City Council won't get lured into paying for fish screen

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A bulletproof net may save endangered Colorado fish, but it won't save the government money and the City of Craig doesn't plan to get caught when the bills are mailed.

With months to go before ownership of Elkhead Reservoir is officially transferred to the city, officials are working to make sure the city won't have to pay for the latest creation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) a screen used to keep non-native fish from entering the Yampa River and threatening any of the four endangered species living there.

The USFWS placed a screen in Highline Lake west of Grand Junction in August to test the theory that the screen will keep non-native fish in the reservoir separated from endangered species.

Because Elkhead Reservoir has channels flowing into the Yampa River, officials with the USFWS are considering it a site for a screen if the Highline Lake project is successful. Estimates range as high as $1 million for the cost of the screen and its installation. The screen at Highline Lake cost the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Program, a subsidiary of USFWS, $200,000.

Worried the federal government might force local officials to place a screen in Elkhead Reservoir and the city would foot the bill, city officials met with USFWS officials early this week to discuss options.

"We wanted to talk about plans for screening and to make sure the City of Craig would not be responsible for the cost of the screen or the operations and maintenance of the screen," City Manager Jim Ferree said.

It is too early to decide operations and maintenance responsibilities, USFWS officials said, but they did verbally reassure city representatives the USFWS would pay for the screen and its installation.

No one knows what that cost will be.

Because a screen in Elkhead Reservoir would be designed differently than the one in Highline Lake, the USFWS hired Ayres and Associates to design the screen and provide cost estimates. Ayres and Associates is the same engineering firm the city contracted to design improvements to the spillway, outlet works and spilling basin at Elkhead Reservoir.

The screen used at Highline Lake is designed from a material called Dynema that is five times stronger than Kevlar used in bulletproof vests. It was made with 1/4-inch mesh openings so it wouldn't stop water flow. It is able to flex with the surge of currents and changes in water depth so fish cannot swim over or under it.

Largemouth bass with snipped pelvic fins were released into the lake. Pat Martinez, an aquatic researcher for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, will check this spring to make sure no one-finned fish show up in the Colorado River a sign the net is doing its job.

Martinez said the net is the best and cheapest way to keep non-native fish away from the habitat of endangered species.

In the case of Northwest Colorado, the net will be used to protect fish such as the pike minnow (formerly squawfish), humpback chubb and razorback sucker from the pike. Removing pike completely from the area is an alternative sportsmen have balked at, saying the popular fish bring tourists to the area.

Once the net is in place, the USFWS will work from the Yampa River bridge on Colorado Highway 13 to capture pike and release them into Elkhead Reservoir.

Don Jones, a city councilor and member of the Yampa River Basin Partnership, doesn't believe moving the fish will impact sportsmen.

"I imagine if you latch onto a 20-pounder, you'd enjoy it anyplace," he said.

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