept it going by enlisting the support of dozens of volunteers and nearly a hundred sponsors each year. Ouray Mountain Rescue Team and local resident Chris Haaland have kept the river races going every year and still volunteer their time to ensure the river activities are safe and fun.

While the same popular festival activities like live music from bluesman Kipori Woods and friends are repeated each year, some special additions have been made to the 10th annual event. The silent auction area, which was initiated a few years ago, has been dubbed the River Rat Marketplace and will offer more great deals than ever on donated products, services and certificates from nearly 50 companies. A Ute flute player will join Ute elder Roland McCook to share their traditional culture. Youth areas will include a River Fairy Forest with four activity stations and a bug science demonstration. Plus, a commemorative mural will be colored by the community, and drinks will be served in reusable, collectible festival cups.

The 10th Annual Ridgway RiverFest will be Saturday, June 24, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For the festival schedule and information, visit http://ridgwayriverfest.org.

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

Spring Flood on the River of Sorrows

Ponderosa Gorge, Dolores River. Photo credit RiverSearch.com.

From The Nature Conservancy (John Sanderson):

Like a Frenchman knows good years and bad years for wine, I remember years in Colorado for their snowpack. In 1995, deep snow remained well into summer. In 2002, the snow never came and Coloradans were reminded of how bad drought can be. In 2011, the snow at my family’s favorite backcountry ski trailhead was still 10 feet deep in early May. In 2012, it was drought again; later that summer fires raged west of my home in Fort Collins.

Water from this snowpack is the proverbial lifeblood of Rocky Mountain rivers. In fact, water is the lifeblood of the entire economy of the West—for brewers in cities, for corn growers east of Fort Collins, and for angling guides in our high county. Competition for water can be fierce.

Residents of the Southwest weren’t yet competing for water in 1776 when two Spanish priests — Francisco Atanacio Dominguez and Silvestre Valez de Escalante — christened one of our lifeblood rivers, El Rio de Nuestra Senora de las Dolores. Better known as the Dolores — the Sorrows — many view this epithet as reflecting the current state of the river. In 1983, the gates closed on the McPhee Dam, one of the last projects during the United States Bureau of Reclamation’s era of big dams. Within a decade, a series of dry years came along and a fight exploded over the impacts of the dam on the ecology of the river.

With its origins in the high, remote mountains near Telluride in southwest Colorado, the Dolores is a river of extremes. Fed by snowmelt gushing off the Rocky Mountains, spring flood flows before the dam could reach 1000 times the low flows of late summer. The reason people dam rivers is to make the water supply — in this case irrigation water — more predictable. Capture the spring snowmelt in a reservoir. Send the water to farm fields later in the summer. That’s good for farmers. But it’s bad for native fish.

At the time of Dominguez and Escalante, only about half a dozen fish species lived in the 175 miles of river now below McPhee Dam. These fish are all built for extremes. Aerodynamic bodies help them withstand huge floods. Tolerance for hot temperatures allow them to wait out low, warm waters during drought. Some of these fish can detect chemical and electrical signals of their prey, so they can hunt in dark murky water. Many can live for decades, allowing populations to survive a string of bad years with little or no reproduction.

The best known native of the Dolores is America’s largest minnow: the Colorado pikeminnow. The pikeminnow can reach 6 feet long and weigh up to 80 pounds. One hundred years ago, pikeminnow were so abundant that fishermen would haul them out of rivers with pitchforks. Pikeminnow harvests even supported a commercial cannery near Yuma, Arizona. This species has been around for more than 3 million years. But after just a few decades of 20th century dam building, they were nearly extinct.

Releases from McPhee reservoir enabled a great Lower Dolores River early boating season

Dolores River watershed

Here’s a report from Jason Blevins writing for The Denver Post. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

The fickle Dolores River is emblematic of Western water woes, where increasing recreation demands and calls for conservation clash with traditional uses that quench arid towns and farms.

That tension has created conflict in the past, as the river veers from tidal to trickle. There’s no other way to see Slickrock Canyon except by boat, and without raft-floating flows, the canyon is essentially closed.

