A tour bus rolls over high water in the Gunnison River near Gunnison earlier this month.  Photo by Scotty Kenton Photography.

A tour bus rolls over high water in the Gunnison River near Gunnison earlier this month. Photo by Scotty Ken-ton Photography.

By Caitlin Switzer
DELTA COUNTY (June 17, 2014) For Delta County, 2014 may be remembered as the year the jobs vanished. The devastating news of mine closures in the North Fork Valley was followed in April with the announcement that Meadow Gold Dairy was closing its Delta County processing facility, cutting 38 local jobs.

Now, Delta County’s river operators are crying foul over 100 jobs lost to a governmental agency’s decision to release water from the Aspinall Unit on June 5.

The culprit, outfitters say, is a newly-implemented Bureau of Reclamation Record of Decision document, based on a 2012 Environmental Impact Statement that prioritizes the habitat of four endangered fish–the Colorado Pike Minnow, humpback chub, bonytail and razorback sucker.

A May 22 Bureau of Reclamation news release states, “Reclamation will begin increasing releases from the Aspinall Unit, consisting of Blue Mesa, Morrow Point, and Crystal reservoirs on the Gunnison River, on May 23, 2014, as required by the Record of Decision for the Aspinall Unit Operations Final Environmental Impact Statement. The increased release will attempt to meet flow targets on the Gunnison River, designed to benefit endangered fish species downstream while continuing to meet the congressionally authorized purposes of the Aspinall Unit.”

However, this year’s releases were delayed by late snowmelt in the North Fork, effectively shutting down much of the season for those who make a living on the Gunnison.

The late, cool spring contributed to the delayed releases, Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Specialist Justyn Hock said.

“Our Record of Decision provides a normal time frame, but this was a strange spring,” she said. “It was cooler than normal, and peak flows came later. The North Fork peaked June 2, so our releases from the Aspinall Unit were made on June 5.”

Officials were taking care not to cause flooding at the confluence of rivers in Grand Junction, she said.
“We wanted to avoid flooding I-70,” Hock said.

“We understand that this was an above-average year for snowpack,” said Derek Kehmeier of Austin-based Black Canyon Anglers. “We were expecting high water. But typically and historically high water comes in mid-May through the first weeks of June.”

Outfitters feel that the Bureau of Reclamation has mismanaged the flows, he said.

“We feel that they missed peak flows in May,” he said. “If they had not, they would be wrapping up the whole mess this week.

“Now, we will be seeing 6,000 to 7,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) through the first of July, taking high flows through until July 9,” Kehmeier said. “That is unfishable, and we cannot take clients down the river.”

The economic impact to local river companies will be great, he said, but added that many other industries are being impacted as well.

“This also affects those in the lodging, restaurant, fuel and retail industries–everyone who depends on summer tourism,” he said. “It impacts power generation and the outdoor recreation industries–crazy negative impacts.”

Losing the revenues from June means losing 60 percent of the seasonal business for an outfitter, noted Al DeGrange of Gunnison River Outfitters, which was established in 1985.

Though the impact to three river companies will about $1.2 million, in the end, the impact will be closer to $4 million, he said.

“This could have been managed so much better,” DeGrange said. “We were blindsided by the decision. They should have included us in the process, and not done this during our recreation season. This is going to have a huge economic impact on Delta County–now there are 100 more people unemployed.”

The releases will also leave Blue Mesa Reservoir at 70 to 73 percent capacity as of July 9, Kehmeier said.

“If we see another drought year next year, which is highly likely, we are already behind the eight ball,” he said.

In the end, however, the decision will benefit the health of the river, Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Specialist Justyn Hock said.

“It may not be so great right now, but this will improve fish habitat for all aquatic life,” Hock said.

Kehmeier said that he does not believe the well-being of endangered fish tells the whole story.

“They are saying it is for the endangered fish, but I believe they are using this as a tool to get more water down river to Lake Meade,” he said.