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Efforts to protect native fish getting funds

Chris Dillmann |

In this Sept. 9, 2016 file photo, Jeff Bennett with the Buckhorn Metro District checks the flow of Abrams Creek outside of Gypsum. The creek is home to a native population of cutthroat trout and efforts are underway to retain more water in the creek through improved diversion techniques.                                                                     
Recognizable for the red neck slash that gives it the appearance of a murder victim, the cutthroat is the only fish in Colorado that’s native to the state. In the Eagle River Watershed, Abrams Creek is the only area to contain a native population of cutthroat trout, unaffected by the introduction of rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout to the area during the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s one of only a handful of indigenous populations left in the entire Upper Colorado River watershed, a fact that was recently uncovered through improvements in the field of genetic research. The Abrams Creek cutthroats are known to geneticists as green lineage fish, indigenous to that particular drainage and different from the blue lineage cutthroats found in other parts of the state.                                                                         
Donations can be made by visiting, or checks with “Abrams Creek Project” noted can be mailed to the Eagle Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Attn: Elbert Bivins, P.O. Box 8096, Avon, CO 81620.

John LaConte

EAGLE COUNTY — A rare species of cutthroat trout found near Gypsum is expected to thrive if an idea for stream restoration is realized.

Thanks to recent donations, that idea is much closer to becoming a reality.

Trout Unlimited announced Monday that the Abrams Creek restoration project has been awarded several local and federal grants in recent weeks, totaling $190,500.

The goal of the project is to provide water to Gypsum’s Buckhorn Valley neighborhood via pipeline, rather than the irrigation ditch that is currently used. It will cost more than $1 million to do, and the recent donations bring the total money raised to more than $500,000. If the water is able to be piped to Buckhorn Valley, then it will leave about 40 percent more flows in Abrams Creek for the benefit of the cutthroat trout population.

The fact that the Abrams Creek cutthroat survived the formation of the ditch is a testament to the fish’s resilience. The ditch was dug by hand in 1906 by a rancher named Julius Olsen; being one of the oldest water rights on the Western Slope, the Buckhorn Valley Metro District isn’t about to relinquish it, despite their support of the cause.

Through negotiation and a lot of study and engineering, the plan to pipe in the water was formed, said John Hill with the Metro District.

“The water quality will be better, there’s less maintenance required, and the fish will get their water,” Hill said.


Less water means shallower, warmer water, and when Olsen originally dug his ditch, it certainly resulted in less water for the Abrams Creek cutthroat. This means the fish itself may be genetically suited to handle an impending rise in water temperature. For that reason, biologists are especially excited about the discovery of the native fish.

“Colorado Parks and Wildlife values the Abrams Creek cutthroat, which are the last remaining population of aboriginal cutthroat in the Eagle watershed and exhibit characteristics unique even from other cutthroat populations,” said Kendall Bakich, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist. “Receiving substantial support from a diversity of community organizations and members helps protect these important native trout well into the future for the citizens and visitors to Colorado, as well as gives us the opportunity for future reintroduction efforts locally.”


Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that it was awarding a $90,000 Cooperative Watershed Management program grant to the Abrams Creek project.

About a month ago, the town of Gypsum also voted in favor of contributing $100,000 from its wildlife impact fees fund to the project. Alpine Bank in Gypsum also threw in $500.

“After almost a decade of analysis, planning and collaborating, the Buckhorn Valley Metropolitan District is very grateful for the magnanimous endorsements by all these important donors,” Hill said. “The hard work of CPW, (Trout Unlimited), (Bureau of Land Management), Eagle River Watershed Council and Buckhorn’s own staff, engineers and attorneys is going to pay off with an enduring legacy habitat for this important species.”

In March, with the support of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, the Colorado Water Conservation Board granted $364,711 to the project. Other contributors include the BLM ($10,000) and the Eagle River Chapter of Trout Unlimited ($5,000).

“With these donations, we’re at the halfway mark for cash needed to fund the project,” said Mely Whiting, with Trout Unlimited.

The project continues to seek funding through grants and donations. Whiting said earlier this month, they applied for a grant with the state water conservation board, which appeared to be tailor made for the Abrams Creek trout.

“It’s a program where the state helps fund restoration for fish and wildlife impacts caused by water diversion projects,” Whiting said. “So we think it’s a good fit. … We should know by the end of summer.”

This article ran in the Vail Daily on June 27, 2017.


New Bill Clarifies Water Uses for Eagle County

Beginner fly-fisherman Steven Kempf casts his line across a slow-moving section of the Eagle River. The Colorado Legislature this session passed a bill that better protects private water rights for recreational uses. Dominique Taylor | Daily file photo

Beginner fly-fisherman Steven Kempf casts his line across a slow-moving section of the Eagle River. The Colorado Legislature this session passed a bill that better protects private water rights for recreational uses. Dominique Taylor | Daily file photo

EAGLE COUNTY — Colorado water law received some needed clarification in the 2017 session of the Colorado Legislature.

