City paid to analyze cost, effectiveness of fish screen

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Providing a habitat for endangered fish in Moffat County is one of the top priorities of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Yampa River is where these offices want to see the four endangered species live, but non-native northern pike and small-mouth bass invade their habitat and destroy the fish.

The interim solution is to remove pike from the Yampa River and place them in Elkhead Reservoir, but as waters rise, the pike can escape through the spillway and make their way back to the river.

To prevent this from happening in this and other reservoirs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) devised a fish screen.

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 channels flow 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 that the federal government might force the city to place a screen in Elkhead Reservoir, and that the city would bear the cost, city officials met with USFWS officials.

"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 operation and maintenance of the screen," City Manager Jim Ferree said.

It is too early to decide operation and maintenance responsibilities, USFWS officials said, but they did verbally reassure city representatives the USFWS would bear the cost of the screen and its installation.

Nothing has been put in writing.

No one knows what the cost of the screen will be, so the Bureau of Reclamation has charged the city of Craig with finding out.

The Bureau gave the city $28,500 to contract with Ayres and Associates, the team who engineered the fish screen at Highline Lake, to determine the cost and feasibility of installing a fish screen at Elkhead Reservoir.

The city plans to participate because it has a stake in the future of the reservoir. The city does not own Elkhead Reservoir, but is in the middle of a land-exchange deal with the Colorado Division of Wildlife for the property. As part of the deal, the city is responsible for upgrades to the reservoir, including repairs to the spillway. The installation of a fish screen might change the scope of those renovations.

Ayres and Associates is the same engineering firm the city contracted with to design improvements to the spillway, outlet works and spilling basing of Elkhead Reservoir.

"We don't want to be out there doing improvements if we have to screen to provide space for non-native fish," Ferree said.

But plans are vague. Even the USFWS isn't sure about the feasibility of installing the screen in Elkhead.

"We'd like to get the improvements moving along, so we can take over ownership," City Public Works Director Bill Early said.

The screen used at Highline Lake is designed from a material called Dynema that is five times stronger than the Kevlar used in bulletproof vests. It was made with quarter-inch mesh openings so it wouldn't impede 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.

Officials are still evaluating the effectiveness of the net, but are positive about its potential.

Pat Martinez, an aquatic researcher for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said the net is the best and cheapest way to keep non-native fish away from the habitat of endangered species.

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

Ayres and Associates have agreed to perform the work and plan to begin Aug. 1. The analysis will take nearly six months to complete.

Elkhead Reservoir is a 13,800 acre-foot facility off a tributary of the Yampa River. The city of Craig owns several of its water rights. A group called the Yampa Participants, which includes Tri-State Generation and Transmission, also own a portion of the water rights.

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