Imagine a fall fishing experience on the North Fork of the South Platte River near the picturesque community of Bailey. Temperatures are moderate. The rich, blue sky is virtually cloudless. Mature groves of aspen, in their autumn splendor, stand majestically cloaked in endless layers of shimmering gold.

“No wonder U.S. presidents used to fish here,” you think to yourself. You thank yourself for playing hooky from work, take in a liberating lung-full of glorious mountain air, hop into your waders and head down to water’s edge.

The river’s unusually low flow comes to your immediate attention. Stepping into the water you note the absence of typical bug life on and around the water’s surface. Upon closer inspection, you witness fish of all species and sizes behaving lethargically, often treading almost motionless in the water when you wade by, or even when you bump into them.

Soon thereafter, dead fish are surfacing and washing downstream in large numbers. You look as masses of deceased fish begin to create unsightly piles of waste along the water’s rocky edges. Fish that should appear in fly-fishing brochures are suddenly lying lifeless all around you. By the ordinary standards of any fisherman, sportsman or lover of the great outdoors, it is a heart-wrenching sight to behold.

This grisly scene, just as it has been described, is all too real, and all too common.

According to many Park County residents, it is also completely unnecessary and entirely avoidable.

Costly cycle of fish kills continues to mount

Well-documented fish kill incidents have been occurring with greater regularity for about the last two decades in the North Fork of the South Platte River near Bailey. In recent years, instances of fish kill been have been occurring on an almost annual basis, sometimes more. The result has been a series of ecological and environmental atrocities to the bug life and diverse species of trout that have been stocked, and restocked, on numerous occasions.

“We are guessing we have at about two thousand dead fish on the property,” said Boxwood Gulch owner and Manager Dan Mauritz, following a fish kill that occurred from March 11 to 15. “No species is immune to the contaminants when the water flow is like it has been, and water from the Roberts Tunnel is shut down to zero over an extended period of time.”

Mauritz, who has been in the business of maintaining fish habitats and fish populations at Boxwood Gulch for close to three decades, restocks a three-mile stretch of water to replace lost fish each time a fish kill occurs due to low water levels.

The dreamy stretch of river provides an angler’s paradise when the river maintains an acceptable flow, and the stocked fish reproduce, thrive and inevitably grow into trophy catches. Rainbows, browns, brookies, cutthroats, tigers (hybrid brown and brookie) and palomino (yellow pigmented rainbow), round out the list of trout species that take well to Platte waters.

A multitude of area outfitters regularly frequent Boxwood Gulch and other Platte River destinations around Bailey to provide anglers with the fishing experience of a lifetime. When fish kills occur due to low flow levels, scores of local families working within the fishing industry take an enormous financial hit. Some outfitters and guides scramble to find extra income, while others are forced out of the business altogether.

“All species of fish that are lost need to be replaced, and when we have a big fish kill, every species I stock is impacted,” Mauritz said. “We have to maintain a minimum flow of around twenty cubic feet per second or we lose everything. This makes about the tenth or eleventh time this has happened in about the last twenty years.”

Mauritz estimates that he spent roughly $70,000 on restocking efforts in 2018. He has restocked four times this year, and a fifth stocking has already been scheduled. Lost revenue to would-be guests who cancel trips and head for alternative waters after fish kills is staggering. But Mauritz has always chosen to restore the fish population on his property, ultimately maintaining the high quality fishing experience his clients have come to expect.

Interestingly, only about half of the fish stocked in Boxwood Gulch waters remain there. The other half make their homes in nearby waters both upstream and downstream. Public fishing waters regularly reap the benefits of stocking efforts from private entities. The effects of low flows are not limited to private waters, however, and have had devastating impacts on public and private waters throughout the North Fork region.

A hit to fishing is a punch in the gut to Park County businesses

The repeated blunt blows dealt to the Park County economy as a result of fish kills are practically incalculable. Angling outfitters have been the most obvious victims of fish kills, but the monetary ramifications run much deeper than just to the fishing industry.

The lodging industry, restaurants, convenience stores, liquor stores and Bailey area businesses of all types watch profits recede along with the flow of the river. When fish die, so does a huge part of the tourist-dependent local economy.

“I’m guessing that I could lose fifteen, or maybe even twenty percent of my business when tourism is in its peak season and water flow problems make the fishing lousy,” said Cutthroat Café owner Chip Thomas. “It isn’t just my business, though. It affects virtually every business in Bailey. It seems like this happens every year now, and it’s been going on for what seems like about the last fifteen years.”

Bailey Lodge co-owner and manager Scott Peck, who often hosts groups of anglers for extended visits, says his bottom line is directly impacted due to local fish kills.

“When we have water flow problems, I start getting the cancellations,” Peck said. “It’s a ripple effect to my business, and all the other businesses around here too. Sometimes, depending on the season, the financial impact here can be relatively minimal. But who wants to lose business?”

