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The recreation factor

Jane Stebbins

Editor’s Note: This is the final story in a five-part series on the challenges Summit County faces with this year’s drought conditions.

FRISCO – On a good summer day, the water in Lake Dillon laps gently against the shore, docks bob in the wakes and boaters must walk, at most, 125 yards from the front door of Osprey Adventures in Frisco to put their boats in the water.

Today, the shore looks like a lunar landscape, the water’s edge almost a half-mile from the marina, and rounded humps of exposed dirt dot the barren swath of drying mud.

The upper Blue River is pooled in spots, and nonexistent in others.

The lower Blue River is flowing at a rate of 52 cfs (cubic feet per second) – the minimum required to sustain fisheries in the Lower Blue.

None of it bodes well for water sports this summer,

“We’ve been telling people it’s going to be a bad year,” said Bernie Baltich, owner of Osprey Adventures in Frisco. “We’re telling customers it’s not going to look like last year, when it was perfect.”

His company, which opened in 1989, provides mooring for 120 to 135 boats each summer, rents kayaks, canoes and power and fishing boats; and serves as a base for rowing operations. The last time Baltich saw the reservoir this low was in 1995 – but for entirely different reasons.

“Then, it was too much water,” he said. “We began that year with conditions like this, but then it started snowing and wouldn’t stop, so Denver Water lowered the water level in anticipation of a flood. It was 3 feet less than have now.”

But it filled up as the snowmelt – and flood waters – came. Denver Water officials have said Dillon Reservoir won’t be filled this year.

The rim of the Glory Hole at the west end of the dam is at 9,017 feet elevation. On April 30, the water level was at 8,993 – almost 24 feet lower than normal.

“And we’re still dropping,” said reservoir caretaker Dave Fernandez. “Everything’s low: low snow, low water, low reservoir. That’s our key word this year: “low’.”

He said the lake likely will fill to an elevation of 9,007 to 9,005 – 10 to 12 feet below normal. As of Friday it was 8,983 feet. Green Mountain Reservoir was just 44.7 percent full as of Thursday.

That’s forced Baltich and others to make contingency plans. He said he might moor some boats, dry-dock others and help people get their boats on the water.

“I can see shuttling people to the water’s edge,” Baltich said, adding on any given summer day, 10 to 15 percent of people who moor or dock their boats get onto the water. “We’re running scenarios on how to do this. I don’t have answers to all the questions, but the minimum we can do is provide moorings or launch on demand. It can be done.”

A low lake doesn’t necessarily mean a bad summer, Baltich said.

“There are a lot of beaches,” he said. “If people go out, they’ll still be able to have a reasonably good time. We’re putting all our energy into doing what we can with what we’re given by Mother Nature. We’ve got to ensure the success of this company and my family’s well-being. Our goal is just to get through this summer. We’re trying not to whine a whole lot. We signed on knowing we’re on a reservoir, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. We have good years and bad years, and this year is a bad year.”

Dillon Marina Master Bob Evans said the low lake water volume is nothing compared to years past.

“In 1980, it was down 60 feet,” he said. “This is nothing. I’ve been through this before.”

The low lake has given Evans the opportunity to replace moorings he can’t reach normally, and clean up garbage – he’s collected eight tons, mostly in anchors – along the new shoreline.

Evans said a drought will necessitate some operational changes. He expects his launch to be more congested than usual – particularly if boat launches at Pine Cove, Frisco and Green Mountain are unable to open.

“It’s not going to be the piece of cake it usually is,” he said. “But we’ve got boats out floating on the lake right now.”

Trapper John Rudd, owner of Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne, said he thinks everyone’s jumping the gun regarding drought conditions.

“It’s too early to anticipate a drought year,” he said. “But if we do get a low-water year, we’ll shift gears; we’ll do still-water fishing. There’s always ample opportunity to get outside and do some fly-fishing.”

Fisher-folk, however, must go where the fish are, and when water levels go down,

the water heats up and fish migrate to avoid the heat stress.

Peter Roessmann, education specialist with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said some stretches of river will have poorer fishing conditions, primarily because low flowing and stagnant water can result in higher water temperatures, which in turn, can promote algae growth that consumes the oxygen in the water.

Jim Levi, manager of Summit Kayak School in Silverthorne, said he is “tiptoeing into the year.”

He said low water levels are good for beginning kayakers, but as people refine their skills later in the season, they might be hard-pressed to find fast water. Levi plans to do more marketing and encourage people to buy smaller boats that don’t require high water levels for people to have fun.

Heide Andersen, open space and trails director for the town of Breckenridge, also is watching the water levels, particularly at the new Breckenridge Kayak Park, which was reporting a flow of 13 cfs Saturday.

An ideal level would be closer to 250 cfs. Andersen hopes water levels will increase as the snow melts – particularly because the town has scheduled kayak rodeos and other events in the park this summer.

It’s obviously disconcerting,” she said. “It’s not worrisome though. It’s the same across the West. We’re not worried people will dismiss the park because we don’t have any water in it this year. They understand the conditions and that it’s going to be a bad year.”

The jokes already have begun.

“It’ll be a nice pedestrian amenity,” Andersen said. “People can sit along the edge and watch the trickle. We thought of advertising it as the third phase of the skateboard park, or publishing a book: “Mountain Biking Colorado’s Whitewater Parks.’ It’s too bad, it’s the first full year this park is operating, and the lowest water year.”

One consolation, however, is that town officials will release 150 cfs from the Goose Pasture Tarn in Blue River for a rodeo competition June 9 to ensure an adequate flow for the competition.

Water sports aren’t the only activities that could be affected by a drought.

“That’s been a huge topic of conversation lately,” said Brian Tanner, superintendent of the Raven Golf Club at Three Peaks in Silverthorne. “Willow Creek runoff feeds the golf course; that’s our only means of being able to irrigate. We’re worried, especially since snowpack is only 19 percent of average. If we don’t get a lot of rain, by the end of June we could be out of water.”

The company currently is developing contingency plans to drill wells, Tanner said.

“If we don’t, the impact will be huge on the golf course, on real estate …” he said. “We’re nervous, but we’re trying to get all the tools in place so we don’t suffer from this drought.”

Summit County Streamflow Conditions

(as of Friday, May 17)

– Blue River below Dillon Reservoir 52 cfs

– Blue River below Green Mtn. Reservoir 64 cfs

– Blue River near Dillon 61 cfs

– Blue River at Hwy. 9 bridge below Breck 23.4 cfs

(cfs is cubic feet per second)


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