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Group to discuss river health

Balance between fish, water rights sought for Yampa

Doug Crowl

— Each year 125,000 acre feet of water is taken out of the Yampa River and a portion of the Little Snake River for agriculture, power plants and municipal use, which is 15 percent of the river’s yield. By 2045, officials at the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program estimate that number will increase to 155,000 acre feet per year.

When too much water is taken out of the river, especially during a drought, the low flow can jeopardize the health of endangered fish below Craig such as the bony tail, humpback chub, razor sucker and the Colorado pike minnow. The result would be the Endangered Species Act forcing water-rights holders to stop taking their allotment out of the river to ensure habitat for the fish.

Hoping to avoid that from happening in the Yampa River basin, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program has completed a draft of the Yampa River Basin Management Plan, which is a proactive move to sustain a healthy river, said Gerry Roehm, in-stream coordinator for the recovery program. The plan also outlines management practices on the rivers, such as controlling non-native, predator fish so they don’t kill the native fish.

The recovery program is holding a meeting tonight at Centennial Hall to collect public comment on river management, including recreation, water rights and species protection.

“In essence, we are trying to serve the needs of the people and the fish with the same bucket of water,” Roehm said.

This past April, a worst-case scenario in the relationship between water rights and endangered species happened in Oregon and California. More than 1,000 farmers there who depend on water from the federally run Klamath Basin Project weren’t allowed to irrigate their crops during a severe drought because the endangered suckerfish in the Klamath River needed the water downstream.

The draft of the Yampa River Basin Management Plan proposes safeguards to help prevent that from happening in Northwest Colorado. The plan suggests, for example, that the river should always run above 90 cubic feet per second below Craig, Roehm explained. (It has dipped below that estimate in the recent past, but the goal is not to have it drop below that mark any more than it has.)

To ensure a healthy flow, 7,000 acre feet of water would be set aside in numerous reservoirs to release into the river during low flow. Today, the recovery program has 2,000 acre feet of augmented water in Steamboat Lake for such a purpose, Roehm said.

As far as controlling nonnative fish population, the management plan proposes incentives for anglers to remove larger nonnative fish and relocation projects. Both are being practiced on the Yampa River with some success, Roehm said.

As outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency process in completing such plans, the public has the right to comment on issues it wants included.

“Whatever people think needs to be addressed ” Roehm said.

This is the first plan of its kind for a river in Colorado. When complete, the recovery program, which is made up of state and federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will organize similar management plans on the Gunnison, Dolores and White rivers.

The meeting is at 7 p.m. today in Centennial Hall.


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