Kremmling-area ranchers aim to boost fish habitat
KREMMLING — A group of Kremmling area landowners, led by rancher Paul Bruchez, has launched an ambitious effort to upgrade local ranch irrigation systems along a 10-mile stretch of Colorado River, with the goal of both improving water delivery and restoring river habitat and trout fisheries.
“Irrigation and ranchers benefit as much from a healthy river as fish and habitat,” said Bruchez. “A healthy river is a victory for everybody.”
The group recently completed a pilot project, restoring a stretch of riffle on the river outside of town. But Bruchez said the group is just getting started on a grand vision of restoring a 10-mile stretch of river by adding a series of riffle/pool structures and improving habitat and water delivery structures.
The Upper Colorado River has been in ecological decline for years, due in part to Front Range utilities’ decades-long practice of pumping water from the Colorado under the Continental Divide to growing cities and towns.
During the years, the ranchers’ irrigation intakes along this stretch had been left high and dry by decreased flows caused by these diversions. It wasn’t just an irrigation problem, though — a study by a Colorado parks biologist had found seriously degraded aquatic habitat in this stretch of river, including the loss of natural features such as riffle/pool structures, and bug populations, which had largely disappeared and been replaced with sediment, eroded banks and mossy, slow-moving water.
Bruchez remembers looking at a degraded stretch and wondering, “What happened to our river?”
“Sediment is a natural part of the stream flow — one important thing we’ve lost in this stretch is regular high-flushing flows to keep habitat clean and healthy,” said Rob Firth, Upper Colorado project coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “That’s been a major problem all along the Upper Colorado.”
Bruchez and five other local ranch families came together to try and find a solution. In the past, area ranchers had mostly worked on their own pumps as stand-alone systems — there wasn’t much coordination with other landowners.
Bruchez had a larger vision, too. Instead of a Band-Aid fix, he wanted the ranchers to work together to “do it right,” he said, and find long-term irrigation solutions that also addressed river habitat health.
Staying on track
There were early hurdles to overcome. Mely Whiting of Trout Unlimited helped the group with grant deadlines and kept the process on track. Firth of Trout Unlimited, Mark Volt, the Kremmling area USDA-NRCS representative, and Lurline Underbrink Curran, Grand County manager, helped Bruchez coordinate the planning and find expertise.
He and the other ranchers hired URS, an engineering firm, to study the 10-mile reach. Together, URS, the ranchers and a local contractor experienced in river restoration devised a plan for a pilot project.
Last fall, Bruchez and partners launched the pilot project on a stretch of the Colorado on the Mardi Shepard ranch just outside Kremmling. They rechanneled the river toward the center, and brought in gravel and rocks to rebuild a point bar and reconstruct a riffle to oxygenate the river and provide trout habitat. Standing on the bank, you see a beautiful ribbon of riffle and run that flows downstream into a deeper pool that looks like it should be full of holding trout, just waiting for a drifting fly to float by.
“It looks fishy now,” says Bruchez. “This will be an exciting place to fish.”
Bruchez has plans to restore up to 30 more riffle/pool structures on the river. TU has supported Bruchez in a consulting role, but the rancher has largely taken the bull by the horns and single-handedly organized, cajoled, raised money and pushed the project forward.
“It’s amazing what Paul has accomplished in a short time,” said Firth. “And it shows the power of a single individual with a strong vision. The potential here is incredible. He’s showing that agriculture and trout can go together.”
Bruchez is quick to give credit to his neighbors and all the stakeholders, including TU, Grand County, the Colorado Basin Roundtable, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “We all joined forces to get something done,” he explains.
There’s evidence that aquatic life is already responding to the project changes.
After a big water year this spring removed some sediment down to rock structure, life broke out. Bruchez began seeing stonefly nymphs and other bugs that comprise the trout diet.
“These bugs will replenish themselves fairly quickly once the river is restored,” Bruchez said.
The ranchers’ restoration plan fills a gap in addressing river health. Upstream, Northern Water, TU, Grand County, the Upper Colorado River Alliance, and other stakeholders have agreed on measures to improve flows and aquatic health in the stretch of Colorado River between Windy Gap Reservoir and Troublesome Creek.
“For fishing, this stretch of river could be as productive as the stretch above Troublesome Creek — and maybe more so,” said Firth.
For Bruchez and the other ranchers, a healthy river just makes good economic sense.
“A Gold-Medal trout fishery is a selling point for land in the valley,” Bruchez notes. “Gold Medal water sells itself.”
Moreover, cleaner water has less biological mass (read: algae and muck) and that means fewer problems with irrigation maintenance and clogged water pumps.
As for upcoming projects, “We’re lined up, ready to go,” said Bruchez. As he surveys the newly constructed riffle, and sees evidence of bug life reemerging and repopulating the riffle, he’s encouraged.
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