Fire spared hatchery, but drought didn’t |

Fire spared hatchery, but drought didn’t

To see the Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery today, it’s hard to imagine the place was ravaged by fire and floods this year.

But hatchery supervisor Rich Kolecki said that his biggest problems this summer had nothing to do with the Coal Seam Fire and the subsequent mudslides that roared through the hatchery. It was the drought.

“The fire is done and gone,” Kolecki said. “And we’re not anticipating any mudslides until the spring. But the drought – we’re still dealing with the effects of drought.”

First the fire

The hatchery’s vintage stone block structures – built in the beginning of the 20th century – don’t look any worse for the wear post-Coal Seam Fire. The buildings are nestled up a narrow section of canyon on Mitchell Creek Road, a couple miles above Glenwood Springs. The only indication that the fire was in the vicinity is some brown paint that bubbled and blistered on one of the buildings, and a scorched retaining wall.

“We lost a window sill and a couple railroad ties,” said Kolecki, still thoroughly amazed that his workplace wasn’t completely destroyed.

Kolecki credits firefighters who dutifully pushed back the flames and subsequently kept the hatchery intact. He said crews from the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s office at the bottom of Mitchell Creek also jumped in to protect the hatchery.

Most amazing of all is the fish fatality rate: none.

“We didn’t lose one fish,” said Kolecki, who in the course of a year oversees millions of native Colorado cutthroat trout, rainbow trout and salmon.

“We’re so fortunate,” he said, looking around. “When I closed up here and evacuated the day of the fire, I didn’t think I’d ever see this place again. I thought the hatchery was gone.”

Then the mud

Once the smoke cleared from Coal Seam, the Mitchell Creek area experienced a series of severe mudflows. Luckily, the hatchery already had a ready-made system to deal with the debris.

Kolecki said he moved all of the brood stock he had out of the hatchery’s raceways – concrete channels that house the hatchery’s fish. The raceways run downhill and parallel to Mitchell Creek and Mitchell Creek Road.

“We pulled all the boards and screens from the raceways and moved all the fish to our holding tanks on the west side of the hatchery out of the way of the mudslides,” said Kolecki. “The fish were absolutely packed into those tanks; we were way beyond capacity, but we had no choice.”

With all the stock moved, the raceways became instant channels for rocks and mud that poured down from nearby mountainsides.

“During the first big mudslide, the raceways did exactly what they needed to do,” said Kolecki. “We never imagined we’d use those raceways for debris flow, but they sure came in handy.”

But drought is the worst

Combating fire and flood seems like enough to deal with, but for Kolecki this year’s drought has been the toughest issue to confront.

“The drought has affected us drastically,” he said. “The fire’s gone and the mudslides have stopped for awhile, but we’re still dealing with drought.”

Kolecki said during a normal production year, like 2001, the Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery produces 5.2 million eggs. Those fish are raised and shipped to locations all over Colorado. But because of this year’s drought, Kolecki anticipates the hatchery will produce a million less Kokanee salmon. And hatchery’s other fish – the wild rainbow and the Colorado cutthroat – don’t fare much better.

“The drought has probably cut our production by 20 percent overall,” he said. “We have a cyclical operation here, but with low flows like we have now we can’t release fish in the winter, and we can’t produce past our carrying capacity.”

It’s been a challenging year, but Kolecki is thankful the Coal Seam Fire – what started it all – spared the Mitchell Creek drainage.

The hatchery relies on quality creek water, in addition to an on-site spring well, for growing the hatchery’s fish.

“I remember seeing the upper end of the drainage after the fire,” he said. “It was a mosaic of a burn, but it didn’t completely destroy the ecosystem upstream. If it had, we’d have had to shut this unit down.”

Now, life at the hatchery goes on. Kolecki’s holding tanks are filled with fish of all ages, and in six weeks after an upcoming spawning cycle, he anticipates they will be greeting a million and a half fish at the main hatchery.

“We didn’t skip a beat,” he said with understatement.

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