WATER LINES: CMU student ponders human impact on rivers

Tyler Hutchinson

How does water influence your life? For me, outdoor recreation is how water influences my life the most — apart from allowing me to live, that is. From skiing to floating, water is what gets me outside.

In the past couple of months I have had the opportunity to work with the Water Center at CMU, and that experience has shown me a new perspective on water, mainly the management thereof. With growing demands and finite water supplies in the Colorado River Basin, management of this resource is becoming an increasingly hot topic.

A couple of recent experiences have influenced how I look at river management.

In August, my wildlife management class took a field trip to the Redlands diversion fish ladder on the Gunnison River. Here, my classmates and I discovered the behind-the-scenes action of the fish ladder. As we counted the hundreds of flannelmouth suckers, dozens of channel catfish, red shiners, and roundtail chubs, I realized how artificial fish transit thorough the Colorado River basin has become. Before the dam was introduced, these fish could swim freely up and down this stretch of river and not be disrupted. Fortunately for the fish, a fish ladder was introduced in 1996 to not only allow fish passage, but also to allow fishery biologists to monitor the frequency of fish passing by.

During the period April 18, 2012 through Oct. 18, 2012, there were only 12 endangered fish, all Colorado pikeminnow, that utilized this passage. The other three endangered species that live in the river basin, bonytail chub, humpback chub, and the razorback sucker, failed to show.

Observing the fish ladder made me begin to ponder how this river has changed for the fish, but my appreciation for understanding how management of the Colorado River has changed our landscapes grew exponentially after sea kayaking Lake Powell a couple weeks later.

Paddling up Lake Powell from Bullfrog Marina, the elevation of the water was about 100 feet below its full capacity. Passing by the breathtaking canyon walls, you can see the white stain known as the “bathtub ring” that marks the previous water depths of Lake Powell. This line also can be drawn with plant species. Looking up at a slope that intersects with the waterline, you could see the native plant population above the white bathtub ring. Below it, weeds dominate.

As we approached Hite Marina, we ran into an unexpected obstacle, the Colorado River, complete with current. About three miles of it! Lake Powell has gotten so low that Hite marina is inaccessible from the water. Laboring to paddle against the current, our group found ourselves next to a bank towering 20ft above us, which I assume was sediment deposited by the lake during previous years when it was filled. On top of the bank, monocultures of weeds and tamarisk dominated the scene. Submerging Glen Canyon created one of the most beautiful and abstract places I have ever been to, but change continues. The Colorado River is slowly taking back the canyon’s floor.

We all need water. We all use water. But what would the Colorado River’s role be if we weren’t around to want water, or need it? Our dependence on the Colorado River has long changed its natural function, and from just a few personal experiences, I feel like we need to pay attention to how we continue to change it. The Colorado River and its tributaries have a carrying capacity. There are only so many things that can be supported by their water, and how we decide to manage it will have lasting effects, whether we like them or not, for both ourselves and the other creatures that depend on it.

Water Lines is a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to Tyler Hutchinson is office assistant at the Water Center at CMU.

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