Why, exactly, are the fish dying?

Fish kills in the North Fork of the South Platte River are occurring during low water flow periods that fail to dilute the toxicity of heavy metals such as iron, copper and aluminum. Contaminants in the form of heavy metals move downstream, originating primarily from Hall Valley and Geneva Creek mining operations.

When water flow is adequate, there is enough oxygen to negate the impact of the toxins. When water levels are inadequate, fish develop coatings on their gills as a natural self-defense mechanism to the toxins. That protective coating ultimately renders their gills inoperable.

When and why do water levels get too low?

Water flow in the river is dependent upon how much water is released from Dillon Reservoir through Roberts Tunnel, and those decisions are made almost exclusively by Denver Water.

When more water is needed within Denver Water service areas, the rate of the water passing through Roberts Tunnel is set to flow more freely. When water is not needed to serve the Denver Water service area, the flow from Roberts Tunnel is restricted, much to the detriment of the people, and the fish, in Park County.

Water flows can be naturally low in the river during certain seasons. This year, in mid-March, for example, snowmelt had not yet occurred and the river was in its customary state of low flow prior to the fast-approaching late-spring thaw.

An abundance of area-wide spring moisture, however, created a situation where Denver Water service areas enjoyed a surplus of water. Therefore, the flow from Roberts Tunnel and Dillon Reservoir was ceased on March 11 and remained so at least until this writing.

The predictable result was the most recent fish kill, which occurred March 11-15,  because flows were simply not sufficient to combat ever-present toxic heavy metals related to mining. No information has been provided by Denver Water as to when the tunnel will be reopened.

Denver Water states its position

When The Flume recently requested a statement from Denver Water regarding flows in the river and operations of Roberts Tunnel, a response was received in timely fashion.

In direct response to whether or not Denver Water felt a moral obligation to residents in Park County related to ecological systems they have long controlled, and whether Denver Water should accept responsibility for maintaining minimal flow in the South Platte River for the environmental and economical benefit of the entire North Fork region, the following statement was submitted:

“We (Denver Water) understand the potential for impacts to the fishery when flows from the Roberts Tunnel are shut down, and certainly recognize and appreciate the effect on the angling community and local businesses and outfitters. Unfortunately, operation of the Roberts Tunnel is directed by legal obligations and decrees tied to Colorado water law and binding agreements with West Slope communities where the water from the tunnel originates.

“As you know, the flows from the Roberts Tunnel originate in water diverted from West Slope rivers and streams into Dillon Reservoir. Denver Water depends on this supply when snow pack within the Upper South Platte watershed is insufficient. However, since early March, portions of the Upper South Platte watershed have received more than four feet of snow and spring precipitation continues to be strong.

“Legally, water supplied through the Roberts Tunnel can only be accessed when water is needed in Denver Water’s service area. Further, any other uses for the water, including augmenting stream flows for aquatic life or recreation uses, are not allowed as a primary purpose for operating the tunnel.

“While we provide projections about how long Denver Water will deliver water through the tunnel, those are only estimates based on snow pack, reservoir storage and other system elements. Those projections can change as conditions change; as they did in late winter and early spring this year.”

Uncertain future

While Denver Water overtly expresses an appreciation for the economic and environmental implications of low water flows in the North Fork regions of the South Platte River, it also states clearly that its policies are governed by what is in the best interests of customers residing within their service area, long-standing contracts with Western Slope entities and decrees and obligations stemming from state water laws. Denver Water expresses regrets that their policies might negatively impact those within The Flume coverage area, but maintains that its business interests, by necessity, trump those concerns.

Conversely, even the Park County residents impacted most directly by low water flows from Roberts Tunnel understand and appreciate the responsibilities Denver Water has to its constituents. But even so, they firmly stand by their conviction that greater efforts could be made on the part of Denver Water to address water flow issues in a way that suits the environmental and the economic interests of others.

“I understand Denver Water’s need to provide water throughout their service area,” Mauritz said.

“I get that. I know they have contracts that dictate their decisions. But at the same time, it seems illogical to treat a river like a bathroom water faucet, turning it on when you want and turning it completely off when you don’t need it.

“Is it not possible to modify contracts when minimal changes could make such enormous differences for so many people, as well as an entire ecological system? Would running a little extra water really negatively impact the people of Denver? I’m not pointing fingers. I just think those are fair questions that we should all be asking.”

Only time will tell if common ground can ever be achieved for the benefit of all parties involved in this ongoing, multifaceted struggle.

Meanwhile, a raging current of competing interests rules the day, as well as the ecological fate of a legendary stretch of river, the economic interests of Park County residents and the quality of life for all who are fortunate enough to encounter the magnificence of the North Fork section of the South Platte River.

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