The Pine River has recorded some extremely low levels this month – possibly signaling tough seasons ahead for irrigators and fish alike.
The Pine River Irrigation District, which manages the river’s flow rates, dropped the river to its minimum level this month to try to conserve water for the next irrigation season. The move prompted some concerns about impacts on fisheries from the local fishing community.
“If you don’t have the water, you can’t make the release,” said Ken Beck, PRID superintendent. “We certainly aren’t going to dry that (river) resource up. We’re doing our best to maintain the aquatic habitat.”
The minimum flow level for the Pine River is 5 cubic feet per second, based on an informal agreement between PRID and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, he said. The agreement is essentially a donation from irrigators to care for the aquatic environment in dry years.
If Vallecito Reservoir falls below 60,000 acre-feet of stored water, then PRID can drop the river’s flow to its minimum level, Beck said.
“We’re at half that,” he said.
As of Tuesday, the reservoir stored about 30,900 acre-feet of water out of its total capacity of 129,700 acre-feet – 24% of its total capacity.
Water flowing out of the dam has been low – less than 20 cfs for about two weeks this month. But for several days, the water fell to between 3 and 5 cfs. The Animas River has also seen record-low flows this month.
The only reason water fell below its minimum level was because of a mechanical issue with one of the gates at the dam, Beck said.
Some reports recommend higher minimum flows to stave off ecosystem impacts. The Colorado Division of Wildlife recommended minimum flows as high as 75 cfs for the winter months. But historically, flows of this magnitude have rarely occurred, according to a 2007 environmental assessment by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Low winter flows can result in habitat loss, anchor ice and fish mortality, the report said.
“The fish are going to suffer, no question,” said Buck Skillen, vice president the Trout Unlimited Five Rivers Chapter.
Most of the fisheries on the Pine River below the Vallecito Dam, managed by PRID, are privately owned. Landowners have stocked the river with sport fish and might be concerned about what the low water is going to do to their investment, Skillen said.
The fish are capable of handling the low flows. They will hunker down and wait until the water comes back – what they’ve been doing for millennia, he said.
Some should survive the season, depending on the osprey and eagle activity. Even the size of the fish, like trophy-sized trout, could impact its survival, he said.
Both Skillen and Beck emphasize that PRID’s responsibility is to store water for irrigation and manage floods – that’s what the dam and reservoir were built to do, they said.
“Their role in life is to provide irrigation water to their constituents, and their constituents are not the fish,” Skillen said.
Looking at precipitation projections for the winter, Beck is “very concerned” about filling the reservoir for the next irrigation season, which starts April 1.
“We’re just seeing a continuation of the drought. We’re not seeing any relief,” Beck said. “When we look at long-term forecasts, it doesn’t look good.”
The reservoir has been at 30,000 acre-feet in October before, but it’s been several years, he said. The last time the Pine River flowed so low was in 2018, a year of “mega-drought.” This year, Southwest Colorado is in extreme drought again, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
PRID is trying to take care of the aquatic environment as much as possible, given environmental management is not the district’s primary responsibility, he said.
“We’re trying to be a good neighbor. We’re trying to do things that are beyond what the project was constructed for,” Beck said.