But, recently, the Dolores River water wrangling has yielded collaboration. And this year, after more than a decade of planning, a diverse team of water users — including water managers, farmers, boaters, conservationists, ecologists and land managers — have galvanized to celebrate and study more than 60 days of boatable flows, creating one of the most vibrant seasons in recent memory on the miles of varying Dolores River below McPhee.

“It’s been a ghost and you have to chase it,” said Schafer, the Western Slope advocacy director for Conservation Colorado, who first navigated Slickrock Canyon during a quick, small release last year. “These last couple years have really opened my eyes to the complexities of Western water policy, the complexities of public land management and the complexities recreation management. But at the end of the day, the overwhelming experience is sheer and utter beauty. This is one of the most spectacular river canyons on the planet.”


The Lower Dolores River through Slickrock Canyon — traversing a 30,000-acre Bureau of Land Management wilderness study area — offers geology spanning hundreds of millions of years.

Entrenched channels carve through Wingate Sandstone, the Kayenta Formation and Navajo Sandstone layers that tower hundreds of feet above the river. Panels of petroglyphs and pictographs reveal the canyon’s millennia-old appeal. Ancestral Puebloan, Archaic and Fremont people frequented the remote canyon. Several pictographs and petroglyphs in the canyon show the horned Fremont Man and bear paws. Some of that artwork is near dinosaur tracks…

Those capricious flows have defined the Lower Dolores since the Bureau of Reclamation finished building the McPhee Dam in 1984. McPhee Reservoir, managed by the Dolores River Water Conservancy District, holds roughly 380,000 acre-feet of water, most of it allocated for agricultural use around the Four Corners region.

In 2004, Dolores River stakeholders gathered to forge a unified mission. The group included the water conservancy district; irrigation users; the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the dam; the Bureau of Land Management; conservation groups; boater groups such as American Whitewater; and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. That mission outlined how the groups can work together to help boaters — who have a legal right to excess water in McPhee Reservoir — and ecologists eager to protect fish habitat while honoring water rights and allocations for irrigation and municipal uses…

It took almost a decade of meetings — during, incidentally, a prolonged drought that pretty much eliminated releases of unallocated water from McPhee — to hammer out a plan that bolstered fish habitat and maximized recreational flows for boaters.

The Lower Dolores Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Plan created a team that helped to manage releases. This year, with a healthy snowpack and good carryover water levels from the previous spring melt, American Whitewater helped negotiate significant releases from McPhee — from the end of March to May 21 and another surprise burst last week.

The surges, including a high-flow, three-day pulse of 4,000 cubic feet per second that limited the length of the boating season but helped restore riparian habitat, marked the largest releases since 2008. The flows drew wildlife scientists, conservationists and boaters in droves.

“We are trying to align everyone’s activities so they all fit together, and this was a really successful year for that effort,” said Michael Preston, manager of the Dolores River Water Conservancy District. “We had really great monitoring this season. We have a plan. We have objectives. We are going to start learning a great deal.”

The Nature Conservancy and Colorado Parks and Wildlife worked together in March to study the deeply channelized river bed before the big flow and then again in April and May to observe the river during a variety of flows. The hope was the big pulse and the sustained flows helped push the river out of its entrenched channel, allowing it to scour riverbanks of dense willows and alder, and restore eddies and backwaters…

Jim White, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, got onto the Dolores River below McPhee last month for the first time since 1990. He was looking for endemic populations of roundtail chub, bluehead sucker and flannelmouth sucker fish. He found all three in Slickrock Canyon. His team did not find any smallmouth bass, which can decimate native fish populations. That’s all good news…

“The main thing we want to do is make sure we don’t lose any more ground in terms of the fishery. The density of fish is pretty low, but all three species are present,” says White, who tagged more than 500 fish that can be followed through antennas set above and below Slickrock Canyon. “They are using the habitat in Slickrock and other sections of river. Having a good water year like this helped. Everyone was on the same page. The 4,000 cfs disrupted the channel and … created better fish habitat.”

