Colorado River District hopes for help with endangered fish |

Colorado River District hopes for help with endangered fish

John Colson
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – A former engineer with the Colorado River District said this week that he believes there is plenty of water in the river to prevent the extinction of four endangered fish species.

But, said Dave Merritt, now serving as the Garfield County representative on the river district’s board of directors, there still is a need to raise half a million dollars in a “cost-sharing arrangement” to pay for a federal environmental assessment (EA) required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

And it all must be finished up before the expiration of an existing agreement between the Denver Water Board and the Colorado River District, which together provide 10,825 acre feet each year to keep ample water in a stretch of the river known as the 15-mile Reach east of Grand Junction, which is the habitat of the fish.

The issue, Merritt said, is the ongoing effort to prevent the extinction of four species of fish in the Colorado River – the razorback sucker, the bonytail chub, the Colorado pike minnow and the humpback chub.

The effort goes back to the 1980s, Merritt said, when the Bureau of Reclamation “reserved” 21,650 acre feet of water in the federally controlled Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River above Basalt, to be used for the preservation of the endangered fish. The water was claimed by the federal agency after completion of the second of two rounds of water sales to private interests, Merritt said, leaving that amount of water unsold.

An agreement was drawn up calling for the Western Slope and the Front Range water users to share in providing supplemental water flows, released from two reservoirs in the late summer every year, to raise the level of the 15-mile Reach and save the fish.

Currently, the water is coming from the Wolford Mountain Reservoir for the Western Slope’s half, and from the Williams Fork Reservoir for the amount supplied by the Front Range, under an interim agreement reached in 1998, Merritt said.

But that agreement is to expire in 2010, and a new arrangement has to be in place by 2012, according to Merritt. Currently, the new plan is for half the water, or 5,412.5 acre feet, to come from the Granby Reservoir, satisfying the Front Range obligation. The other half is to come from Ruedi Reservoir, to meet the Western Slope’s obligation.

Merritt said the river district is hoping that the water from Ruedi will be considered “nonreimbursable,” meaning the district would not have to pay the estimated $8 million value of the Ruedi water, because the water is being required to meet a federal environmental purpose. Although he is not directly involved in the ongoing negotiations for the Granby Reservoir water, Merritt said the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District has estimated its value at $17 million.

If the money is ruled to be “reimbursable,” Merritt said, it would be used to reimburse the Bureau of Reclamation for its costs in building the reservoir, which was completed in 1968 as the centerpiece of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project and has a capacity of more than 102,000 acre feet.

An acre-foot of water is the amount that it would take to cover one acre with a foot of water, and under the Fry-Ark project, more than 60,000 acre feet was to be sent by transmountain diversion tunnels under the Continental Divide and into the Arkansas River basin.

Merritt said that, with recent innovations in water conservation and the creation of fish habitat along the 15-mile reach, he feels there is sufficient water to prevent the fish species from further decline and still not get in the way of human uses of the river’s water.

As for the money needed for the EA, he reported to the Garfield County commissioners this week that a total of 15 large water-using entities have signed on to help with the costs of the study, and negotiations are under way with others.

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