Changing course

Elkhead expansion, fish removal part of Yampa recovery plan

Fishermen may not be thrilled by one outcome of a plan to save endangered fish in the Yampa River, but the effort could mean a little extra water for the area, which should make ag producers happy.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program signed a cooperative agreement Thursday that launched the implementation of the endangered fish recovery effort.

The Yampa River is critical habitat for four species of endangered fish -- the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

But the river also is critical to ranchers and other people dependent on water for their survival in the Yampa Valley.

According to the Recovery Program, the agreement will meet the needs of Yampa Valley residents and endangered fish.

"The use of water for current and future economic development in the Yampa River Basin can coexist with the recovery of endangered species," said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. "By cooperating with reasonable partners and implementing creative solutions, we're ensuring all species, including humans, have a more promising future in this region."

The agreement marks the culmination of 10 years of planning between federal agencies and local interests. But two of the major components of the plan, the expansion of Elkhead Reservoir to augment flows in the Yampa River and the removal of predatory nonnative fish, al ready are affecting people.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed northern pike from sections of the Yampa east and west of Craig, and relocating the pike in ponds. Next year, Fish and Wildlife officials plan to increase their efforts to remove pike by making more passes along the river.

It's too early to tell whether the nonnative fish removal is having a positive effect on endangered fish species, said Pat Nelson, a fishery biologist serving as nonnative fish coordinator and habitat coordinator for the Recovery Program.

But he would expect to see a response in the next year or two.

There's a sequence he expects the recovery to follow, though things could happen differently.

First, Nelson expects to see an increase in the population of small body prey fish, whether they are native to Colorado.

An increase in the populations of native fish, endangered and not endangered, likely would follow.

The final step would be the recovery of endangered fish.

Some anglers have voiced opposition to the Fish and Wildlife efforts to remove pike and other sport fish such as small mouth bass from the Yampa.

Many of the removed fish are relocated in ponds managed by the state or federal government, but the anglers would prefer to fish the river rather than a lake or pond.

Nelson doesn't expect to remove all predatory nonnative fish from the river.

"If we're successful, there won't be as many as there are now, but there will still be river fishing," Nelson said.

Elkhead Reservoir, located along the Routt and Moffat County lines, is being drained in preparation for construction this spring.

Providing sufficient river flows for endangered fish in the Yampa River is a primary reason for the expansion, said Dan Ellison, Yampa River Basin Partnership chairman.

"The enlargement of Elkhead will not only help augment flows in dry parts of the summer.

"But it will be available at other times to the needs of businesses that use the river, like the power plant, or for people that drink out of the river in the city, or there might even be a little extra for irrigation," Ellison said.

The expansion will increase Elkhead's capacity by 12,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot roughly equals 325,000 gallons.

The Recovery Program provided almost half of the $24 million the expansion costs.

That investment guarantees the Recovery Program 5,000 acre-feet with an option of leasing 2,000 additional acre-feet.

The expansion should protect river users from losing their water rights to the fish recovery effort, Ellison said.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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