Steamboat Springs Every trout in the town section of the Yampa River can be found today in one 75-foot section of stream, jockeying for a little bit of the oxygenated water trickling into the Yampa from Fish Creek.
The fish are stacked up like bottles in a soda pop machine, and if things don't begin to change, the trout are in danger of dying. Already a few large fish have turned belly-up in the receding water.
"There are a thousand fish in there right now," Kevin Rogers said. He is a fisheries biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Rogers is convinced some of the trout and whitefish have swum several miles to pump some of the cooler water of Fish Creek through their gills.
"All of the fish from downstream are packed in there seeking that thermal refuge," Rogers said.
The flow in the Yampa measured a meager 12 cubic feet per second Friday morning. That compares to a normal flow of just more than 200 cfs on this date. However, the critical measurement isn't the volume of water, but its temperature. The cooler the water, the more dissolved oxygen it contains.
The dissolved oxygen level in parts of the Yampa near Steamboat right now is 4.4 parts per million, Rogers said.
"A D.O. level of 4 is lethal at these temperatures," he added.
DOW spokesman Todd Malmsbury said the fish in the Yampa aren't alone in their plight. And the DOW doesn't have the resources to run around Colorado buying water rights to save fish, even if anyone was willing to part with the precious wet stuff.
"This is such a severe circumstance, we're very concerned," Malmsbury said. "People need to realize that throughout Colorado, there will be major impacts on fisheries. Fish will die. But some will survive, and it's a renewable resource."
Despite the grim outlook, Roger is cautiously optimistic that many of the fish can make it through the summer and fall. Downstream power plants near Hayden and Craig just put out a call on stored water they own in Stagecoach Reservoir, he said. The water coming out of Stagecoach was at record-low levels last week, but the releases are being ramped up by 35 to 45 cfs this weekend.
That water cannot be taken out of the river until it has reached its destination, and although it will warm significantly before it passes through Lake Catamount and makes its way to Steamboat, it offers some hope.
"It's so little flow, it's going to warm up quickly in that big river bed," Rogers said.
The best opportunity for the trout would be a little more water coming down Fish Creek out of Fish Creek Reservoir, Rogers said.
"We realistically have a shot at saving a larger percentage of fish if we can get some more flow in (Fish Creek)," Rogers said.
He intends to explore that possibility with the managers of the reservoir that provides most of Steamboat's water for municipal use. But they didn't offer much hope this week.
There is a limited supply of water in Fish Creek Reservoir that is devoted to maintaining flows in the creek to protect fish populations. But the trout may already be getting all they are entitled to, said Bob Stoddard of the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District.
The water coming out of Fish Creek last week went through daily fluctuations but averaged about 2 cfs. At 76 degrees, it was really warmer than trout can tolerate well. Yet it was cooler and more oxygenated than the water in the main stem of the Yampa, Rogers said.
Fish Creek Reservoir is nearly full and municipal water supplies aren't really threatened this summer, but the district began drawing water out of the reservoir three weeks earlier than usual this summer.
"Right now we're releasing 6 cfs out of the reservoir and there is another 2-3 cfs of natural flow (in two other branches of Fish Creek)."
There are only two senior water rights on Fish Creek, that of the water district (which provides some flow to the Sheraton Golf Course) and that of rancher Jerry More, Stoddard said. Combined, they total 8.3 cfs.
More is entitled to 1 cfs. The district claims the remaining 7.3 cfs.
Stoddard said there is 200 acre-feet of water stored in Fish Creek Reservoir that is committed to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The intent is that the board would be able, in consultation with the DOW, to apportion that water as it sees fit to support fish populations downstream.
Assuming the water dedicated for fish was released at a rate of 2 cfs, it would be consumed at a rate of 4 acre-feet per day, Stoddard said. That means it would be enough for a 50-day supply.
The reality, Stoddard said, is that the 2 cfs currently going by the water filtration plant accounts for the district's obligation to the CWCB. That 2 cfs can be accounted for by the way the 8 filters at the filtration plant operate. At times, Stoddard said, they go into a "backwash" cycle that results in diverting water around the plant.
"We'd like for our releases to be more consistent," but the fact is they fluctuate throughout the day, he added.
Stoddard said the district would not be disposed to releasing extra water to help increase the trout's survival odds. Every bit of water the district can conserve in the reservoir this summer increases the odds the reservoir will fill once again next spring. For that reason, people who redouble their home water conservation efforts will not be increasing the chances the trout will survive.
"Our view is that without water, people don't live," Stoddard said. "It's our job to provide water for the people of Steamboat. That's our job."
Rogers and Malmsbury agree that trying to relocate the thousand fish stacked up at the mouth of Fish Creek is not an option. Malmsbury said the DOW has relocated some relatively rare species of native cutthroat from small streams this summer, but the scope of the problem statewide makes it impractical to do that on a large scale with large fish.
Rogers pointed out the trout in the Yampa River are deemed to have been exposed to whirling disease and moving them into uninfected streams is prohibited. Other streams are suffering like the Yampa, nearby ponds are too warm and most of the fish would not survive being relocated in their current condition anyway.
Malmsbury was philosophical about this summer's drought and the impact on trout in Colorado's rivers. For most of history there were no reservoirs to parcel out snowmelt, and native fishes adapted to drought cycles over thousands of years, he said.
"Fisheries are going to be affected, it's inevitable," Malmsbury said.
"But the Division is in a position to help get these populations restored."