Dam rebuilt to be fish and boater friendly

Once a fearsome diversion that forced boaters off the Gunnison River near the Cory bridge on Colorado Highway 65, this view of a rebuilt Hartland Dam is what now greets boaters heading downstream on the Gunnison River.

Anglers and recreational boaters headed down the Gunnison River from Paonia or the Pleasure Park have one less obstacle in their way.

Thanks to a multiple partnership among private and public interests, the once-formidable Hartland Diversion Dam just downstream of Colorado Highway 65 near Austin has been rebuilt and made native fish and boater friendly.

“We’re really excited about this,” said Kelli Hepler of the Delta County Tourism Board. “This gives boaters the opportunity to go all the way from Paonia to Grand Junction.”

That’s 68 miles of fishing and floating, Hepler noted, plus it opens the river to allow movement of native river fish, such as roundtail chub, bluehead sucker and flannelmouth sucker, into historic habitat.

The rebuilt dam lets historic water users access to their irrigation water while restoring river habitat, said Cary Denison, Gunnison Basin Projects coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

The reconstruction “expands the river available to anglers but the main intention is to protect native river fish in the Gunnison River and reconnect two populations,” Denison said.

“That was what really drove the project but in doing so it also removed a serious hazard to boaters,” Denison said.

He pointed out that most of the river bank from Cory down to Delta is private land, which forced boaters to trespass when they left the river to avoid the dam that was built in 1881.

“Now, boaters can stay on the river all the way from below Paonia Dam all the way to Confluence Park, Whitewater or Grand Junction,” he said.

Hepler said she’s already heard from boaters running through the new Hartland Dam, and Denison said he’s made the trip several times himself.

The new diversion structure consists of 272 concrete domes set in bedrock. The river curls around the domes and breaks up into smaller currents to allow fish passage up and down stream.

Boaters use a navigable channel running between two rows of grouted boulders next to the main fish passage.

In addition to protecting native fishes, Denison said the Hartland Dam project illustrates the role Trout Unlimited is playing in bringing together recreational water users and traditional water communities, including ranchers and farmers.

“Our plans are to make it easier for water users to always have access to their water,” he said.  “We want to make it a win-win for the water users and the those who use the river for recreation.”


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