#Runoff news: Melting #snowpack = start of whitewater season on the Dolores River, 2,000 cfs McPhee release planned this season

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

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Flows on the upper Dolores River above McPhee Reservoir were at 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) as of Sunday.

Below McPhee Dam, a 60-day whitewater release is planned, with initial ramp-up of 400 cfs per day starting on April 11. By April 16, rafting flows will reach 2,000 cfs, and stay there for 30 days.

In the third week of May, managers will release flushing flows of 4,000 cfs for several days to provide ecological benefits to the river. The high flows mimic a natural spring hydrograph, and benefit the river by scouring the channel, redistributing cobbles for fish spawning and improving pool habitat for native fish species. Flood-plain inundation also helps generate native vegetation growth by spreading seeds beyond the main channel.

After the spike in flows, the river will return to 2,000 cfs for the Memorial Day weekend, with ramp-down of 400 cfs per day expected in early June…

Natural flows at Slick Rock Canyon
Even without the dam release, low-elevation snowmelt has already boosted river flows on the Slick Rock to Bedrock section to 600 cfs and higher, enough for a canoe, kayak or small raft. The popular 50-mile section features Class II and III rapids in remote red-rock canyon country…

The main Lower Dolores River boating run stretches for 100 miles through winding, red-rock canyons interspersed with rapids ranging from Class I to Class IV, including the famed Snaggletooth Rapid at mile marker 27. The Lower Dolores River is considered one of the premiere multiday boat trips in the nation when it has enough water to run. No permit is required.

In the past, when there was a whitewater release, McPhee Reservoir managers targeted 800 cfs for as long as possible below McPhee Dam. But after hearing from boaters in the past few years, the release level was adjusted to the preferred 2,000 cfs flow whenever possible.

“The water managers have made a huge effort to listen to the boating community,” said Sam Carter, of the Dolores River Boating Advocates.

For updates on the whitewater release schedule, go to http://doloreswater.com/releases/ The next update will be April 5. Once the spill begins, regular updates will occur on Mondays and Thursdays.

Dolores River Canyon near Paradox

Meanwhile, the higher flows are an opportunity for scientists to study river ecology. Here’s a report from Jim Mimiaga writing for The Cortez Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

Biologists with Colorado Parks and Wildlife will do fish counts on native and non-native populations, and conduct habitat improvement measures.

The Nature Conservancy, Fort Lewis College and American Whitewater will be studying geomorphology, benefits of flushing flows and recreational boating conditions…

“We have a lot of opportunity this year for fish sampling and monitoring,” said Jim White, a fish biologist for Parks and Wildlife, during a presentation Thursday at the Dolores Water Conservancy office.

His team will be studying population health of three native fish in the Lower Dolores: the roundtail chub, flannelmouth sucker and bluehead sucker.

One of their objectives is to measure the non-native small-mouth bass population, then work toward reducing them. Small-mouth bass are a threat to native fish, preying on their young and competing for food sources.

“We want to find out how widespread small-mouth bass are, especially if they are established in Slick Rock Canyon,” White said.

The bass have developed a stronghold upstream from Slick Rock Canyon to Snaggletooth Rapid. But the high runoff year has opened up an opportunity to try and take out small-mouth bass, White said. In mid-July, Parks and Wildlife plans a flush of 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) for 3-4 days from its fish pool reserves within McPhee Reservoir to disrupt the small-mouth bass spawn…

Parks and Wildlife manages a 32,000 acre feet “fish pool” in McPhee Reservoir for minimum base flows releases below the dam.

During a whitewater release, the fish pool is not debited, White said, giving fish biologists more flexibility in how to use it. They will tap into 2,600 acre feet of the reserve for the bass-removal flush.

Channel scour
The Nature Conservancy is sending a team of researchers to the Lower Dolores for 10-15 days, said Colorado chapter representative Celine Hawkins.

Their work plan includes studying sediment transport and flood-plain inundation, which is needed to widely distribute native seeds. They are especially interested in the impact 4,000 cfs peak flows will have on scouring the river channel…

The Nature Conservancy will be using drones to take aerial photos of the Lower Dolores before and after peak flows to track changes and compare them to past years.

