Elkhead project targets needs of people, fish

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The $24 million expansion of Elkhead Reservoir holds the promise of more water for human consumption and endangered species.

The capacity of the reservoir, originally opened in 1974, is being expanded from 13,700 acre feet to about 25,700 acre feet. Of the additional 12,000 acre feet, 7,000 will be dedicated to protecting endangered fish from extremely low flows in summer and fall. Construction on the expansion began late last month.

The additional water storage for the fish equates to baseline streamflows of about 90 cubic feet per second from Craig through Maybell, where the river came close to drying up in the drought of 2002, Dan Birch said. He is the project development manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. His agency has embraced the concept of meeting the needs of endangered species in order to find acceptable ways of increasing water storage. The conservation district played a lead role in brokering 22 agreements needed to clear the way for the expansion. Stakeholders include the city of Craig, power companies, state and federal agencies and private property owners.

Biologist Bob Muth said it would not be a stretch to call expansion of the reservoir near Craig a model for meeting the needs of wildlife and human communities. The project could forestall the kind of crisis currently under way in Oregon's Klamath River Basin, where agriculture users are being denied water in order to meet habitat goals for salmon and waterfowl.

"I don't know of another project like it in the West," Muth said. "I think people here had enough foresight to realize, if we don't fix this, we're going to have a train wreck here, too."

Muth is director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Under the supervision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, his team is setting criteria for the re-establishment of viable populations of four native fish once common in the Yampa, Green and Colorado rivers.

The federal government has connected the ability of water developers to create more storage for human needs, to the fate of the Colorado pike minnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail.

However, there will be benefits for the Yampa Valley's human communities, as well. Of the 12,000 acre feet of additional storage in Elkhead when the reservoir refills in 2007, 5,000 acre feet will be devoted to human uses. The reservoir supplies domestic water for the city of Craig.

When the expansion is complete, the state park at the reservoir will offer expanded recreational facilities.

In addition, the storage for endangered fish in Elkhead leverages permission for the conservation district to pursue an additional 30,000 acre feet for human use in yet to be determined projects.

Peter Roessmann, an education specialist with the conservation district, said a high priority is meeting the Recovery Project's goal of returning 10,800 acre feet of water to a stretch of the Colorado river upstream from Grand Junction known as the "15 mile reach."

A storage project on the main stem of the Colorado is unlikely but smaller projects, are under consideration.

"A key issue for any type of water development project is, what do we need to do for the future," Roessmann said.

The cost of the Elkhead expansion is being shared by the conservation district and the endangered fish recovery program on a prorated basis.

Muth said the involvement of a diverse community group, the Yampa River Basin Partnership, was important in moving the expansion forward after 15 years of consideration.

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