February 20, 2014

Returning Flows to a Prized Colorado Trout Stream

Photography | WRC is working to ensure perennial flows along this stretch of the Little Cimarron. Photo: Little Cimarron River, by Russ Schnitzer.

Since 2012, Western Rivers Conservancy has been working to reestablish year-round flows on the Little Cimarron River, an outstanding Colorado trout stream and tributary of the Gunnison River. Last month, we took a major leap forward in our effort to realize that vision when we conveyed the water rights from a farm we purchased to Colorado Water Trust (CWT).

The Little Cimarron is a gem of a stream, flowing 25 miles from the Uncompahgre Wilderness to the main-stem Cimarron, which meets the Gunnison River at the spectacular Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The upper 13 miles of the Little Cimarron have all the qualities of a wild trout stream. Its waters are cold and clear and teem with naturally reproducing rainbow and brook trout. Once the river reaches the irrigation ditches of the lower Pleasant Valley, though, it often flows only intermittently from late summer to early fall.

When a farm with senior water rights on the Little Cimarron went into bank foreclosure in 2012, WRC and CWT identified a unique opportunity to put water back into the “Little Cim”. WRC purchased the farm with the goal of working with CWT to dedicate the water “in-stream” during the driest months of the year. Now that we have conveyed the water rights to CWT, the Trust can pursue an irrigation plan that would allow for continued agricultural operations while keeping water in the river when the river needs it most.  

If successful, the project will reestablish perennial flows, reconnect vital fish habitat, reduce water temperatures in the lower river and allow trout to repopulate the formerly de-watered reach of the stream. For WRC, it’s a unique and exciting project—and one with potential to serve as a model for stream conservation not just in Colorado, but throughout the West. 

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