They are focusing monitoring efforts at Disappointment Creek, Dove Creek Pumps, Big Gypsum Valley and Bedrock.

Students at Fort Lewis College will be conducting ecological monitoring on the river as well, including on the alluvial groundwater aquifer…

2016 study results on Lower Dolores
Colorado Parks and Wildlife shared results of a 2016 fish study on the Dolores River.

A cold-water fishery sampling below the dam showed two-thirds brown trout and 16 percent rainbow trout.

Algae due to infrequent flushing flows is abundant in the 12 miles of stream immediately below the dam. There is a concern it could have a negative impact on fish.

In June, the 20-mile Ponderosa Gorge section (Bradfield Bridge to Dove Creek pump house) was surveyed. Of the 180 fish caught, 73 percent were brown trout, and roundtail chub was the second-most abundant. No small-mouth bass were found in the gorge.

Sampling at the Dove Creek pump station showed roundtail chub were holding steady, in part because they are an adapted pool species. Bluehead and flannelmouth suckers were in relative low abundance, and depend more on a ripple environment. In 1992, fish sampling showed much higher numbers of native fish species, the study noted.

“The impact of flushing flows in (2016) was evident, and backwaters looked cleaner,” according to study results.

The past two years, Parks and Wildlife has been stocking bluehead suckers in the Lower Dolores. The fish historically relied on Plateau, Beaver and House creeks for spawning areas, but the dam and reservoir altered the river so suckers cannot reach those ephemeral streams. In 2016, 4316 bluehead fingerlings were released downstream of the Dove Creek Pump house. In 2013, a pit-tag array recorded one flannelmouth traveled 264 miles.

Dolores River watershed

Dolores River: #Snowpack = 3 month rafting release?

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

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The most probable runoff forecast shows inflow of 440,000 acre-feet for April through July, enough to fill McPhee Reservoir and provide more than a three-month rafting release below the dam.

“Operations this spring are lining up to be exciting,” said Ken Curtis, an engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “The March forecast is typically not as accurate as the forecast that will come later, but it is good as a planning tool.”

The predicted runoff will fill the reservoir for farmers, with 270,000 acre feet potentially available for whitewater release below the dam. That is enough for an estimated 116-day boating season for approximately 100 miles between the Bradfield Bridge and Bedrock.

By comparison, in 2016, only about 30,000 acre-feet was available for a whitewater release below McPhee Dam, which generated about 10 days of boating flows.

Should the current forecast hold, operators will be able to provide releases of 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) and greater for about 67 days, with flows greater than 2,000 cfs for 45 days, and peak flows of 4,000 cfs for four days. Several ecological benefits also will be realized from a release of that magnitude.

The data in the March 1 operating plan is provisional and subject to change because of Dolores River inflow, future precipitation, weather patterns, managed release criteria and use.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District will be the primary source of information pertaining to release schedules and updates this spring. It will have a newly remodeled website at doloreswater.com.

Last year, the whitewater release lasted about 10 days and only peaked at 1,000 cfs. Before that, there had not been a release since 2011 because of drought conditions and low snowpack.

The main Lower Dolores River boating run stretches for 100 miles through winding, red-rock canyons interspersed with rapids ranging from Class I to Class IV. It is considered one of the premiere multiday boat trips in the nation when it has enough water to run. No permit is required.

#Snowpack news: McPhee Reservoir boating release likely this season

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

From The Cortez Journal (Jacob Klopfenstein):

The livestock association held its annual meeting at the Cortez Elks Lodge. Local, state and federal officials also spoke at the event, including U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton.

[Ken Curtis] said there is about 300,000 acre-feet of water in the snowpack for the McPhee Reservoir basin. However, but the reservoir will only be able to store about 90,000 additional acre-feet, he said.

“We’re going to get a chance to do a lot of active management,” Curtis said.

With water levels looking good, a recreation spill downriver is likely, but it’s still early, he said. Water officials will have to work hard to manage the above-average snowpack levels this season, he said.