The legislature, this session, passed a bill in response to the 2015 Colorado Supreme Court decision in the case of St. Jude’s Co. v. Roaring Fork Club LLC. That decision held that direct diversions of water from a river to a private ditch for “aesthetic, recreational and piscatorial” purposes are not “beneficial uses” under state water law.

“Beneficial use” is a much-used term in state water law and originally encompassed primarily to agricultural and municipal uses. That definition has been evolving throughout the years — through both court decisions and legislation — to protect recreational uses, too, and the new legislation makes that clearer.



According to a summary on the legislature’s website, “The bill provides that the decision in the St. Jude’s Co. case interpreting section 37-92-103 (4) does not apply to previously decreed absolute and conditional water rights or claims pending as of July 15, 2015.”

What this means is that those who hold water rights from a stream can legally divert that water for purposes other than agriculture or municipal use.

The bill was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Democrat K.C. Becker and co-sponsored in the Senate by Republican Jerry Sonnenberg. In a statement after Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill, Becker said the law “provides the needed certainty for water rights holders in Colorado.”

Eagle River Watershed Council Executive Director Holly Loff agreed. In an email, Loff wrote that the group is celebrating the bill’s passage.

“It protects the tools that local governments have at their disposal to protect flows — both recreational and environmental — which were threatened by the broad language in the (Supreme Court) case. Recreational and piscatorial uses are most definitely beneficial and we are happy to see those protected.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, and @scottnmiller.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on June 2, 2017.


Healthy Rivers Start in Your Backyard

Lizzie Schoder

Colorado is an arid state, averaging around 16 inches of precipitation a year. Factor in our high elevation, and the Eagle Valley can be a tricky place for gardening and landscaping. Fortunately, embracing the practices that allow our gardens and landscapes to thrive usually falls in harmony with best practices to keep our rivers healthy.

Landscaping practices have a direct and significant effect on the Eagle River and its tributaries. The pollution-intolerant aquatic insects, or macroinvertebrates, that make up the food chain for our gold medal waters and the lifeblood of our valley have been dropping in recent years. Sections of the Eagle River and Gore Creek have consequently been listed on the state’s 303d list of impaired streams.

Two of the three known primary stressors in our watershed as identified by the Urban Runoff Group are untreated runoff from impervious and urban areas, and the loss of riparian and wetland vegetation.

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pet waste, and organic matter can be carried by wind or picked up by rain and melting snow and carried directly into our rivers or through our storm drains. This overloads our waterways with sediment and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which kill macroinvertebrates and increase algae blooms—harming our fish, as well as our community’s source of drinking water, recreation, and tourism.

Those who are lucky enough to live next to our river understandably may want to enjoy an unobstructed view. However, the loss of riparian corridors, stemming from homeowners mowing all the way to the river and cutting down the native plants that may block their view, destroys the critical ecological function of these plants, which is to act as nature’s filter for the river and as a buffer from inevitable pollutants. These riparian plants also prevent stream bank erosion and provide important shade and habitat for fish and other wildlife.

Fortunately, landscaping practices that are kind to our rivers go hand-in-hand with overall long-term success for your gardens and backyards. Simple actions to take include:

-Using native grasses and perennials in your gardening. They are better adapted to the microclimates in our valley and require less water, fertilizers and pesticides. The Eagle County CSU Extension office and Betty Ford Alpine Gardens have comprehensive lists of native plants, as well as beautiful drought-tolerant plants.

-Allow streamside plants to grow, by not mowing all the way to the river. Leave a natural setback between your manicured lawn/garden and the stream. This varies with topography, geography and other factors, but should be 25 feet at minimum.

-Consider using permeable materials such as gravel and flagstones over asphalt and concrete for garden walkways, patios, and driveways.

-Limit your use of pesticides and fertilizers, especially before it rains! Make sure to read all labels and use the right amount. Consider using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques and compost to get desired results.

Other than using drought-tolerant and native plants, new “smart” irrigation technology is available at increasingly reasonable costs. One landscaper in the valley, Kreston Rohrig of Four Seasons Landscaping and Irrigation, explains how the evapotranspiration (ET) systems he uses have shown an average of 40% water savings annually:

“The ET water system basically operates like a cell phone, so it gets updates constantly throughout the day, and has algorithms that pull from local weather station data. It basically equates for how much the system needs based on what current conditions are, and records how much water has been used to the gallon. These systems will learn specific flow rates per zone.”

Rohrig gave the example of a customer with a broken pipe: this would immediately generate an email alert to flag that that zone has a high flow rate. He explained “that saves a lot of water to quickly fix that zone that’s just bleeding out, and that also saves the homeowner a lot of money on trouble shooting. At the end of the day, their water bill is much less and their plants are also healthy.”

Rohrig’s pilot project with eight properties in Mountain Star saved over 600,000 gallons of water annually with no change to plant health.

With our county’s population predicted to double by 2040, the challenges facing our rivers will only grow. These solutions can help reverse impairments to our waterways, save water, and save homeowners money in the long run.

Lizzie Schoder is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit

This article ran in the Vail Daily on May 25, 2017.