Possible Lake Avery water releases for fish and river habitat habit

MEEKER | As they did in 2012, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is considering releasing some of its water right holdings in Lake Avery to provide some “fish saving” relief to the White River. At a meeting in Meeker July 9, CPW discussed the release possibilities with healthy river/healthy fish advocates and area irrigators.

Due to the low flows, dry conditions and extreme heat, higher water temperatures in the White River are nearing danger levels for cold-water fish. CPW officials have been encouraging anglers to fish in the early morning, when water temperatures are cooler and less stressful to fish. Last Friday, CPW, out of Grand Junction, asked for voluntary fishing closures on western Colorado rivers due to the high water temperatures and low flows.

CPW Area Wildlife Manager Bill de Vergie said before the meeting, “It’s important that ranchers, landowners, ditch users, fishing guides and fishing ranch managers, anglers, and other members of the public work together to protect our fishery and our river.”

CPW and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) entered into a water lease agreement in 2012. The agreement allows the partial release of CPW’s water stored in Lake Avery to help meet minimum instream flow needs of 200 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the County Road 4 (Wakara) bridge. Users at Lake Avery would see declining water levels in the lake whenever any releases are initiated. deVergie said CPW would give at least 48 hours notice prior to any releases.

In 2012, the lake level at Avery dropped about six feet as 1300 acre-feet out of the 7600 acre-foot storage capacity reservoir was used. Water released comes from the bottom of the reservoir, is relatively cold, and able to be quickly oxygenated. Releases this year could use twice as many acre-feet from the reservoir and drop the lake level up to 14 feet.

“If we do make releases from Avery (a.k.a. Big Beaver Reservoir), we will ask water diverters to avoid taking the additional water and instead leave it in the river to give the fish and river habitat a chance,” said de Vergie. “We all know how important this river is to our economy, and we expect that people will comply to ensure the river continues to be a destination fishery.”

The meeting was attended by local water users including ditch operators and users Don Hilkey, Tad Edwards, Wayne Johnson, Jerry Belland, Tel Gates, Joe Conrado, Chris Collins, Rob Raley, Forrest Nelson and Ben Rogers. CPW employees at the meeting included water resource specialist David Graf of Grand Junction, instream flow coordinator Jay Skinner, Katie Birch from Denver, aquatic specialist Melynda May, wildlife managers Bailey Franklin and Ross McGee, fisheries specialist Tory Eyre and Lori Martin, senior Northwest Region aquatic biologist. Erin Light, the Division 6 water engineer with the Division of Water Resources in Steamboat Springs, was also in attendance.

Graf explained that new legislation since 2002 now allows CPW and similar entities to enter into agreements allowing use of their lake level water rights to assist in river flow three times in every 10 years. The current agreement was signed in 2011 and this would be the second time since then that such use for stream-flow use was made.

River advocates attending included Shawn Welder, Bob Dorsett of Colorado River Watch, Roy Wedding and Bob Regulski. Upriver fishing ranch interests were noticeably absent from the meeting. One such individual told the Herald Times after the meeting that neither he nor his manager had heard anything about the meeting beforehand.

Graf told the meeting that his agency is evaluating how their water rights statewide might be better used to improve difficult situations like the White River now faces which might differ, to varying degrees, from the related water right decrees.

Dorsett cautioned the group not to think of this as an unusual circumstance, that current data trends are for these low flows to be more the norm. This concern evoked some discussion about needing more water storage in the valley, which could possibly include enlarging Lake Avery.

Local diverters are anxious to avoid any call on the river. Light reinforced concern that any flows cannot really be legally protected unless the whole river is under a call for administration by the Division of Water Resources. Cooperation between irrigators and other users in times of low water is critical and, in the past, has prevented a call. Several irrigators indicated how well retired water commissioner Bill Dunham had facilitated cooperation between water users. Light said she was confident that the current commissioner, Shanna Lewis, would work as well with diverters and that she had her blessings to do so.

Skinner commented that in the past there’s been great community participation, that people “neighbored up and shepherded the [released] water on through.”

Johnson, a Miller Ditch irrigator, wondered why we were trying to save fish and habitat in the White River when there is so little public access to the river for fishing, to which de Vergie responded that the duty of CPW was to provide a viable fishery and to serve all members of the public, including those that avail themselves of fishing on the private ranches.

Lake Avery releases of 10 to 15 cfs in 2012 didn’t occur until Aug. 30 and continued until Oct. 3. That year, de Vergie said, we experienced some good rain in July that postponed the need to release Avery water until late August.

The threshold factors CPW said are critical for the fish are a flow of less than 200 cfs at the Wakara bridge, water temperatures above 70 degree Fahrenheit there, and dissolved oxygen levels of less than 5 ppm. These are the factors that will trigger releases.