Elkhead Reservoir plan back on track

Colorado Division of Wildlife officials have decided to withdraw last-minute changes to an agreement between the city, the DOW and the Colorado River Water Conservation District that could have delayed construction for nearly a year.

The river district, partnering with the Recovery Implementation Program for Endangered Fishes of the Upper Colorado, has made plans to enlarge Elkhead Reservoir to increase its water storage capacity. The enlargement plan calls for most of the reservoir to be drained in 2004 and for construction to begin mid-year.

Part of the process is entering into agreements with the city of Craig -- the owner of the reservoir -- and several other stakeholders.

The river district presented two of those agreements to the city on July 8, but a decision on one was delayed because the DOW that morning expressed concerns that the agreement didn't outline how non-native fish would be kept from escaping into the Yampa River when the reservoir is drained. There, they invade the habitat and feed on endangered fish species.

"They hadn't really focused on details about what they would do with the fish in the ponds during construction and of course, the non-native species issue is controversial," DOW Director Russell George said.

Anglers want non-native fish protected for their value as sport fish while other groups believe the habitat of endangered fish should be protected from non-native invasions.

A 3,000 acre-foot conservation pool will be left in the reservoir during construction for emergency storage for the city and to keep non-native fish alive.

George withdrew the DOW's suggestions, leaving it to "good faith" that the river district will come up with a plan to keep non-native fish in the reservoir.

"I thought we were a little late in trying to insert changes in that agreement," George said. "It's clear to me the timing was terrible and there's still time to sort this out. Everyone agrees we need to resolve what we're going to do and how we're going to do it. The project needs to keep going and the issues will be managed in time somehow."

He will present the agreement to the Wildlife Commission Aug. 7 and will recommend its approval without the suggested changes.

"My presumption is they will approve it," George said.

Ray Tenney, senior water resources engineer with the river district, said the most viable option is installing a temporary fish screen to cover the water outlet during construction.

"We're trying to offer (the DOW) some alternatives," he said. "I believe there are technological solutions to containment and we're looking into those."

Installing the screen will become part of the construction and the cost will be borne by the river district. The design of the screen isn't complete, so the cost has not yet been determined, but Tenney said money would be taken from a construction contingency fund.

"A temporary screen was not included in the most recent cost estimate, but a contingency was estimated," he said. "We've been telling people for a long time that we'd do whatever was necessary as soon as they told us it was necessary."

The project is expected to cost $19.5 million. Of that, the river district will pay $10.8 million and the recovery program, $8.7 million.

If a screen is needed permanently, it will be paid for the by the Recovery Program, said Dan Birch, river district representative.

He said it is possible to manage the water release to minimize the escape of non-native fish.

"We are optimistic we can come up with some things we can do at a reasonable cost," he said.

The river district board of directors will vote on the agreement Aug. 6.

The Craig City Council approved the agreement July 28.

The expansion of Elkhead Reservoir will add nearly 13,000 acre-feet to the reservoir's water storage. An acre-foot is equal to 300,000 gallons of water. The river district will lease a portion of that water to anyone who may need it. The remainder will belong to the Recovery Program and will be released to maintain endangered fish habitat during low flow times in the Yampa River.

The city of Craig and the Yampa Valley Participants -- owners of the Craig Station Power Plant -- will continue to hold the same water rights they currently have with the option to purchase more.

The surface of the reservoir is expected to increase 15 percent to 20 percent.

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

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