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Anglers: Too much water in the Fryingpan for fishing

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart/The Aspen Times
ALL |

BASALT – The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is taking heat over its operations in the Fryingpan Valley this summer.

The Basalt town government, Ruedi Water and Power Authority, and fishing guides want a detailed review and explanation of the reclamation bureau’s releases from Ruedi Reservoir. The releases created water levels that were too high for fishing in the gold-medal trout habitat of the Fryingpan River from late July to early September. The water level in Ruedi dropped too low to allow use of the Aspen Yacht Club docks on Labor Day weekend.

“In short, the six weeks between approximately July 26 and Sept. 6 was a disaster for water-related recreation in the Fryingpan Valley,” says a letter from Basalt and the Ruedi Water and Power Authority. The latter entity operates a small hyrdo-electric project at the reservoir and closely monitors Ruedi water issues for local governments.

The letter was released to the public at a Basalt Town Council meeting Tuesday night. The Bureau of Reclamation office in Loveland, which manages Ruedi releases, was closed for Veterans Day so no immediate reaction was available.

Mark Fuller, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said the releases were handled differently this year than over the last decade or so. The flow in the Fryingpan River is generally maintained at 250 cubic feet per second during summer months. It has rarely exceeded 300 cfs during summers and if it did, it was only for a day or two, he said.

This year the flow in the Fryingpan topped 250 cfs the week of July 29 and kept climbing. It topped 400 cfs by Aug. 12 and 500 cfs by Aug. 19. Flows didn’t drop below 250 cfs until the week of Sept. 9.

Flows above 250 cfs make most of the Fryingpan River inaccessible for anglers.

“This meant that fly-fishing in the Fryingpan River was essentially impossible during the entire month of August, and that fishing was futile in the few spots where the river could be safely accessed,” the letter to the bureau says.

The issue goes well beyond frustrations of wealthy tourists who cannot catch fat fish. Flyfishing on the Fryingpan attracts anglers from throughout the state, region, nation and even overseas. Basalt’s economy was already wounded this summer by the recession. Town officials suspect poor fishing conditions contributed to plummeting sales tax revenues.

Warwick Mowbray of Frying Pan Anglers Inc., a fly shop in Basalt, laid out some of the broader economic impacts of water management in a separate letter to the Bureau of Reclamation.

“Basalt is very dependent upon the fishing industry for much of its economic life,” Mowbray wrote. “Obviously the two fly shops in town are 100 percent dependent on it. These shops support a lot of guides and their families.

“But in addition other businesses affected will include accommodation, restaurants, supermarkets and the businesses which enjoy a derivative effect from tourists in town,” Mawbray wrote.

While the high quality of fishing attracts people to Basalt year-round, the busiest time is from the end of runoff in early July until late September. “So any action which has a significant negative impact on business during [those] 12 weeks magnifies the negative effect on businesses for the whole year,” Mowbray said.

Bruce Gabow has lived along the Fryingpan River for 35 years and said this was the first summer the flow has exceeded 500 cfs after spring runoff. He can attest to the effect it had on fishing even though he’s not an angler. “They were not there at all,” he said.

He quizzed reclamation officials about the flow and was told a “perfect storm” of circumstances affected the releases. Ruedi is one of a handful of reservoirs used to meet the demands of downstream users who purchase water. A variety of factors affected releases this summer when there were “calls” for water.

There was a brief shutdown of the Shoshone Power Plant on the Colorado River, which affected water required from Ruedi; there was a delay in declaring a surplus of water from Green Mountain Reservoir, requiring more water releases from Ruedi while Green Mountain couldn’t answer the calls; and there was the usual contribution by Ruedi to a program to benefit endangered fish species on the Colorado River east of Grand Junction.

The reaction of the federal agency to concerns in the Fryingpan Valley have been frustrating Gabow for years. Officials hold the necessary public hearings to collect input and they act concerned about the points raised by local residents, Gabow said, but they don’t alter their operations.

“They do whatever they want,” he said. “They’re not really accountable to anyone here. They’re the government.”

Gabow said last summer’s issues hint at a greater problem facing the Fryingpan Valley. If available water from Ruedi is purchased – one possibility is to feed oil shale operations in western Garfield County – then summer flows in the river could regularly exceed levels that accommodate fishing.

“It’s kind of a scary scenario,” Gabow said.

Basalt and the Ruedi Water and Power Authority believe the reclamation bureau can cure the operational ills of last summer. “We’re looking at this as hopefully a one-year deal,” Fuller said.

Just in case, the letter from Basalt and the authority was sent to all of the Roaring Fork Valley’s representatives in the state Legislature and U.S. Congress.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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