Dropping river could mean danger for fish
August 1, 2000
Routt County — The amount of water in the Yampa River has plummeted below normal, to levels that could prove dangerous to fish.
On Tuesday, the river was running at 118 cubic feet per second through Steamboat Springs. That’s well below the 10-year 165-cfs average for this time of the year. Tuesday’s reading was actually an improvement from Monday, when the river was running around 112 cfs, according to statistics from the U.S. Geological Survey.
At the beginning of July, the river was running at 250 cfs.
“Unless we get some rain, it’s going to get lower,” Colorado Division of Wildlife fisheries biologist Bill Elmblad said.
Though it isn’t an emergency yet, as the river gets lower and lower, it can cause some problems for aquatic life, Elmblad said.
A shallow river and low velocity makes it easier for the sun to warm the water. That enables natural bacteria to grow faster, which can cause disease in fish most commonly furunculosis.
“That manifests itself as sores on the side of the fish,” Elmblad said.
After a while, the disease can wear down a fish’s immune system and cause death.
If the temperature rises too high, it also can kill fish, he said.
Duncan Draper, vice president of Yampa Valley Fly Fishers, said the Yampa River’s temperature is around 61 degrees. If it gets up to 68 or 70 degrees, fish will begin getting stressed, he said.
Lower water levels also make the river narrower, Elmblad said. When that happens, less substrate will be generated, which means the production of insects a major part of a river fish’s diet will be curbed.
Furthermore, Draper is worried that algae build up could be lethal to the fish. Warm water and slow flows cause the algae to grow more rapidly. When that happens, the organism uses up the oxygen in the water to live. That’s less oxygen for the fish, Draper said.
Elmblad said that is a problem, but usually in lakes, not rivers.
Draper recently asked John Fetcher at the Upper Yampa Valley Water Conservancy District if there is any way that some water could be released from Stagecoach Reservoir to flush out the river.
“What we’re trying to do is get them to release 200 to 300 cfs from Stagecoach,” Draper said.
That water would then run into Lake Catamount and from there go into the river. All of that would happen for a couple hours in the middle of the night, Draper said.
Draper said Fetcher laughed at him at first, but then considered the idea.
Fetcher couldn’t be reached for comment.
Tom Sharp, vice president the Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District Board, said that releasing that amount of water from Stagecoach would be a difficult process.
Also, after going over a contract the district has with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., which has interest in the water in Stagecoach, he said releasing the water would not be is not the district’s decision.
“We would have to propose it to Tri-State,” Sharp said.
Plus, no more than 50 cfs can be released at one time, according to the contract, Sharp said.
When the reservoir was first built, officials were allowed to release 2,000 acre feet of water a year for river-health purposes. But now it’s strictly Tri-State’s call, Sharp said.
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