While scientists surveyed fish, American Whitewater and the Dolores River Boating Advocates canvassed boaters. Conservationists and recreationists have united on the Dolores, merging their missions in a singular push for more water.

The boater survey is trying to quantify the economic impact of boaters rallying in the West End of Montrose County. Paddling advocates want to know whether the flows were announced early enough and whether the timing of the releases offered enough opportunity to float through the wild canyons of the Dolores River.

Early reports show crowding was not an issue, but boaters — almost all of them private paddlers — lamented the accessibility of potential campsites: unimproved sandy beaches that haven’t really been used for several years. Most of the river bank through Slickrock is densely armored with virtually impenetrable willows. Upstream, in Ponderosa Gorge, where the lush mountain river transitions to a red-walled desert canyon, impassable alder thickets guard the banks.

“American Whitewater negotiated a high-flow release, hoping it would help recover fish and habitat. That meant a shorter season. But we will trade a few days if we can get that water down there to work for a healthier ecology,” says American Whitewater’s Nathan Fey.

Rafters rally when the Dolores runs. They come from across the West, with trailers from several states stacked more than a hundred deep at the Bedrock takeout on a Sunday in mid-May…

With McPhee Reservoir pretty much full a month-and-a-half into irrigation season, there’s a good chance that releases will happen again next year, especially if winter snowpack is around normal. Water users, Preston says, are upgrading sprinkler technology, reducing irrigation demand.

Mcphee Reservoir

GoPro Mountain Games recap

Vail Colorado via Colorado Department of Tourism

From The Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

Dave Dresman, the Vail Valley Foundation’s event director for the games, has worked on the events since the foundation acquired the event in 2008. Dresman said in those few years, attendance has more than doubled and sponsorships have increased nearly fivefold. With that kind of growth, it’s no surprise that planning the event has become a full-time job.

“It really doesn’t stop now,” Dresman said.

While those plans will take some time to jell, there’s already a tentative window for the 2018 edition of the games: June 7-10.

As planning for 2018 continues, a lot of information from this year’s games will inform what next year will look like.

Much of that planning will be well-defined, from the number of volunteers to expanding bus service to finding better ways for people to navigate the events. But there’s always a wild card: weather.

This year’s games were held in virtually perfect conditions, with good, but not overwhelming, streamflows and warm, sunny weather…

This year’s games were the best-attended ever. The 2016 Mountain Games drew an estimated 67,000 people. Dresman said he expects the final tally for 2017 to approach 80,000.

What is known is this year’s games set records for registered competitors — about 3,300 — as well as more than 145 vendor tents.

A number of those sponsors set up shop in and near Adventure Town in Lionshead Village. This was the second year there have been Mountain Games events in Lionshead, with more events and action in this location in 2017 than there were for the 2016 games.

#Runoff news: Streamflow will peak soon

From The Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

A cool month of May suppressed local runoff and streamflows. But recent warm weather, with more sunshine in the forecast, may bring streams to peak runoff in the next several days.

The runoff picture is good news for the GoPro Mountain Games, set to begin today with the Steep Creek Championship on Homestake Creek…

While runoff will be good for the games’ boating events, this year’s so-so snowpack ensures there’s little danger of flooding. That also means boating events will almost certainly go on as scheduled…

Keeping safe on local streams is an all-the-time thing. Current conditions should soon turn more friendly for casual float trips.

Boyd, a valley native, said he looks every day from his home in Avon up to Game Creek Bowl on Vail Mountain. The bit of snow remaining on that slope means there should be a little more room for higher streamflows, he said.

Pete Wadden is the town of Vail’s water quality education specialist. Unsurprisingly, Wadden is also a boating enthusiast. Wadden has only lived in the valley for a few years, but looking at this year’s snowpack — bolstered by a large May snowfall — as well as the weather forecast for the next several days, he believes local streamflows should peak soon.

Boyd said he thinks streams will peak during the weekend. Wadden thinks the peak will come within the next 10 days or so.