The federal government hopes to rely exclusively on water from an expanded Elkhead Reservoir near Craig to augment Yampa River flows for the protection of endangered fish.
Gerry Roehm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told an audience of about 20 people Tuesday night that even in nondrought years, late summer flows in the Yampa River downstream from Craig aren't sufficient to support the recovery of endangered native fish such as the Colorado pikeminnow and the bonytail.
Roehm is a biologist responsible for preparing the recently released environmental assessment for the "Management Plan for Endangered Fishes in the Yampa." The plan looks at ways to preserve the endangered humpback chub and razorback sucker as well as the two other species.
Roehm told his Steamboat Springs audience that research shows healthy fish populations require typical baseline flows of 93 cubic feet per second in the lower Yampa to be healthy. The flow in the Yampa at Maybell, west of Craig on Tuesday was 55 cubic feet per second.
The expansion of Elkhead Reservoir is in the planning stages. Roehm's analysis suggests the reservoir near Craig is the best choice for boosting the flow in the lower Yampa in late summer.
"It will go below 93 cfs before we start augmenting, and it will go above 93 cfs before we stop," Roehm said of plans to pull up to 7,000 acre feet of water out of the reservoir annually.
Roehm evaluated 14 different alternatives for augmenting the flow in the Yampa to protect the fish. He scored each alternative on such factors as impacts on agriculture, feasibility, cost and impacts on parks and recreation.
The tentative plan to rely on Elkhead Reservoir would remove Steamboat Lake, a popular state park, from its current role in augmenting flows for the fish, Roehm said. Up to 2,000 acre feet is released annually from Steamboat Lake to boost instream flows in the Yampa.
"We were told by Colorado State Parks that Steamboat Lake was their highest and most sensitive priority (in the region)," Roehm said.
Restrictions on releases from Steamboat Lake make it less than ideal for the fish recovery program, Roehm said. Arrangements prohibit taking more than 25 cfs out of Steamboat Lake before Aug. 15, Roehm said. There also are restrictions on how much the lake elevation can be reduced before Sept. 15.
Even if water is taken from Elkhead in the future, the 2,000 acre feet in the reservoir devoted to fish and wildlife would remain in place as a backup source, Roehm said.
Plans call for an additional 12,000 acre feet of storage in Elkhead, with up to 5,000 acre feet devoted to flow augmentation for the Yampa. In addition, Roehm recommends leasing up to 2,000 acre feet per year at $40 per acre foot from the balance of 7,000 acre feet intended for human use. The lease would run for 20 years.
Roehm's analysis of stream augmentation ruled out Stillwater and Yamcolo reservoirs at the headwaters of the Yampa because their physical distance from the lower Yampa results in more water loss in transit.
The environmental assessment is not final, and members of the public have until Aug. 31 to send written comments to Roehm at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, P.O. Box 25486, DFC Denver, CO 80225.