Fish appear to be benefitting, while guides grapple with limitations
Photo by: 
Courtesy Zack Hooley-Underwood/Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Biologist Kevin Thompson holds a razorback sucker that was recently found in a small tributary in the Gunnison Basin. The species of fish is proposed for down-listing from “endangered” to “threatened.”
Biologist Kevin Thompson holds a razorback sucker that was recently found in a small tributary in the Gunnison Basin. The species of fish is proposed for down-listing from “endangered” to “threatened.”

This year’s strong run-off continues to dwindle, but while property owners in the Gunnison Basin were praying against flooding in recent months, the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) was doing just the opposite. They were inciting a flood. 

This year marked the seventh since the signing of a record of decision (ROD) for the Aspinall Unit that aims to create a spring surge of run-off mimicking natural conditions — that is, a river without dams holding back spring flows resulting from a melting snowpack. 

The Aspinall Unit is located on the Gunnison River and consists of Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs, and the ROD — based on a given year’s snowpack — stipulates how much water will be delivered downstream. It’s all in an attempt to benefit the recovery of four “endangered” species of fish. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say two of those fish species have benefited as intended — resulting in proposals to down-grade their listing status under the Endangered Species Act. 

Yet, at the same time reservoir operators with the BOR and guides reliant on springtime visitors to those water bodies are still attempting to come to terms on how the changes do — and should — impact recreation. 

BOR stipulates what activity can occur on the trickiest of the Aspinall Unit reservoirs — Morrow Point — during the spring surge. 

 

Trade-offs result

Under the ROD, 2019 fell into the category of a “moderately wet” year. Based on the forecasted inflow to Blue Mesa, that required BOR to deliver a “peak flow target” of 14,350 cubic feet per second (cfs) — measured at the Whitewater gauge near Grand Junction — for a duration of 10 days. 

BOR’s Erik Knight said operations this year were most similar to 2014 and 2017 — with the same flow targets this year as in the two preceding springs. However, 2019 was somewhat unique. 

Because BOR needed to hit high targets downstream — but Blue Mesa was too low in water content to be able to utilize the spillway — the agency was limited to a release of 6,000 cfs from Blue Mesa dam. In order to meet the flow targets, there was more water being released from Morrow Point than was from Blue Mesa — lowering the volume of water in Morrow Point. 

“What it did do was result in a draw down of (Morrow Point) reservoir which would not have been as much, if anything, had the spillway at Blue Mesa been available,” Knight explained. 

Morrow Point is the middle of the three Aspinall Unit reservoirs, and will often see large fluctuations in water volume each spring to accommodate storage and releases at the other two bodies of water. For that reason, safety is a top concern of BOR. 

Yet, spring operations of the Aspinall Unit come at a cost. 

Ryan Van Lanen, head fishing guide for Elk Creek Marina and Morrow Point, said he and two guides he oversees lost $26,500 in bookings between May 1 and June 18 as a result of the spring operations preventing them from utilizing Morrow Point. However, some of the customers did rebook trips on Blue Mesa.

During this year’s month-and-a-half-long shutdown, he maintains that there were only seven days with conditions outside of what’s needed for his normal operating procedure — and only for the reason of low water. In the past, he’s been able to easily accommodate such fluctuation. 

“I just moved my boats down off the dock and anchored them, and then used a skiff to go get the boats if I needed to pick up customers,” Van Lanen said. 

Knight said that if the guiding outfit was operating prior to or during spring operations in the past, BOR was unaware of it.

 

Flows support fish population

Similarly, this year’s operations delayed National Park Service’s boat tours on Morrow Point, which typically start around the beginning of June, said spokeswoman Sandy Snell-Dobert. This year the tours started July 3. 

“Basically, what that does is put us behind a month of revenue,” she said, noting that money from the tours pays for the salaries of boat captains, interpreters and the vessel’s operations. “We’re kind of trying to fill every boat from now all the way through, and we’re hoping that we can go a little later than September.” 

From July 3 to last Monday, 1,392 people had signed up for the boat tour or had taken the trip so far this year.

While it is BOR’s preference that operation of neither the tour boat nor other guides occur on Morrow Point until spring operations wrap up in coming years, Knight said last week the involved parties planned to discuss the matter at a meeting in coming weeks. 

Despite the impact to commercial operations, Fish and Wildlife Service officials say spring operations are doing exactly as intended for endangered fish — which include the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail and humpback chubs — in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers downstream of the Aspinall Unit.

The humpback chub and razorback sucker both have been proposed for a change in their protective classification. A proposed rule to reclassify the chub as “threatened” is expected to be published in the federal register in coming months, while the agency is still working internally on the rule for the sucker. 

Population estimates for the razorback sucker specifically — collected from 2013-2015 downstream of the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers — suggest that spring flows from the Aspinall Unit “are supporting that expanding population in the Colorado River,” said Fish and Wildlife Service’s Julie Stahli, deputy director for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. 

Much of the same appears to be true for the humpback chub. 

“Certainly to the extent that we are with the Bureau of Reclamation able to augment those high flows that we see coming down the Gunnison … that provides a lot of value in mimicking all the conditions under which the humpback chub evolved,” added Don Anderson, instream flow coordinator for the recovery program. 

 

(Will Shoemaker can be reached at 970.641.1414 or editor@gunnisontimes.com.)