Curtis also discussed the issue of mussels in waterways. The invasive quagga and zebra mussels have infiltrated the Great Lakes and are slowly making their way across the West, he said. Colorado has avoided an infestation, but they have appeared as close as Lake Powell, he said.

If mussels get into waterways on the Western Slope, they could cause costly damage to water infrastructure, such as dams and irrigation equipment, Curtis said.

Recreational boat inspections have been taking place on McPhee Reservoir and House Creek, but funding has decreased for inspections in recent years, he said. Hopefully funding will stabilize soon for the inspections, Curtis said, but in the meantime, access may be limited to recreational areas in 2017.

“We need to raise the insurance one level higher,” Curtis said. “We’re going to close lake access when the inspections aren’t happening.”

McPhee should be open seven days a week, but House Creek will probably only be open four days a week, he said.

Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., which owns Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs, has also considered closing boat access to both those lakes because of the mussel risk.

The U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and Dolores Water Conservancy District are raising money to continue boat inspections at McPhee and House Creek, he said.

The boat inspection program costs about $95,000 per year, and the Forest Service previously covered that cost, Curtis said.

No mussels have been found on boats during inspections at McPhee, but they have been found as close as Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, Curtis said.

Southwestern Water Conservation District board shuffled

San Juan wildflowers.

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Board President John Porter and Vice President Steve Fearn, representatives of Montezuma and San Juan counties, respectively, were voted off the board by commissioners in their respective counties.

Fearn, a prominent longtime coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, has represented San Juan County on the water conservation board since 1990 and served as vice president since 2007.

But San Juan County commissioners said Fearn’s representation no longer reflects county values, which have changed significantly since Silverton’s mining days to include more recreational interests with respect to water, county attorney Paul Sunderland said…

Commissioners voted to appoint Charlie Smith, part-time Silverton resident and eight-year general manager of the Lake Durango Water Authority, as Fearn’s replacement.

“Commissioners thought Charlie Smith would better represent San Juan County,” Sunderland said. “He has a lot of water expertise, and he’s probably more in tune with the wants of the current board. Historically, San Juan County has been largely dominated by mining interests, and Steve Fearn is very much associated with those interests, but the board’s interests have shifted more toward recreation.”

The fact that the state of New Mexico named Fearn in a lawsuit as a “potentially responsible party” for mine pollution in the Gladstone area was noted in the county’s decision, Sunderland said.

“It’s definitely something we’re aware of, given his ownership interests around Gladstone,” he said…

The board consists of nine members representing Archuleta, Dolores, Hinsdale, La Plata, Mineral, Montezuma, Montrose, San Juan and San Miguel counties. Board directors can serve an unlimited number of three-year terms.

“I want to make sure the county’s views are represented,” Smith told The Durango Herald. “I have an understanding of their water rights, and a lot of work needs to be done to secure those rights and make sure the uses align with what the county envisions.”

Montezuma County commissioners selected Don Schwindt to replace Porter, who was general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District for 22 years and a Southwestern board director for 26.

Schwindt is a director on the Dolores Water Conservancy District board and a critic of the Dolores National Conservation Area, a controversial proposal in Montezuma County to congressionally protect land and water along the lower Dolores…

Porter thinks the proposal, criticized by Montezuma County commissioners, influenced his removal. Under Porter’s leadership, Southwestern Water Conservation District contributed funds to hire a water attorney to rewrite draft National Conservation Area legislation, which Porter thinks was perceived as support for the bill.

“I perceived the funding as an effort so everyone involved knew all the problems, the facts on both sides and could intelligently make a decision,” Porter said. “I think Southwestern’s involvement was perceived by others that we were very much in favor of the NCA legislation. That had something to do with it, and the fact that I’m 80-plus, and my 26 years on the board.”

Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Suckla said the commission chose Schwindt because of his water knowledge, and the conservation area proposal did not play a part in the decision.

“Don has shown ways that he would save water and retain water for farmers and ranchers,” Suckla said. “John Porter is an icon for Montezuma County. He was involved in the management of the lake (McPhee Reservoir), and all the benefits the county has received from that is because of the work he did, but it felt like it was time for new eyes.”

