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HINSDALE COUNTY — Small-scale electric solar power is providing the Colorado Division of Wildlife a unique tool for a variety of wildlife management tasks.
In southwest Colorado, two water aeration systems powered by photovoltaic panels are helping to keep trout alive at a reservoir. At other isolated locations, solar facilities are being used to operate well pumps to provide water for species of concern. By using photovoltaic solar panels the DOW can deliver power to remote areas where electricity is unavailable or very expensive.
At Road Canyon Reservoir in eastern Hinsdale County, two aeration systems powered by photovoltaic panels were installed in mid-November. The reservoir is quite shallow and can become stagnant after water stops flowing into the impoundment in the fall. When oxygen runs low, the fish in the reservoir die.
Since the 1960s the DOW has used an aeration machine powered from an electric line to stir up the water in the reservoir that’s located off U.S. Forest Service Road 520. But recently electricity costs spiked to $8,000 per year, so the DOW cast about for a less expensive solution.
Mineral County officials wanted to keep the aerator running because the reservoir is a popular spot for tourists. At the encouragement of the DOW, county officials applied for a “Fishing is Fun” grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The DOW contacted a North Dakota company, SolarBee International, which builds specialized solar pump equipment.
The equipment and installation cost $80,800. The grant from the federal government totaled $57,000, and Mineral County matched it with $23,800.
The two floating solar-powered machines can move 10,000 gallons of water per minute, explained Brent Woodward, district wildlife manager in the Creede area.
“Theses pumps do a much better job of aeration than the old pump and they don’t need power from the electric grid,” Woodward said.
The floating pumps, each powered by three photovoltaic panels, pull low-oxygen water from the bottom of the reservoir to mix with water at the surface that is high in oxygen. Each pump impacts an area of about 35 surface acres on the 160-acre reservoir. Because the water is pulled from the bottom there is no surface disturbance. The machines also are equipped with batteries that enable operations to continue for 72 hours without sunshine.
During winter, ice could form near the machines but it will be thin. Ice fishers are warned to stay well away from the floats. During the summer, boaters also are asked to stay at least 50 yards from the machines.
In three other remote areas in southwest Colorado where electricity is unavailable, solar-powered water pumps are pulling water from wells and helping with the effort to bolster the populations of Gunnison Sage-grouse. DOW biologists in Gunnison, San Miguel and Dolores counties developed these small well projects where natural sources of surface water are lacking. By putting water on the ground in sage grouse habitat, small wet meadows are formed.
For the hardy sage grouse, a little water goes a long way. While grouse spend much of their time in sagebrush, they need access to moist meadows that provide rich sources of fresh vegetation and insects. These meadows, even those small in size, are especially important to young birds because they must start eating within 18 hours of hatching.
The wet meadows also are utilized by a wide variety of other wildlife species, from big game to song birds to amphibians.
On Bureau of Land Management property in western San Miguel County, the DOW is working in cooperation with a local rancher to provide water to desert bighorn sheep. After a windmill pump fell into disrepair, the DOW shared costs with the rancher to install a solar-powered pump at the location.
“These photovoltaic systems are very helpful and low cost,” said Jim Garner, a wildlife conservation biologist from Montrose. “There’s no way we could afford to get regular sources of electricity to these sites.”