Historically, important tributaries and sections of the Upper Rio Grande River in Colorado flowed at critically low levels during the winter months. With water stored in upstream reservoirs, depleted winter flows reduced groundwater recharge and adversely affected habitat for trout and other aquatic species. Trout Unlimited is leading a partnership with agencies, farmers and water managers and using new tools to flexibly manage, store and deliver water during critical times of the years to increase flows and facilitate groundwater recharge. By leasing water, exchanging water at critical times, and shifting the timing of water delivery, project partners have been able to increase habitat for fish and provide important economic and community benefits for residents in the region. During pilot implementation in 2016-2017, winter flows on the Conejos River and upper Rio Grande were some of the best in recorded history—this led to improved habitat for fish, greater certainty for irrigators, and important groundwater recharge. Based on the positive results from 2016-2017, Trout Unlimited and the project partners expanded the scale and impact of this work. Innovative partnerships and projects like this demonstrate how water supplies can be managed to meet the needs of the rivers, economies, and communities.
For almost two decades, extensive efforts have been made in an attempt to address the decline of the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow, the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and other federally listed endangered species found in New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande. Gains have been made through habitat restoration and fish population management, but these efforts are incomplete without more comprehensive solutions involving water management and reestablishing flows—particularly in time of drought.Given the critical importance of water flows and riparian habitats in the arid southwest, and a continued interest in the Rio Grande basin, new strategies and pathways to lease, donate, and deliver water to benefit the river and protect and restore habitats for imperiled species, while balancing human needs, are essential. The Middle Rio Grande – Abiquiu Flow Restoration project will also demonstrate the potential for conveying, delivering, and monitoring flows to alleviate dewatering issues in key reaches of the river.Audubon Society of New Mexico, has established a series of summer flow transaction projects that will release water stored at San Juan-Chama. In concert with other strategically planned environmental water deliveries, this will be help provide riparian and/or in-river benefits in the Middle Rio Grande that will mitigate environmental impacts of drought and low flows.Unique to this project is the leveraging of one of the first-ever applications to New Mexico’s Office of the State Engineer to set the stage for portfolios of water rights to be protected and delivered to enhance environmental flows and habitat in the Middle Rio Grande. This will play a key role in transforming water rights management and water delivery in the state by establishing the administrative, logistical and cooperative framework to deliver water to protect and restore critical instream and riparian habitats of the Rio Grande, over the long-term.
Stretching along the east bank of the Sacramento River, southwest of the city of Chico, Llano Seco Ranch consists of 18,434 acres of ranchlands, agricultural lands, wetlands and riparian habitats, and public lands. Two large redwood siphons, canals and other structures create a water conveyance system that provides water to 2,700 acres of agricultural lands, supporting the production of wheat, rice, walnuts and a diversity of grain, row and tree crops. The system is also intended to deliver water to 4,500 acres of federal, state, and privately-owned wetlands on the ranch. However, the siphons, constructed in 1926, are severely degraded and no longer capable of delivering water reliably or efficiently. Sampling conducted in 2014 indicated 40% water loss due to system degradation. Current losses are even higher. In the most recent year, the State Wildlife Area at the southern end of the conveyance system received none of the 30cfs of water deliveries allocated to support wetlands and provide critical wildlife habitat. This was due to complete failure of one of the siphons. Reviews suggest that without improvements, the system will likely fail further, resulting in the loss of water delivery capabilities to both the habitat and agricultural resources. This project supports Ducks Unlimited in their partnership with a private landowner and seven agencies, to replace the siphons and conduct other major upgrades to increase efficiency and provide reliable water delivery. Additionally, this work will complete the joint National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)/California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) document and develop a proposal to secure additional funding to upgrade the water conveyance system.
Hubbard Creek is a once vibrant fishery that connects public and private lands to the North Fork of the Gunnison River on Colorado’s western slope. Its headwaters support native trout while the lower sections have at times supported healthy populations of native and non-native trout, as well as elk, deer and other wildlife. Relatively recent changes to water administration practices combined with inadequate water control infrastructure have dewatered sections of Main and Middle Hubbard, devastating trout populations and impacting other species that rely on those flows. Trout Unlimited is working with land owners and holders of water rights to restore flows through the Hubbard Basin. Part of the solution will involve leasing water from the Overland Ditch and Reservoir Company, as well as installing adequate infrastructure in the Overland canal to allow for bypass of native flows and deliveries of lease water. With adequate funding, Trout Unlimited and partners will accomplish these primary tasks during the summer of 2019 while they continue to investigate market driven voluntary leasing solutions to sustain the watershed. By completing leases and improving infrastructure, Trout Unlimited and partners will restore and drastically improve flows and habitat in approximately 10 miles of the upper section of the watershed. Through long-term lease or purchase of water Trout Unlimited hopes to sustain critical base flows for an addition 10 miles of Hubbard Creek.