When Porter joined the board in 1990, he said water storage and dam construction were the district’s primary focus, including such projects as Lake Nighthorse. But gradually, the focus broadened to consider recreational water use and water quality.

Porter refers to his tenure as a career highlight, and said the importance of inter-basin relations and dialogue will only increase as time goes on, water supply dwindles and population grows.

“You’re asking someone who’s biased, but I’ve always felt that the Southwestern board tried its very best to represent all interests,” Porter said. “True, the majority of the members, including myself, were and still are agriculture-oriented. Yet to me, as Colorado’s population grows, it’s inevitable that our water supply will be drying up agriculture. And that’s not in our best interest, but I don’t see a way of satisfying municipal needs that we’re going to have without drying up some ag use. Irrigation takes a lot of water, and just that amount converted to municipal use will take care of a lot of families in an urban situation.”

@WaterCenterCMU report: “Conservation Planning for the #ColoradoRiver in Utah”

Click here to read the report. Here’s an excerpt (Christine G. Rasmussen and Patrick B. Shafroth):

Strategic planning is increasingly recognized as necessary for providing the greatest possible conservation benefits for restoration efforts. Rigorous, science-based resource assessment, combined with acknowledgement of broader basin trends, provides a solid foundation for determining effective projects. It is equally important that methods used to prioritize conservation investments are simple and practical enough that they can be implemented in a timely manner and by a variety of resource managers. With the help of local and regional natural resource professionals, we have developed a broad-scale, spatially-explicit assessment of 146 miles (~20,000 acres) of the Colorado River mainstem in Grand and San Juan Counties, Utah that will function as the basis for a systematic, practical approach to conservation planning and riparian restoration prioritization. For the assessment we have:

1) acquired, modified or created spatial datasets of Colorado River bottomland conditions; 2) synthesized those datasets into habitat suitability models and estimates of natural recovery potential, fire risk and relative cost; 3) investigated and described dominant ecosystem trends and human uses; and 4) suggested site selection and prioritization approaches. Partner organizations (The Nature Conservancy, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Utah Forestry Fire and State Lands) are using the assessment and datasets to identify and prioritize a suite of restoration actions to increase ecosystem resilience and improve habitat for bottomland species. Primary datasets include maps of bottomland cover types, bottomland extent, maps of areas inundated during high and low flow events, as well as locations of campgrounds, roads, fires, invasive vegetation treatment areas and other features.

Assessment of conditions and trends in the project area entailed: 1) assemblage of existing data on geology, changes in stream flow, and predictions of future conditions; 2) identification of fish and wildlife species present and grouping species into Conservation Elements (CEs) based on habitat needs; and 3) acquisition, review and creation of spatial datasets characterizing vegetation, fluvial geomorphic and human features within the bottomland. Interpretation of aerial imagery and assimilation of pre-existing spatial data were central to our efforts in characterizing resource conditions. Detailed maps of vegetation and channel habitat features in the project area were generated from true color, high resolution (0.3 m) imagery flown September 16, 2010. We also mapped channel habitat features at high flow on 1.0-m resolution, publicly available, true color imagery. We obtained additional layers such as land ownership, roads, fire history, non-native vegetation treatment areas, and recreational use features from public sources and project partners.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

A new report published by Colorado Mesa University aims to help in planning and prioritizing river restoration projects along 146 miles of the Colorado River from the Colorado-Utah border to the upper reaches of Lake Powell.

“Conservation Planning for the Colorado River in Utah” is the third in a series of scientific and technical reports issued through CMU’s Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center.

Gigi Richard, a geology professor and faculty director for the center, said the report is available to anyone who’s interested, at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center/scientific-technical-reports.html…

The river restoration report was written by Patrick Shafroth of the USGS and Christine Rasmussen of EcoMainstream Contracting in Durango.

It’s expected that federal and state agencies, conservation groups and others will be able to use the assessment and datasets to identify and prioritize projects to improve wildlife habitat and make the river’s ecosystems more resilient. Already, such entities have been involved in an effort called the Colorado River Conservation Planning Project…

The datasets include maps of existing habitats, areas inundated during high and low flows, and locations of campgrounds, roads, invasive vegetation treatment areas and other features.

