Flash Flooding on the Lower Dolores River: What About the Fish?

Three native fish species that live in the Dolores River in southwest Colorado have been receiving a fair bit of press lately. Their story – and tribulations – show how interconnected, complex, fragile and sometimes resilient, river ecosystems are. Their plight has also inspired an array of people in the Dolores River watershed to seek ways to keep these special fish from going extinct.

An August 26 story in the Cortez Journal describes how downstream of McPhee Dam and Reservoir the Dolores is dry in places, contains isolated pools, or runs at a trickle. This is because the Bureau of Reclamation holds most of the water behind the dam. Very little water released out of the dam means the downstream river rarely has the chance to scour out, or have sediment flushed out of it, by high flowing currents. This also means there’s no water for recreational or commercial boating – something for which the river was world-renowned before construction of the dam in the early 1980s. Over time, the unnaturally shallow river bed fills with sand and other sedimentation, and just stays that way.

In the last two weeks or so, southwest Colorado has received a ton of beautiful and welcome rain. For the fish, however, that rain flowed into the river and simply turned all that sand and mud into a thick, gloppy soup. Under those conditions, fish can’t breathe and they die. The article describes Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife biologists, whose job it is to monitor fish in the river, as they identify and collect samples from huge numbers of dead or dying fish. It’s a sad story, and the three native species—bonytail chub, bluehead sucker and flannelmouth sucker–were among those they found.

It was especially distressing because these three fish could soon be candidates for the Federal Endangered Species List, as the Cortez Journal has reported on in an earlier story. These unusual fish species are already in trouble because they don’t have enough water. Now they experienced some natural flow of rain water, but because people don’t allow enough or well-timed flows to come out from the dam, they are dying anyway.

There is one glimmer of hope in all this. Keeping these fish off the endangered species list has become important to water managers at the dam, water shareholders and other interests who use most of the water. The threat of listing these fish, and the stronger regulations and protection that would come with listing, may bring some changes in how and when water is allowed to spill over the dam and into the river. There isn’t “extra” water to be released–because of longtime drought, poor conservation and allocation–but this could make managers and people who control the water more inclined to discuss changes in timing and frequency of water releases.

People have been researching potential solutions. Ideas for how to do this have been collected in a document titled Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Plan Overview – Improving the Health of Native Fish and Protecting Water Supplies: An Action Plan. Last spring, Friends Grassroots Network group, the Dolores River Boating Advocates, hosted a public forum to educate the community about the plan.

The Dolores River Dialog, another collaborative effort to find solutions for better management and improved flows in the river, released the “Dolores River Nonpoint Source Pollution Watershed Plan” this summer. Covered by the Cortez Journal, it is the culmination of a five-year study and offers a menu of ideas for the future of water quality in the lower Dolores.

Now the people living in the Dolores River region must produce the leadership and collective vision to implement the very best of these plans—and take action for the river, for the fish and wildlife that depend on it, and for the livelihoods and quality-of-life of their children and grand-children to come.

Flannelmouth sucker. (Photo from the blog Coyote Gulch, a great resource covering water issues in Colorado.

Flannelmouth sucker. (Photo from the blog Coyote Gulch, a great resource covering water issues in Colorado.)


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