Elkhead Reservoir Spillway Barrier Net Project

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Thanks to the leadership of the Colorado River District, preservation of fishing opportunities at Elkhead Reservoir near Craig, Colorado and critical efforts in support of protecting endangered fish downstream from the reservoir were accomplished with the 2016 installation of a spillway barrier net.

Conflict between critical efforts to restore four federally listed fishes in the Yampa River and popular game fishing in Elkhead Reservoir was avoided by investment in the $1.3 million spillway barrier net. The net enhanced the project that began with screening the dam’s outlets, which was accomplished during the reservoir enlargement project completed in 2006. These techniques made keeping the hungry nonnative sport fish in the reservoir rather than allowing them to escape over the spillway.

The cooperative Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program (Recovery Program) is a coalition of water interests, environmental groups, and power companies, along with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to bring four native fish species back from the brink of extinction in compliance with the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Without the Recovery Program water use of all types would be scrutinized under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Throughout the upper Colorado River, one of the greatest challenges facing the Recovery Program is how to successfully control nonnative fish predators that not only compete with the native river fish for available habitat, but also eat the listed native fish species. Fishery managers considered restarting the Elkhead Reservoir fishery by lowering the water level in the reservoir and administering a poison to kill the competitive game fishes and subsequently stocking less competitive game fishes. Installing the spillway barrier net affords fishery managers the luxury of a staged approach to conversion of the fishery in Elkhead Reservoir to a mix of species still popular with the public yet less threatening to the listed riverine fishes.

The Colorado River District’s Deputy Chief Engineer, Ray Tenney, oversaw the many details of the highly successful project on behalf of owners, stakeholders and funders, including the State of Colorado. As described by Mr. Tenney, “The River District Board, as a strong supporter of the Recovery Program, was willing and able to pool the federal and state funds to get the project completed.”

Although “the net is not the cheapest solution and it may take longer to solve the non-native problem, we were willing to compromise, because we heard the community,” said Kevin McAbee, non-native fish coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The investment in the barrier net and debris boom should help alleviate the need for $100,000’s of annual effort to remove competitive non-native fish from the Yampa River.

The Net Itself – What’s under the yellow floats?
The barrier net is 600 foot-long and made of a high strength polyester filament called Dyneema. The Dyneema yarn is manufactured in the Netherlands and was woven as opposed to being knotted, which leads to excessive wear and decreased design life, into netting in Slovakia. This netting was then assembled into 50-foot segments in Kingston, WA. Upon arrival, the net segments were combined on site at the Elkhead Reservoir boat ramp one 50-foot segment at a time.
The barrier net was secured to the anchors which were included in the 2006 reservoir enlargement by divers. To protect the net from the woody debris which comes down Elkhead Creek an 800 foot long debris boom of foam filled 24-inch pipe was constructed. The spillway barrier net will be maintained by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and will require annual cleaning. The barrier net gives CPW a critical new tool and enables flexibility in the management of the fishery in Elkhead Reservoir, ultimately ensuring that reservoir-based fishing and recreation will continue well into the future for both local and visiting enthusiasts.

How Net Was Funded
The cost of the design and installation of the barrier net and debris boom was $1.3 million. The Colorado Water Conservation Board provided $500,000 from the Colorado Species Conservation Trust Fund and the remainder of the funding came from the Bureau of Reclamation and power generation revenues through the Upper Colorado River Recovery Program. The net should last 10 to 15 years and the debris boom much longer.
More on Elkhead Reservoir

The Colorado River District, along with the City of Craig, jointly own and operate Elkhead Reservoir. The reservoir hosts a Colorado State Park that averages 130,000 visitors per year and the water in the reservoir provides benefits to the City of Craig, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the Colorado River District, and the Recovery Program as well as supporting healthy populations of nonnative northern pike, smallmouth bass and other game fish.

Other Important Native Fish Recovery Activities
It is important to note that in addition to non-native control, many other techniques are being implemented by the members of the cooperative Recovery Program to protect and to recover the targeted native fish species, such as stocking endangered fish, river flow management, and habitat restoration. For more information visit the River District’s webpage on the Endangered Fish Recover Program. 

More on Elkhead Reservoir Spillway Barrier Net Project

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