The extended heat wave in the high country of Middle Park is impacting the area's natural resources.
Rivers have been reaching temperatures of 68 degrees or warmer, with healthy cold-water fishery limits considered about 70.2-73.8 degrees (on the Fraser) and about 74.8 degrees (on the Colorado), according to the Grand County Water Information Network.
"We're already seeing temperatures approaching (those limits), and it's only June," said Jane Tollet of the Water Information Network. "It's getting harder and harder to fish safely in the afternoon without really endangering the fish," she said.
Lake temperatures have not been as affected, she said.
Trout Unlimited is launching a campaign as soon as next week to remind and educate its 10,000 members about the need to refrain from fishing at peak temperature times of the day.
River anglers should carry a pocket thermometer and consider fishing in the mornings rather than during the sun's intense periods. River guides in the Fraser Valley already are pulling clients off the rivers by noon, according to Rob Firth of Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado River Headwaters Project Manager for Trout Unlimited.
"We're encouraging all anglers not to fish in the afternoons," Firth said. "It's one of those years you have to give back rather than take from the resource."
If the river exceeds 62 degrees Fahrenheit, it's "a good time to get off the river," Firth said.
Firth recommends anglers use barbless hooks to make removal much easier when releasing fish to ensure their survival going forward.
Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water, so fish can be overly stressed from the exertion of being caught when the water is warm.
Front Range: High demand for Grand's water resources
The area's natural resources were impacted greatly by an unusually low runoff year, with volumes less than a third of a normal peak in an average year. Yet Front Range cities such as Fort Collins, Loveland and Longmont are reporting to customers water supplies are holding up and not polluted by the fires near Fort Collins and Boulder, according to city websites.
Spokesperson Brian Werner of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District said firefighting efforts have dipped into Horsetooth Reservoir and have taken about 5 to 6 acre-feet so far to fight the High Park Fire northwest of Fort Collins, which is not considered an impact to water supplies. "We'd rather have them fight the fires," Werner said.
But the impact is coming from cities, ditch companies and water districts that "are running more water than they ever have in any certain year," Werner said, due to the ultra-dry conditions.
"We're looking at one of the worst years we've ever had on top of one of the best years we've ever had," he said, adding present flows through the Colorado-Big Thompson Project's Adams Tunnel to the Front Range are at near maximum at 550 cubic feet per second. Because of the nature of the need for water this year, no "stop pump" is planned for late summer to assess Grand Lake water quality, he said. And Northern has no plans to augment flows into the Colorado River to help alleviate high temperatures, Werner said.
"Not this year," he said, but noted implementation of the Colorado Cooperative Agreement in future years should make at least 5,000 additional acre-feet available to the river, pending the final outcome of negotiations between Grand County, Northern and other stakeholders.
On the Fraser River, the current flow is at 40 cfs when flows for this time of year average 335 cfs. During the 2002 drought year, June 28 flows on the Fraser were at 38 cfs.
Ranchers put up hay a month early
Due to the Shoshone Outage Protocol - an agreement for when Shoshone Power Plant is down - Denver Water releases flows out of Williams Fork Reservoir to mimic flows as if the plant were in operation. The upper Colorado River past Parshall has benefited from augmented flows since June 11.
But upriver and on the Fraser, flows are low enough to put fish in danger.
Since volumes are lower than average, Denver Water has not cut back on its bypass flows on the Fraser, according to that utility's officials.
And the low flows of June in the Fraser and Upper Colorado have already affected the ranching community.
Ray Thurston of the D+ Bar Ranch near Hot Sulphur Springs is "running out of water," he said on Thursday. Of the water rights he owns, he has less than a quarter left to use due to the lack of rain this year.
"Our hay crop will be fully mature before the Fourth of July, which means we'll be cutting three weeks earlier than normal," Thurston said, adding there may be a shortage of hay this year.
Waiting for relief of monsoons
The warm dry weather also could mean a lack of wildflowers for bees and birds, and reduced plant growth could limit grazing and forage opportunities for large game. Limited sources of food for wild game affects reproduction and survival of offspring, according to U.S. Forest Service officials in the Sulphur Ranger District.
Drought "can increase potential for disease," and wildlife may be forced to "enter into the winter with less fat reserves," said U.S. Forest spokesperson Reid Armstrong.
Wildlife officials are waiting for summer monsoons to kick in to help.
But because there may be fewer berries and mushrooms available to bear, for example, such wildlife may seek out human sources of food discarded in trash this summer, which means residents and visitors must be "extra vigilant" in securing their trash, Armstrong said.
Dry conditions in the high country translate into extreme fire conditions.
"We're experiencing unprecedented fuels conditions all over the Sulphur District," Armstrong said.
Measurements of moisture in both live and dead sources of fuels have shown fire conditions at their ripest since 1996, according to Forest officials, meaning fires that escape initial attack efforts could produce a high rate of intensity and could spread very quickly.
- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603