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How drought conditions affect Garfield County fisheries

Water recedes far from the shoreline at Harvey Gap Reservoir.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Most times it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. People hop on Dustin Harcourt’s boat, and they’re likely to catch a boatload of trout.

Recent drought conditions around Garfield County, however, have left the well-known fishing guide wondering if all the fish simply disappeared. The realization struck him while fishing the Colorado River a few days ago.

“We caught like two fish,” he said. “We were out for six or seven hours.”



It could be the murky, chocolate milk consistency of the water creating low visibility conditions for the fish, he said. Or maybe it’s the lack of nutrients in the water that’s caused a significant fish kill, Harcourt wondered.

July and early August mudslides in Glenwood Canyon are partly to blame. Drought has also caused water temperatures to rise to above 70 degrees, which is not conducive to good fishing, Harcourt said. Both the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers exceeded 70 degrees this summer.

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When it comes to Garfield County’s reservoirs, drought conditions have dramatically reduced water levels throughout the summer.

Rifle Gap State Park Manager Brian Palcer said low water levels aren’t necessarily uncommon, but that it is unusual to see low water levels this early in the year. At Rifle Gap’s highest point this year, it was 15 feet below full storage.

Right now, it’s 40 feet feet below full.

“Harvey Gap is down a long ways too, but it’s a little more normal over there,” he said. “Rifle Gap is where we’re seeing a real deficiency.”

It’s not that water is evaporating into thin air — instead, it’s being relied on by 532 local farmers and ranchers who use the two reservoirs as part of the conservancy district. As their livelihoods are impacted from the drought, they’re more likely to need to draw more and more water from the reservoir.

“That’s what’s drawing it down, is irrigation,” he said.

But lower water levels have not had a negative impact on fishing the reservoirs.

“They’re still catching some trout, even though it’s warm. They’re catching perch, I’m seeing some small mouth bass, there’s been walleye caught here and there,” Palcer said. “So fishing is still pretty decent.

The real fear is that if bodies of water don’t fill back up, fish nesting areas will be left high and dry, Palcer said. The hope is that water levels will return to normal come winter, when snow falls and local farmers and ranchers stop pulling from the reservoirs.

The pull for irrigation officially stops Oct. 15.

“We went to Harvey Gap a number of times, and both Harvey Gap and Rifle Gap are extremely low,” Harcourt said. “The fish get to meet a lot of new friends as they get congested into a puddle. So if you’re a little fish, you better watch your back.”

According to information provided by Silt Water Conservancy District representative Tina Bergonzini, Harvey Gap was originally built by immigrant farmers in 1897 to store water. Their water rights were not intended just for agricultural uses but domestic as well.

Harvey Gap can hold 5,806 acre-feet of water, while Rifle Gap holds 12,167 acre-feet before spilling.

“Project water was allocated to property owners in the district based on soil, slope and production possibility. This water cannot leave the land it was allocated to. It transfers to new owners via quit claim or warranty deed when the property sells,” Bergonzini stated in an email. “This is a nice safeguard to keep water distributed to viable lands and keeps people from being able to ‘buy up’ all the water. The Bureau of Reclamation allocated 10,384 acre-feet of water to the 6,597 acres in our district.”

Bergonzini said drought conditions have also affected the way the district distributes its irrigation. One method the district pursued this year was implementing four weeks of furlough at the beginning of the season, when property owners were restricted from accessing irrigation water through the reservoirs.

“We’ve been working with a lot of other entities, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department — all of these different entities to try to create a more symbiotic relationship between tourism and recreation and agriculture,” she said.

Bergonzini said ranchers in the district have implemented different practices, using products on their fields that help the roots take in more water and pull the water deeper.

District farmer Nathan Bell, whose allotment is stored in Rifle Gap, said he irrigates a couple of different ways.

“Our full allotment is 50 shared days per acre-foot of water,” he said. “This year, because we knew that it was going to be drought conditions, we started at 40 shared days per acre-foot.”

Like most years, they depend on a good snowpack and snow melt, as well as heavy, early-spring rains. This year was short of precipitation, which means less irrigation, Bell said.

For the avid fishers of the community, they too look forward to some heavy snows hitting the mountain. At the very least, water temperatures are already starting to cool down.

That’s good news for Harcourt.

“We’re going to be in fall real quick,” Harcourt said. “Fall fishing is some of the best the whole year has to offer. So, myself and most of my friends and guides, we’ve all just been really looking forward to saying goodbye to summer.”

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@citizentelegram.com.


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