Grand Lake clarity issue stirs up fishing conflict
“Keep Grand Lake Blue.”
If you’re a resident of Grand County, you’ve probably seen those words pasted proudly to someone’s bumper.
To the uninitiated, it seems like an innocuous, if not benevolent, goal. But to some Grand Lake fisherman, the issue is far from clear.
Jim Gasner has been fishing the Three Lakes area since he was a child, and he guides for Rocky Mountain Outfitters on Grand Lake and Williams Fork Reservoir.
On Thursday night, Nov. 20, Gasner and his wife Julie sat before a small assembly of residents in the Gateway Inn in Grand Lake. To his left, a television scrolled through photos of what were ostensibly clients, grinning as they held up huge Mackinaw and iridescent trout, Mount Baldy looming behind them.
The carousel of photos illustrated Gasner’s livelihood, which he believes he could lose should current efforts to increase Grand Lake’s clarity succeed.
“Improving water clarity in Grand Lake with measures or eliminating the enriching effects of Shadow Mountain Reservoir would be detrimental to the production of our growth and Grand Lake fish populations,” Gasner said.
His assertion is based on of a recent study by Brett Johnson, a professor in CSU’s department of fish, wildlife and conservation biology.
The study found that “pumping from Shadow Mountain Reservoir has an “enriching effect that should be beneficial to Grand Lake’s fish populations.”
In 2008, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission set in motion a process to develop a clarity standard for Grand Lake.
Most of the solutions proposed so far would include bypassing Grand Lake, eliminating the influx of dirty, nutrient rich water from Shadow Mountain Reservoir.
In turn, Johnson postulates this could result in declines in sport fish growth and production.
During the Nov. 20 meeting, Katherine Morris, Grand County’s water quality specialist, raised some concerns with Johnson’s study, namely that the nutrient sources that Johnson identified were primarily cyanobacteria.
Cyanobacteria are less edible than phytoplankton, and when they die in large quantities, they can be toxic.
Johnson has conceded that pumping cyanobacteria into Grand Lake wouldn’t be a good idea, Morris said.
Cyanobacteria are currently the primary producers in both Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Reservoir.
“If we weren’t pumping the wrong nutrient ratio into Grand Lake, that might not be a problem,” Morris said.
Grand County will be issuing a rebuttal to the study, Morris said.
new Clarity standard
Morris is a member of the Three Lakes Technical Committee, which is working to develop a clarity standard for Grand Lake.
The committee started with a 4-meter standard of clarity.
“If you have Secchi disk depth of less than 2 meters, you have a less than 15 percent of being included in the highest appeal category, and we think of that appeal as a visual or scenic attraction,” Morris said.
A depth reading of more than 4 meters gives Grand Lake about an 85 percent chance of being in the highest appeal category. Clarity measurements in Grand Lake in 2010 varied from 7 to 2 meters.
Both Grand Lake’s fisheries and scenic value are protected by Senate Document 80, which added some caveats to operation of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
County Commissioner James Newberry, speaking at the presentation, said studies are ongoing as the Three Lakes Technical Committee tries to attain both goals.
“We’re just trying to get as much information as we can,” Newberry said. “You can take one study and you can rip it part, but we’re trying to look at this thing holistically.”
Garner said he agreed with a clarity standard, though he believed 4 meters was unreasonable.
“I’m willing to let you have your standard,” Gasner said. “Make it as high as you can get it, as long as it doesn’t kill our fish.”
The new clarity standard was meant to be completed this year and adopted in 2015, though the time line has been pushed back.
Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran said the county still needs more information before it can make a decision on a clarity standard.
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