Endangered fish recovery effort could benefit Grand County reach of Colorado River | SkyHiNews.com

Endangered fish recovery effort could benefit Grand County reach of Colorado River

Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi Daily News
Grand County, Colorado

Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News

The effort to recover endangered fish near Grand Junction could benefit Colorado River conditions closer to home.

East and West Slope water stakeholders are closing in on a plan that, if finalized, would direct 5,412 acre-feet of water stored in Granby Reservoir to flow uninterrupted to a critical 15 mile-reach of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley of western Colorado.

And as it’s shepherded through, the water could improve Grand County Gold Medal waters below Windy Gap.

The plan is part of a much larger effort implemented two decades ago to save four warm-water fish species from extinction: the Colorado Pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail chub.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that any depletion of water in the Upper Colorado River Basin would need to be replenished for the health and continuation of these species.

From there, a complex multi-state, multifaceted arrangement was made involving water users, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and several Colorado River drainages. Partially funded by Congress each year, the program has included construction of new facilities and several re-negotiated reservoir operations.

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As part of the federally initated Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, East and West Slope diverters committed to supplying 10,825 acre-feet of water in late summer. Responsibility for that amount of water is evenly split between West and East slope water providers.

As a temporary solution, Denver Water has been releasing flows from Williams Fork Reservoir to comply, and The Colorado River Water Conservation District has been releasing from Wolford Mountain Reservoir for the West Slope’s share.

But with a Dec 20, 2009, deadline looming to come up with a permanent 10,825 acre-feet solution, a coalition formed in 2007 to analyze how the water should be supplied annually.

Out of those negotiations, a “preferred” solution has emerged, one concerning the release of about half the water from Granby Reservoir, and the other half from Ruedi Reservoir near Basalt. The plan also includes using excess storage capacity in the Green Mountain Reservoir.

A formal summary of this alternative released in January declares it the only solution on which water users reached a consensus, saying the alternative “will provide the most benefit to headwater streams in the Colorado River Basin, particularly in Grand County, while simultaneously meeting 10825 water obligations.”

Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran, who originally championed this idea, finds this “kitchen-sink proposal” a positive one, and credits the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District for pursuing it.

“The stretch from Windy Gap down to the confluence of the Blue River is always a huge issue for us at that time of year,” she said. “It’s when the flows are lowest and the irrigators have a hard time getting their water. So this will lift up their water and it will make the flow of the river higher at one of the more critical times for stream flows in the county.”

An added benefit, recognized by stakeholders, is the proposed solution uses facilities already in place.

In theory, Northern, which owns the greatest percentage of Redtop Valley Ditch (located from Grand Lake to near Granby) shares, has agreed with irrigators to forward 2,700 acre-feet of Ditch water, affecting the Northern-owned and leased Miller-Hereford Ranch. Meanwhile, owners of the C Lazy U Ranch have offered to supply the remainder of the acre-feet. Denver Water and other East Slope water users would compensate Northern and partnering irrigators for the released recovery water.

“By us being able to challenge the group to look at something different,” Underbrink Curran said, “and by them seriously taking on that challenge, it will help us to a huge degree at a time of year when we have no way to help ourselves.”

As far as when Grand County anglers, kayakers, rafters and fish would actually experience increased late-summer flows ” poised to be escorted through under protections ” Northern Project Manager Jeff Drager predicts not until 2012. The proposal still needs to pass federal environment protection reviews.

“We like the fact that you can get two benefits out of the same water,” said Drager about released flows benefiting both the upper and lower Colorado. “We think it’s a great idea.”

” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail tbina@skyhidailynews.com.

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