1st phase of Blue River management plan covers river health issues

The first phase of the Blue River Watershed Group’s management plan shows declining fisheries in the Blue River downstream of the Dillon Dam. The next step is to figure out why.
Jason Connolly/Summit Daily News archive

Study works to identify concerns — and their causes — in each section of river

The Blue River Watershed Group has completed the first phase of its Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan with the help of partner Trout Unlimited. The organizations have been working on the project for a couple of years now to gather information on the health status of the river.

Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator with Trout Unlimited, said the project is a way to bring all stakeholders relating to Blue River water use together. He said the watershed group taking the lead on this project will ensure it is a continuously evolving document.

“We want the community to be vested in this,” Van Gytenbeek said. “In order to do that, somebody has to carry the ball, somebody has to keep that momentum going so that these plans are proactive and so that they’re not just one-offs and they don’t just sit on somebody’s shelf.”

Kendra Fuller, executive director of the Blue River Watershed Group, said the first phase of the project was meant to gather information about the current and future uses of the river, looking at what kinds of data has already been collected. She said the second phase — which is currently underway — will mostly be to fill in the gaps of information that couldn’t be found in the first phase. The final phase will be implementing actionable steps to maximize benefits for all Blue River users, as well as protect the water as a resource.

The biggest information gap found in the initial phase is that the watershed group hasn’t determined why there are declining fisheries between the town of Silverthorne and Green Mountain Reservoir. Fuller said the second phase aims to find answers by looking at a comprehensive picture of the health of the river.

Researchers will look at geomorphology — the study of the shape and flow of the river — macroinvertebrates, algae and water temperature to connect all the dots of the river’s ecosystem, Fuller said.

“We’re thinking the smallest creatures are going to feed the larger creatures, and we’re trying to figure out why we have impaired communities of these macroinvertebrates and algaes,” Fuller said. “And that’s where Phase 2 is really researching all of that information to try and determine why these fisheries are declined.”

Van Gytenbeek said completing Phase 1 of the plan allowed them to get a good baseline of information to start determining what factors are causing what problems in the river.

“We’ve added a lot of scientific-based data to what we already knew from past studies,” Van Gytenbeek said. “As a community, we can begin to have a conversation about (whether) there is anything we can do to mitigate the situation.”

Varying ecosystems

When splitting the Blue River into its three reaches, the key issues with each section are clear and unique to each portion of the watershed.

“What we learned is that we’ve got three very different ecosystems throughout that section, and we are dropping a significant amount of elevation, so that’s part of it,” Fuller said. “We are getting a lot more water as we build through those three sections of the watershed, and then we’ve got very unique issues in each one.”

The first reach, which goes from around Hoosier Pass to the Dillon Dam, has seen some water quality issues due to a history of mining in the area. Fuller said while some restoration work has been done, there is still a lot more to do. She said fish surveys show that the fishery in this area isn’t great because of the mining and water-quality issues, and macroinvertebrate communities have been impacted, too.

While the biggest concern in the second reach from Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir is the decline in fisheries, Fuller said this reach is heavily influenced by the Dillon Dam, including how and when water is released. She said this stretch of river used to be classified as a gold medal fishery, but the status was removed in 2016 because there were no longer enough fish to qualify. The loss of the gold medal status affects the river as a tourist attraction for fishing.

Fuller said the primary concern with the third reach of the Blue River, which goes from Green Mountain Reservoir until its confluence with the Colorado River, is high water temperatures. She said it has enough water to support the fish habitat but the temperatures have been exceeding the state’s temperature standards.

Further north, the river also has issues with streamflow changes based on how much water is being released from the Green Mountain Reservoir dam. Fuller said the amount of water released from the dam fluctuates greatly throughout the day and has an impact on the river’s ecosystem downstream, also creating safety issues for recreation if there are huge rises and falls in the water level.

When the project is complete, Van Gytenbeek said it should answer a lot of questions.

“I think we’re gonna have a really pretty clear picture of what’s going on in this river and why it’s not producing, why it’s not living up to its biological potential,” Van Gytenbeek said.

Looking to the future

Another potential issue for Blue River streamflows is the fact that some Front Range water users have more water rights than they are using, Fuller said.

“It’s just a notable thing that we’re probably going to be seeing in the future because most of our Front Range communities are firming up those water rights as populations increase on the Front Range,” Fuller said.

Fuller said it’s inevitable that local rivers will get lower due to a variety of factors like climate change and evolving Front Range water rights. Because of this, it’s essential to make sure our water is properly cared for as the Summit community continues to grow, she said.

“Water is a precious resource, and we are at risk of having less of it,” Fuller said. “We want the water that’s actually going to be in our river to be as well managed as possible. We want it to be as healthy as it is for both environmental needs but also for our own consumptive needs.”

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