The Dolores River between Naturita and Gateway, Colorado during a year of higher flows. Photo from July, 2019
The Dolores River between Naturita and Gateway, Colorado during a year of higher flows. Photo from July, 2019

Fish and wildlife leaders say they have their eye on potential closures of the Animas and San Juan rivers as well.

This story was originally published in the Colorado Sun

Devastating drought and disappearing runoff in far southwestern Colorado have prompted state officials to seek voluntary fishing restrictions on the Dolores River for the first time, and fish and wildlife leaders say they have their eye on potential closures of the Animas and San Juan rivers as well.

Intense rain over the weekend – generating eye-opening but perhaps deceptive coverage of flash floods and mudslides – are not nearly enough to bring Colorado’s Western Slope out of a 20-year drought that has drained rivers and desiccated pastures.

Conservation groups, meanwhile, say they are also worried about low river levels in more visible, main-stem branches of waterways usually popular with anglers and recreators in July, including the Colorado River.

“The section of the river from Pumphouse down sees a lot of recreational traffic, rafting and fishing both, and that part of the river’s running really low right now and temperatures are high,” said Drew Peternell, director of the Colorado water program for Trout Unlimited.

Voluntary fishing closures on prime stretches of the Colorado are “imminent,” too, as soon as state weather warms up as expected in a few days, said Kendall Bakich, aquatic biologist for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division in the Glenwood Springs area. Portions of the Colorado are seeing water temperatures above 70 degrees and related fish stress a month earlier than in a usual year, Bakich said.

Moreover, sediment from the heavy rains and mudslides that make some Front Range residents hear “drought relief” are actually making things harder on trout and other species, Bakich said. The murky water makes it harder for them to find food.

Even if you release a caught trout and it survives, Bakich said, this year’s far earlier than normal heat stresses are threatening the sperm and egg health in the species.

“They’re not going to have viable offspring after real stressful periods, and by adding that extra stress to the fish by angling for them, you’re increasing that likelihood of a longer term impact,” she said.

Bakich said she has worked the waters from Glenwood Springs upstream to State Bridge since 2007, and has not seen Colorado River temperatures rise this fast, this early.

The Animas River in Durango on June 26, 2021. According to USGS data, the flow rate was about 750 cubic feet per second that day. The historical average for that date is about 1,850 cfs.

Despite some rain this week, many areas of Colorado west of the Continental Divide are suffering through cumulative impacts of what climatologists describe as a 20-year drought in the high desert country.

Ranchers are seeking alternate pasture and culling herds. Fruit orchards south and east of Grand Mesa predict smaller crops. Reservoir managers told the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and other growers they will see only 10% of their usual water allotment.

Washington Post analysis of long-term temperature records shows areas around Meeker and Delta with some of the most severe warming trends in North America. Those areas have warmed more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit since records began in 1895, or double the global average.

The long-term trend has worsened in southwestern Colorado this year. Poor snowpack and runoff in the drought year of 2018 left resources depleted, and was repeated this spring, said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Durango. What little runoff there was soaked into brittle ground before it hit McPhee Reservoir and river basins, White said.

Flow in the Dolores River is controlled almost completely by McPhee’s dam. Normally at this time of year, the stream is running at 60 to 80 cubic feet per second. Last week, it ran at 9 cfs, White said. Managers believe it will be down to 5 cfs later in the summer, barely a trickle in the wide stream bed.

So Parks and Wildlife is asking Dolores anglers to stop fishing by noon each day. Water comes out the bottom of McPhee at a chilly, trout-friendly 45 degrees, White said. In typical weather, anglers have a few miles of river to work below the dam before the water heats up to 75 degrees, a temperature band that starts weakening fish survival rates. Those 75-degree stretches have moved much closer to the dam this summer, he said.

The same is happening on the Animas and San Juan rivers in the southwest corner of the state, and voluntary closures are close on the horizon there, White said.

“We anticipate probably asking anglers to refrain from fishing at some point later in the summer if water temperatures start to get high, which we do anticipate this year,” he said.

The Colorado River sections could see some relief, from engineering if not from the weather.

Wildlife and conservation leaders said they are in talks with Front Range water diverters, who have rights to send Western Slope river water under the Continental Divide for urban and suburban household water, to release more flow west from their healthy reservoirs on the Colorado and its tributaries.

The South Platte River Basin, for example, was one of the few in Colorado that received average or above average snowpack and runoff from the winter, and then enjoyed part of the Front Range spring rains. Denver Water, the largest user and distributor in the state, relies on that basin to fill its reservoirs, adding in Western Slope water from Colorado River tributaries like  the Blue and Fraser Rivers.

“The east side of the state is very wet this year, there’s a lot of water over there. It is the exact opposite here,” Bakich said, from Glenwood Springs. “Unfortunately for us, there’s still a lot of water going over to the east side.” 

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Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.