DOW concerns delay Elkhead agreement, expansion

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Late-breaking concerns from the Colorado Division of Wildlife caused the Craig City Council to table one agreement concerning the expansion of Elkhead Reservoir and could delay construction by nearly a year.

Dan Birch, representative of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, asked the Craig City Council Tuesday night to hold off on approving one of two agreements concerning the reservoir's expansion after receiving a memo from the Colorado Department of Law

that morning.

"This issue has come up rather late in the game by even their own admission," Birch told the council.

The concerns expressed in the memo deal exclusively with the non-native fish that could be released into the Yampa River as the reservoir is drained for construction.

In the memo, the Department of Law cited technical problems as the reason for the lateness of its request.

Through the Department of Law, the DOW asked the river district to amend one of its agreements with the city to include language giving the DOW more input and power to mitigate the numbers of non-native fish that escape into the river system.

The DOW is currently working to remove non-native pike from the river to protect the habitat of four endangered fish living in the Yampa River.

Birch said construction plans were modified to allow some water to remain in the reservoir -- the conservation pool -- as both a back-up supply for the city and to keep fish currently in the reservoir alive. But Birch said there is a chance many would get into the river as the reservoir is drained.

"It's a temporary problem," Birch said. "How much effort are we willing to go to keep the fish in the reservoir? These fish are already in the river."

The DOW, while stating the expansion project is an important one, asked that language be added to one agreement that forces the river district and city to coordinate with the DOW to control water releases from the reservoir to allow officials to capture fish escaping from the reservoir outlet.

Another amendment would allow the DOW to work with other groups to control what happens to the fish in the reservoir. Options suggested by the DOW include allowing fish to remain in the reservoir, removal to another water source or killing them with a chemical treatment.

"The river district and Craig shall cooperate with DOW to execute any fish disposition plan requiring removal or elimination of the fish population," is listed in the memo as another suggested amendment to the agreement. "The cooperation will include facilitating and maintaining access to and from the (conservation pool) and regulating reservoir outlet flow as needed to conduct water treatment protocols."

Birch said neither the river district nor city officials, including City Manager Jim Ferree, were comfortable with the proposed amendments.

"They're proposing an agreement to agree later about this issues," Birch said. "We have problems with that."

One problem, he said, is that dealing with the fish is a river district problem, not the city's but, because the city owns the reservoir, the DOW and Department of Law disagree.

"It's just this issue with fish and it doesn't really have anything to do with us," Ferree said.

Birch said the river district expected this issue to come up, but is not happy about its timing.

He suggested the council table the agreement until after a July 28 stakeholders workshop to hash out details of a plan to deal with the non-native fish.

Councilor Bill Johnston said he was concerned with proposed language that put removing or killing the fish as an option.

"They keep referring to either saving them or eliminating them and that makes me uncomfortable," he said. "The fish are a recreational feature of the reservoir."

Birch said the idea of removing or killing the popular sport fish makes many people uncomfortable and he expects there to be substantial protest from recreation enthusiasts at the July meeting.

Regardless, he expects the issue to push back the mid-2004 start of construction to early 2005.

The city, under protest from audience member Red Courtner, did vote unanimously to sign what is called the "Craig II Agreement."

The Craig II Agreement outlines the ownership of the additional 11,751 acre feet of water gained by expanding the reservoir, management of the reservoir and how the river district will provide the city with an alternative water supply while the reservoir is drained.

The city has never released water from its storage at Elkhead and even after seeing worst-case-scenario models, doesn't expect to, but wanted some reassurance that if there was a need for additional water during construction, it would be available.

The city currently has access to 1,670 acre-feet of the water it owns the reservoir. The expansion will give the city access to nearly a 3,000 acre-foot conservation pool -- water below the reservoir's outlet that the city would have only had access to by pumping. During construction, that water will remain in the reservoir and pumping equipment will be on site. Should the city need access to it, the river district is prepared to pump it out of the reservoir -- at its own expense -- into the river for the city's use.

That plan of augmentation met the standards of all seven council members, but apparently not Craig resident Courtner, who recommended the agreement not be signed until a better augmentation plan was submitted that met the needs of other river users.

City officials explained that other river users must have their own plans in place to deal with drought conditions and low river flow and that the city, with this agreement, was concerned only with obtaining the water it owned for the use of city residents.

Other portions of the agreement outline the city's continued ownership of all easements and right-of-way permits it currently has and puts all fee lands, rights-of-way and easements associated with the enlargement in the hands of the river district. They will share ownership of the new spillway, dam and outlet.

The river district will be responsible for all the costs incurred in the enlargement process including engineering, construction and land acquisition.

After the reservoir is enlarged, the city will be the lead entity in planning for and maintaining recreational facilities and activities. The city currently contracts with Colorado State Parks to take this responsibility and plans to continue doing so.

The agreement also gives the city right of first refusal on and additional 1,000 acre feet of water generated through the expansion.

The agreement is for 75 years and may be renewed for another 75 years once that term is up.

Councilor Jones, who has worked extensively with water and endangered fish issues, said the agreement was a good one and urged council members to vote in favor of signing it.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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