In 2015 BEF’s Water Restoration Program provided critical funding to restore water and habitat in the depleted Colorado River delta. BEF’s support for the project will result in nearly one billion gallons of restored water and will provide both base flows and small pulse flows necessary to help create riverside habitat that benefits myriad birds and wildlife species. The Colorado delta was once one of the world’s great desert ecosystems, and a bi-national agreement between the U.S. and Mexico provides a key opportunity to restore this ecosystem. BEF’s ongoing support (in addition to the support and hard work of many NGOs) is helping restore water to enhance this once great ecosystem
Colorado’s Cimarron River originates in the Uncompahgre Wilderness—one of the state’s marquee wilderness areas containing multiple 14,000’ peaks. The headwater streams of the Cimarron River descend long glacially-carved valleys that are traversed by an extensive trail network, and ultimately the Cimarron drains into the iconic Gunnison River in an area renowned for fly-fishing, the Gunnison Gorge and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. As the tributaries of the Cimarron emerge from the high mountains, water is diverted and used to support agriculture among the lower elevation valleys. While much of the Little Cimarron is known for robust trout populations and cold, clean water, assessments show that dewatered sections of the river produce a stressed, unhealthy ecosystem with poor water quality, few trout and unnaturally high water temperatures. This project led by the Colorado Water Trust, in partnership with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Western Rivers Conservancy, permanently restores flows to a 5-mile section of the Little Cimarron River that is severely dewatered each year during late summer. The flow restoration project allows water to be used for irrigation during the first part of the summer when flows in the river are ample. Then in the late summer, when flows drop, water will be protected in the river, transforming a formerly dry creek bed into a flowing stream. This restored water will reconnect flow between two vital sections of the river and will benefit fish, wildlife, and water quality—and still allow the underlying agricultural use of the water right, a novel win-win project for the Colorado River.
The Caddo Lake watershed contains wetlands of international significance and provides habitat for the imperiled and prehistoric American Paddlefish. This project partners with The Caddo Lake Institute and a ranching family located in the Caddo Lake watershed of east Texas to protect natural stream flow in Big Cypress Bayou the main tributary to Caddo Lake and help maintain healthy flows in times of drought. The project supports a pilot strategy to operate dry land ranching operations and reduce future water extraction from the river. The project obtained approval from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to use and protect water to benefit flows in the Caddo Lake watershed to benefit sensitive fish and wildlife and maintain aquatic habitat. Using this project as a pilot for the Caddo Lake region, it is expected that additional projects can be designed and implemented to benefit river flows and sustain critical habitat for the future.
The Big Cimarron River originates in Silver Jack Reservoir, flows through the tight canyons of the Cimarron Range, and eventually empties into the Gunnison River. Wild trout have traditionally thrived in the Cimarron, making it a popular destination for anglers. But in recent years, summer flows of the Cimarron have been reduced to a trickle. As much as 80% of the late summer flows can be diverted for agriculture, most of which use outside of the Cimarron watershed. Trout Unlimited is working with stakeholders in the Bostwick Park Conservancy District and Cimarron Canal Company to restore flows to the Big Cimarron. Part of this plan involves replacing a diversion gate with a new automated gate that will make it easier to divert water more sustainably. The project will also analyze water supplies to plan for a variety of run-off scenarios to make sure water diversion do not unnecessarily impact the fishery. By improving infrastructure, managing water demands, and implementing guidelines for smart water diversion, this project will restore flows to 14 miles of the river, ensuring that both water users and the ecosystems of the Big Cimarron have enough water year-round.
The 15-Mile Reach is a stretch of the Colorado River that starts east of Grand Junction and stretches to the confluence with the Gunnison River just west of town. This is a sensitive stretch of a hard working river—forty million people in the Southwestern U.S. rely on the Colorado River as a primary source of drinking water in addition to extensive agricultural and industrial uses, and the 15-Mile Reach is home to four federally endangered fish species–the Colorado Pikeminnow, Humpback Chub, Bonytail, and Razorback Sucker. The 15-Mile Reach is known for declining river flows as a result of high demand on its water supply, which negatively impacts fish habitat. During spring, when irrigation diversions begin but temperatures and snowpack runoff remain low, flows can dip to levels that threaten these fish. Because it’s on the Colorado main stem, and because of the biological resources it contains, people have been trying to keep this stretch of river flowing at healthy levels for a long time. The Colorado Water Trust (CWT), Grand Valley Water Users Association, and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District are working together to improve the habitat of the Colorado River’s endangered fish at critical times of the year. Together with the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Fish Recovery program, they designed an agreement to allow CWT to secure water from upstream sources and deliver it to the Grand Valley Power Plant to produce hydropower. Once the water has cycled through the plant, it will be released back to the 15-Mile Reach during critical times to support the native endangered fish species. Not only will there be benefits for the fish and their habitat, but the Grand Valley Power Plant will generate additional revenue for operations as a result of this innovative agreement.