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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

connectingdropslogo4.1Bringing you the reporting you crave over the radio airways with extras and archives on our website. Visit the audio archives or listen to the latest story on the connection between Colorado's forests, watersheds, and forest fires:

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Water Education Colorado

pper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program & San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program

By Kevin Darst

In her 15 years with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, Angela Kantola certainly had chances to try something else. But the opportunity to help save struggling fish, as well as work on one of the federal government's most complex and challenging recovery programs, kept her home.

‘It's just so interesting, I didn't want to leave it,’ says Kantola, assistant director of the program, which was started nearly 16 years ago to save four endangered fish living in the Colorado River.

Fish recovery is a difficult proposition on many levels: scientific, regulatory, economic, political. In addition to juggling the demands of multiple government agencies and interest groups concerned about the fishes' survival, the Colorado is one of the most heavily used and politicized rivers in the West. Increasing pressure—both from downstream states such as California, and from the growing Front Range region of Colorado—put a premium on water left in the river to support fish populations. In addition, drought and an exploding non-native fish population have made the last several years challenging, Kantola says.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program was created in 1988 by Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the Western Area Power Administration, to save four endangered fish while continuing to develop water supplies from the Colorado River. This endangered species recovery program, which in 2001 was extended through September 2013, focuses on habitat development and management of the humpback chub, bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

Federal dam and reservoir managers, for example, have agreed to release water at times selected to benefit the fish. In addition, the program has also funded construction of fish passages around dams, and fish screens to prevent endangered fish from getting trapped in irrigation canals. Fish stocking, research and monitoring are also part of the recovery program, which has been called an ‘ongoing success story’ by state and federal officials.

A similar initiative, the San Juan Basin Recovery Implementation Program, was created in 1992 to protect and recover the pikeminnow and razorback sucker in the San Juan River Basin in the face of continued water development such as the Animas-La Plata Project near Durango and others.

Federal and state agencies, along with water and power users, have contributed more than $173 million to both programs since 1999. Currently, the San Juan and Colorado River recovery programs have a $100 million capital construction budget to use by the end of 2008. Power revenues, upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) and water and power users would fund $54 million of that, while the U.S. Congress would pick up the remaining $46 million.

Of the $17 million to be paid by upper basin states, Colorado will pay $9.2 million. A majority of those funds, some $8 million, would go to the Colorado River program.

Accomplishments and Struggles
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002 approved a set of milestones endangered fish populations have to meet for their status to be improved, or for the fish to be removed from the threatened and endangered list. These standards vary for each species, but must be maintained for five years to be enable the species to be downlisted from endangered to threatened. The humpback chub, bonytail chub and razorback sucker must meet those goals for three more years to be delisted, while the pikeminnow would have to sustain those measures for seven more years to be delisted. According to the federal government, all four species are still classified as endangered. Still, the recovery programs tout a list of other successes.

Since the recovery programs were started, the humpback chub and Colorado pikeminnow have been upgraded from ‘state-endangered’ to ‘state-threatened’ on Colorado's own list of threatened and endangered species. Although in 2002 they were thought to be close to recovery, drought and a surge in non-native species populations has since set these fish back at least five or 10 years from that goal.

  • Two hatcheries in Colorado and two in Utah stocked 13,600 bonytail chubs, 14,000 razorback suckers and more than 2,000 Colorado pikeminnow in the Colorado, Green and Gunnison rivers in 2003. Hatcheries are raising tens of thousands more fish for future stocking.
  • About 177,000 juvenile pikeminnow were stocked in the San Juan basin in 2003 and another 300,000 were expected to be stocked in 2004.
  • Retrofits to the Grand Valley Project canal system near Grand Junction helped make irrigators more efficient during severe drought, keeping 45,000 acre-feet in the Colorado River in 2002 and 33,000 acre-feet in 2003.
  • The Colorado recovery program helped fund a 12,000 acre-foot expansion of Elkhead Reservoir near Craig that would designate 5,000 acre-feet with an option to lease another 2,000 acre feet, to provide late-summer water for endangered fish.
  • A 2003 agreement ensured that Ruedi Reservoir would release 10,825 acre-feet annually for a 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River through 2012.
  • Since 1996, a fish ladder at the Redlands Diversion Dam on the Gunnison River has helped 60 pikeminnow, six razorback suckers, one bonytail and more then 53,000 other native fish reach previously blocked habitat.
  • San Juan managers have stocked about 900 juvenile and adult razorback suckers in the San Juan River, and larval razorbacks have been found in the river for the last six years, a sign that previously stocked fish are surviving and spawning.
  • Non-native fish compete for food and space, and prey on endangered fish, eating their eggs and young. Program biologists have tried to minimize or relocate some non-native species, including northern pike, channel catfish and smallmouth bass. While non-native fish remain a problem throughout the Colorado River basin, the Upper Colorado recovery program is specifically targeting non-native fish in the Yampa River.

What's Next?
In the San Juan River Basin, program managers are studying past stocking efforts, trying to identify methods with the highest survival rates for stocked fish. They're also using a new model to evaluate river flows in the basin, which could help them better manage fish populations. In addition, they are looking at projects such as construction of fish screens to keep endangered fish out of canals and other diversions.

In the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, what remains a challenge Kantola says, is acquiring in-stream flow rights from the state, in part because of the unpredictability of the flows. Instead, the program will continue to focus on agreements, like the ones with Grand Valley irrigators and Ruedi Reservoir managers, to keep water in the river.

‘Any water that stays in the upper (Colorado River) basin is good for the fish,’ Kantola says. ❑

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