Let’s ensure health of upper Colorado River
November 8, 2010
In my 25 years of experience as a landowner, irrigator, fisherman and hunter on the upper Colorado River, I have seen this river suffer drastic decline.
That’s why I’m worried about the proposed Windy Gap and Moffat water diversion projects. Unless these projects are done right, they will only inflict further damage on this great but threatened river.
According to Grand County, the existing Moffat, Windy Gap and other transmountain diversion projects already take about 65 percent of the headwaters of the Colorado River to the Front Range. Together, the Windy Gap Firming and Moffat Expansion projects would take another 25 percent of the native flow, meaning, on average, 89 percent of the native flow of the headwaters of Colorado’s namesake river would be diverted from its watershed for East Slope purposes.
These existing diversions have already had devastating consequences for the health of the river. Not one more drop should be diverted until we can be sure there will be a healthy Colorado River for future generations of Coloradans to enjoy.
My first experience fishing on the Colorado River was in the early 1980s, before the existing Windy Gap Dam was finished. Back then, a typical season began with what I call the “sailboat hatch,” when thousands of mayflies looking like little sailboats came floating down, and every trout in the Colorado River was looking up to eat them. I’m not sure which mayfly it was, but a size 16 Parachute Adams was the perfect match.
About this time, the fish also started turning on to large black stoneflies, about 1 inch long. As we progressed into May, we would start using Kauffman stones (#10s) dropping a size #14 Prince nymph behind. The bigger the stonefly, the bigger the fish. We then would be forced out of the water during unbelievable runoff for all of June.
But come July – watch out, we had huge green and gray drake hatches, and depending on the time of day, super PMD and BWO hatches. The thing that made it all so exciting was we were fishing for and catching the large, famed Colorado River rainbow trout, mostly on dry flies. We caught rainbows on a 2-1 ratio over brown trout in those days.
This has all changed. No longer do we see the hatches of primo large flies. Starting after the time the original Windy Gap Dam was closed, we started losing the fabled Colorado rainbow trout. Some years after that, we lost the salmon fly. The drakes are now very sparse and even the early hatch of “sailboats” has diminished.
All of my anecdotal observations concerning the adverse condition of the river – the loss of Colorado rainbow trout, sculpin, salmon flies, drakes and other large mayflies – have been corroborated by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in numerous studies done these last few years. We lost the rainbow trout to whirling disease. Numerous studies demonstrated that Windy Gap reservoir was the perfect incubator for this devastating epidemic that completely eradicated the rainbow trout. DOW also has good documentation on the loss of the other species, as well as the changes in the river that have destroyed the habitat they needed to survive.
Windy Gap Dam stops the normal sand and gravel and flushing flows and process the river needs to stay healthy. After the dam was built, all we get is partial flows during run-off, and lots of silt.
The DOW and the Wildlife Commission will soon decide on the mitigation required for the new transmountain diversion projects that Front Range utilities want to build. I urge them and all stakeholders to take whatever time is necessary to develop mitigation that will genuinely restore and protect the river. We all need to look at this as an opportunity to fix the existing problems on the river and leave it in better shape than we found it. If we don’t, the consequences of our actions will be intolerable for the future of the river and for future generations.
– Bud Isaacs is owner and co-manager of the Chimney Rock Ranch, which includes Chimney Rock and Sheriffs ranches encompassing 4 miles of the Colorado River below Windy Gap.