2021 Mid-Summer Report, Or A Tale Of Two Summers
Its the mid-point of summer 2021, and for the second year in a row its been memorable for all the wrong reasons. This year its not about an invisible virus or smoke from fires, but about water, or the lack of it. Last year was the busiest that anyone has ever seen on the Upper Colorado River. It
seemed like with everything in the cities closed, people flocked to the
mountains to do their recreating here. And a lot of those people bought
rafts, kayaks, duckies and SUPs. Boat ramps and their associated
parking areas were jammed beyond full. This year, its been
mostly…crickets. Fishermen have been mostly doing
their thing on rivers like the Eagle, the Roaring Fork and the Yampa,
which have had hydrographs that looked a bit more normal, if
over here on the "Lower Upper" Colorado River, the water has been low
and warm for a month. Guides have mostly stayed off of it, though the
same can't be said for the general public. The "greeting" message on my
shuttle phone line has been less than welcoming to prospective
We’ve had two subpar winter snowpacks in a row, and the effect is telling now that we are in the middle of a hot summer. Its
not just that the snowpack has been smaller the last two winters, its
also that they yield much less liquid gold into the watersheds than they
used to. With warmer springtime weather, more of that snow either
evaporates or is absorbed by the parched soil. Yesterday, the USGS water temperature gauge at Catamount on the Upper Colorado River reported 76 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a crazy number to wrap one’s head around. That is heated swimming pool territory. Trout may be able to swim faster than Michael Phelps, but not in water that warm. The
backstroke is not their preferred means of locomotion, but it seems
inevitable now that we’ll soon be seeing the pale bellies of trout here
soon, and not their well-camouflaged backs. The
ten mile stretch between Two Bridges and Catamount has become one of the
most popular fishing floats in the state of Colorado in its ten years
of existence. But its also wide and shallow, and the sun has a very
direct effect on it. There are deeper holes in the river above and below
for fish to find refuge in, but not there. Attached at the bottom will
be a link to the Catamount gauge, note how fast the sun warms the river
up each morning.
A month ago, water temperatures were high as well (though not as hot as they are now), and dozens of dead fish were seen one Sunday between Two Bridges and Catamount. Colorado Parks and Wildlife was getting ready to pull the trigger on a voluntary fishing moratorium then, but some cooler weather moved in and we had a mini-monsoon period, which temporarily delayed that. But a week or two of afternoon showers won’t break a twenty year drought. We’ve since settled back into hot, dry weather with more of the same in the near future. Things may worse this summer before they get better.
The river is flowing at 700 cfs as I write this. That’s a bit higher than it was in June, but for this date the mean flow should be more like twice that. Earlier in the spring the discrepancy was much greater. Lower water in the summer results not only in higher temperatures, but also an increase in the amounts of algae growing on the river bottom. That algae sucks dissolved oxygen out of the water, so for the trout it’s a one-two punch. Warm water (which they don’t like) combined with less oxygen (which they need). This is not a good time to be a trout on the Upper Colorado River.
Then, two weeks ago there was a new wrinkle that I didn’t see coming. We had a short, heavy rainstorm that caused lots of red mud to pour into the river between Pinball and Horse Creek. These events are not that usual, though they’ve become less common in the last couple years. When these mini-floods happen, the Colorado River usually lives up to its name for two or three days, then clears. The difference is that this time, two weeks later the lower river is still off-color, probably due to the lack of river flow to carry it all off. The river bottom from Pinball down is coated in a layer of thick, red sediment that is probably not a good thing for the macroinvertebrates that live there. Sometimes trout are referred to as being a “canary in a coalmine” as indicators of river health, but it’s bugs not fish that are really the early warning system. The insects go first, and then the fish because there’s nothing for them to eat (except each other). What the river needs now is a good, high flushing flow to clean that muck out, but that’s something that won't until next May the earliest. As dire as it looks now and for the rest of this summer, it’s actually the mud that I worry about more than the low water. It won’t be good for insects, and those repercussions may have a more lasting impact than whatever else happens to our other favorite aquatic creatures in the next two months.
I’ve been having lots of conversations regarding this situation with fishermen, guides, and my neighbors who live along the river. No one has ever seen the river look like this, especially this early in the summer. We are relative newbies here, having been here only 18 years. But my life is intimately interwoven and tied to the state of the river, more than most. Although guides have fishing the Eagle and Roaring Fork, this past 4th of July weekend there were more than a few knuckleheads at boat ramps carrying spinning rods. (The older I get, the harder it is not to say something).
Yesterday Colorado Parks and Wildlife made it official, implementing a voluntary fishing moratorium on the Colorado River between Kremmling and Rifle. I really wish that people could have fun outdoors on a river without having to hook (and kill) fish, especially in times like these when the fish are extremely stressed. Even though I make less money doing so, for the past two (low water) summers I’ve enjoyed taking scenic floaters more than fisherpeople. Every fish in this river is a wild fish, not born and raised on pellets in a fish factory. For some people, and I am one, the distinctions between native and wild and hatchery-raised are important. But for some, a trout is a trout. And that’s fine, because if someone spends their time holding a fishing rod instead of gaping slack-jawed at a glowing screen, that’s some kind of victory. In a year like this, if you absolutely must wet a line then the best place to do it is on a lake, fishing for trout raised in hatcheries who were stocked in those high cold lakes for that express purpose.
This river has its ups and downs, and always has. If you’ve been reading my email blasts for any time, you know that I’m more than happy to share when conditions are right. More often than not, things along the “Lower Upper” Colorado River are sublime. But right now, in the middle of July 2021, they are not. As a member of the Upper Colorado River Alternative Stakeholder Group, I realize that Front Range water providers are aware of the situation and doing what they can. The water that’s being held back now will be even more important come August and September if we don’t get some rain. As much as I’d like to see more water flowing past my backyard now, knowing that its being held up above is like money in the bank.
My hope is that as the flows in the Eagle diminish, levels in the Colorado will rise to satisfy the Shoshone water call. That
water right is a very senior 1,250 cfs, and if the Eagle is at 300 cfs,
then the Colorado would need to supply the other 950 cfs. The Eagle might get down to 200 cfs this summer, which means the Colorado would have to rise to 1050 cfs. If it stays clear and sunny that might not be enough to stave off fish kills, but its better than the 700 cfs we've got now.
The summer of 2021 will be a good one for everyone who likes fishing to find some deep, high lakes to do it in. Or target a warm water species that's not just barely hanging on like our trout are. Wild fish deserve our respect, and even if they’re not on the top of most people’s priority list, they need to be on the list somewhere. The dams in the upper basin of the Colorado River and its tributaries helped create the (usually) cold water trout fishery we all enjoy, and with balanced management they might help sustain it.
Even though hope is a poor strategy, I’ll still be hoping for summer rains, winter snows, and a big runoff next spring to clean it all away!