The report says that “detailed resource maps can be used in project planning to help maximize the benefits of restoration dollars and minimize overlap of restoration efforts.” The report can identify where conservation efforts could address multiple habitat needs and prioritize projects with the potential to recover without intervention.

rasmussen_shaftroth_2016_watercenter_cmu

Colorado-based rafters miss at record through the Grand Canyon

The U.S. Whitewater Rafting Team trains on its custom-built raft in December on the Colorado River. The team was on pace for a record descent of the 277-mile canyon [January 14-15, 2017] when a wave broke the frame and punctured a tube. Photo Special to The Denver Post by Forest Woodward.
The U.S. Whitewater Rafting Team trains on its custom-built raft in December on the Colorado River. The team was on pace for a record descent of the 277-mile canyon [January 14-15, 2017] when a wave broke the frame and punctured a tube. Photo Special to The Denver Post by Forest Woodward.

From The Denver Post (Jason Blevins):

In the pitch black of night on the Colorado River’s burly Lava Falls rapid, an aluminum bar had snapped and punctured a 4-inch hole in the inflatable beam of the custom-built craft. The air hissing from the punctured tube wasn’t just the sound of trouble. It signaled the dissipation of a dream to paddle the 277-mile length of the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon in record time…

In the roiling eddy below Lava, the sleep-deprived paddlers — they had been rowing non-stop for more than 20 hours — boiled water to heat a patch. It was dark and raining. The patches weren’t sticking. The tube wouldn’t inflate to the hard pressure needed for speed…

The six members of the U.S. Whitewater Rafting Team — the Eagle River Valley’s Jeremiah Williams, John Mark Seelig, Robbie Prechtl and Kurt Kincel, Seth Mason of Carbondale and Matt Norfleet of Breckenridge — spent more than a year building this mission. The team before them — the world champion Behind the 8-Ball rafting team — had set a 24-hour record in a similar vessel in 2006, paddling from the Upper Colorado below Gore Canyon to Moab.

Work beginning for Toots Hole on Yampa River — Steamboat Today

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.
The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

From Steamboat Today (Teresa Ristow):

Work begins [November 21, 2016] on a new whitewater feature on the Yampa River adjacent to Little Toots Park.

The new Toots Hole will be similar to the A-Wave upstream, which was reconstructed in December 2015.

“There is going to be a drop feature on the right-hand side and then a passage on the left for fish,” said Kent Vertrees, board member for Friends of the Yampa, which is carrying out the project in collaboration with the city of Steamboat Springs Parks and Community Services Department. “It will create a good, fun wave for tubers and also create some fish habitat.”

The project will include river bank stabilization, riparian habitat restoration and other improvements.

In December 2015, the river’s A-Wave was reconstructed, as the drop-off had become troublesome for tubers who could hurt themselves or become stuck in the wave.

“At low water, it was keeping tubers in the hole, or tubers were flipping in and getting stuck,” Vertrees said. “Now, it flushes.”

Both the A-Wave and Toots Hole projects are being funded by Friends of the Yampa, thanks to grants the organization received from the Colorado Water Conservancy board’s Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable and the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.

Friends of the Yampa also organizes additional fundraisers, including its annual Big Snow Dance, which took place Saturday. The event raised more than $12,000 through an auction, money that will also support the Toots Hole project.

“That money goes directly into the river for this project,” Vertrees said. “The community of river people and Friends of the Yampa folks have really supported this project.”

The improvements to the river were identified in the 2008 Yampa River Structural Plan, and the two projects together are expected to cost about $130,000.

Vertrees said Toots Hole is the last component of what he calls the Yampa River Boating Park, a series of river features through downtown.

“We’ve created this interesting little urban river canyon, and we’re just adding to it,” he said. “We’re really excited about the conclusion of this project.”

Vertrees thanked Rick Mewborn, of Nordic Excavating, for his work on the projects, including donations of time and rock.

“Without him as a partner, this wouldn’t have been as successful,” he said.

Work on the project is expected to last about two weeks, and periodic closures of the Yampa River Core Trail might occur while work is taking place.