A unique agreement is providing some help to endangered fish in the Colorado River locally in a year when they need any extra help they can get.
The five-year deal between the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association bolsters hydroelectric power generation at the historic Grand Valley Power Plant. It also results in extra water in a 15-mile stretch of river just downstream where water levels can fall to particularly low levels in a dry year such as this one.
The agreement is in its second year and was first invoked last year, when the Colorado Water Trust arranged for the release of some 327 acre-feet of water from Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt later in the summer to augment flows in that stretch. This year, water is being delivered under the deal earlier due to drought conditions.
Starting today, 877 acre-feet of water is to be released from Ruedi Reservoir over more than 17 days to augment flows in what’s formally known as the 15-Mile Reach while also increasing power generation at the plant.
Kate Ryan, senior staff attorney for the trust, said the release will boost flows by about 25 cubic feet per second. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has been having other water released from reservoirs to supplement flows in the stretch.
“This year flows on the river are particularly low. It just dried out really quickly,” Ryan said.
There are four endangered fish — the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker — in the Colorado River and its tributaries in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. Low flows in the 15-mile stretch can leave some of them more vulnerable to predation, reduce their habitat and food supply and have other impacts.
The river stretch is between where water is diverted for irrigation in the Grand Valley and is replenished where the Gunnison River meets the Colorado River.
Flows in the Palisade area below the diversion Friday were 645 cubic feet per second, compared to a long-term median of 1,390 cfs for July 31, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.
The deal involving the Colorado Water Trust is designed to boost flows at times when those extra flows are needed for the fish and the power plant also isn’t able to operate at full capacity because its associated water rights don’t provide sufficient flows. The deal lets the trust help the fish because the water ends up back in the river just above the 15-Mile Reach, so it’s not available for diversion by other water users before reaching the low-flowing river stretch.
Ryan said Orchard Mesa operates the power plant, and with the Grand Valley Water Users Association operates the diversion structures that moves the water involved.
In the case of the current extra water, the Colorado Water Trust is buying it from the Colorado River District. Sponsors including the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Coca-Cola and the Daniel K. Thorne Foundation are helping fund the project.
In addition, the Walton Family Foundation has provided a $425,000 grant that the trust has committed toward a planned rehabilitation project at the aging plant.
“Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association appreciate the Colorado Water Trust’s facilitation of this agreement — it benefits our two organizations at the Grand Valley Power Plant, and the many other water users who support flows through the 15-Mile Reach,” Mark Harris, general manager of Grand Valley Water Users Association, said in a news release.
Don Anderson, instream flow coordinator for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, said in the release that the additional water is especially welcome this year.
“Maintaining adequate flows for endangered fish through the 15-Mile Reach is possible only because of the extraordinary cooperation our recovery program enjoys from multiple partners and stakeholders. We are delighted to add the Colorado Water Trust to that mix of cooperators,” he said.
The deal also is helping boost flows on the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir closer to average, and cool waters in the Roaring Fork River below its confluence with the Fryingpan, which also helps fish.