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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Utah: Managing Water Resources for Fish, Wildlife and People

A man holding a big fish

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Bobby Duran holds the fourth largest endangered Colorado pikeminnow captured in the San Juan River since 1991. In the face of a warming climate and persistent drought, partners are working to recover endangered fish like the Colorado pikeminnow while effectively managing water for human uses in Utah and other Upper Colorado River basin states. Photo: Upper Colorado and San Juan Recovery Programs. Download.

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In the face of a warming climate and persistent drought, people and wildlife along the Colorado River and its tributaries in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming are benefiting from cooperative efforts to recover four species of endangered fishes while effectively managing water for human uses and hydroelectric power generation.

The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, established in 1988, covers the Colorado River above Glen Canyon dam in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program was established in 1992 to recover the fish in the San Juan River in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.  The partners are state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as environmental groups, water users and power customers, and in the San Juan River, American Indian Tribes. 

These partnerships are recovering endangered Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker while water development proceeds in accordance with federal and state laws and interstate compacts. The Upper Colorado Program is also working to recover humpback chub and bonytail.

When the endangered fish recovery programs were established, says Upper Colorado Program Assistant Director Angela Kantola, chronic drought conditions in the west raised concerns that altered river flows might result in completely dry river sections in some years.

Irrigation structures
Check structures constructed at the privately owned Grand Valley Irrigation Project in western Colorado reduce water diversions by 6 to 34 percent each year while meeting irrigation demands.  The conserved water benefits endangered fish in the Colorado River. Photo: Upper Colorado and San Juan Recovery Programs. Download.

“Since the late 1980s, partners with both recovery programs had the vision to plan for drought-related, worst-case scenarios,” she says. “We didn’t call it climate change then.  We know much more today.  The steps these programs have taken to ensure water for the fishes will provide a safety net for future climate change-related water shortages.”

Climate change could have significant impacts to the basin’s aquatic ecosystem.  Impacts may include: 

  • Higher water temperatures from increased air temperature;
  • Changes in the timing of peak flows from an earlier snowmelt; and
  • Potentially lower runoff peaks because of reduced snow packs. 

Kantola says current scaled-down models suggest the northern part of the basin may get wetter and the southern portion drier. “But that moisture could come in the form of more spring rains and less winter snow.

“The water we’ve secured for the endangered fishes over the years has helped see their populations through some pretty serious drought periods, and this water should help us be able to face the challenges of climate change,” she says. “Our program partners have developed a number of innovative solutions to provide in stream flows.”

For example, the Bureau of Reclamation operates Flaming Gorge Dam in Utah to help meet flow and temperature recommendations for the fish. And operators of a number of reservoirs upstream of critical habitat on the Colorado River have coordinated water releases to provide more than a million acre-feet of water over the last 14 years to enhance spring and summer flows to improve downstream habitat.

A man in USFWS gear with a net in water
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Mike Montagne stocks hatchery-raised endangered razorback sucker in the Yampa River as part of an effort to help recover the species. Photo: Upper Colorado and San Juan Recovery Programs. Download.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established endangered fish flow recommendations for the Colorado, Duchesne, Green, Gunnison, San Juan and Yampa rivers and is working to complete recommendations for the Price and White rivers.  As a condition of recovery and delisting, agreements will maintain those flows and other actions that support recovery such as providing fish passage, screening irrigation canals and restoring habitat 

Tom Pitts, who represents water organizations for both recovery programs, says flows for the endangered fish are provided in accordance with state water law.

“During times of shortages, whether due to drought or climate change, flows for endangered fish receive the same protection as water deliveries to agriculture, municipalities and industries,” he says.

The groups who currently manage these various sources of water will be the people best suited to identify available flexibility to continue to meet flow needs of the endangered fish in the face of changing flow and temperature regimes.  The recovery programs operate under an adaptive management approach, Kantola says, and that will be a vital tool to address climate change impacts.

“Partners in the Upper Colorado and San Juan River Recovery Programs have made important strides toward recovery of the endangered Colorado River fishes,” she says. “But climate change can be expected to bring new challenges to these recovery efforts.  And it’s the strong working relationships formed in these Recovery Programs that will provide the platform for addressing the effects of changing river flow and temperature anticipated with climate change.” 

In addition to the Service, the recovery programs’ partners include the States of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Utah; National Park Service; Bureau of Reclamation; Bureau of Land Management; Bureau of Indian Affairs; Western Area Power Administration; Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Nation, Southern Ute Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe,  power customers, water users  and environmental organizations.  


Climate Change Focus: Engagement, Adaptation

Author: Debbie Felker


  • Leith Edgar, USFWS, 303-236-4588, Leith_Edgar@fws.gov
  • Debbie Felker, Information and Education Coordinator, Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, 303-969-7322, ext. 227, Debbie_Felker@fws.gov

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Great story!! Thank you for getting information out on this terrific program.
# Posted By SRose | 6/6/11 6:13 PM
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