When the first reports started to trickle in about something unusual on the Fryingpan River, Sharon Clarke thought a few fishermen were simply having bad days on the river.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy’s watershed action director and others from the organization this summer heard that the occurrence of insect hatches was off-kilter from previous years, that there seemed to be fewer fish, and that the fish that were caught seemed slimmer.
One of those sounding the alarm was Cam Scott, a fly-fishing guide.
“It was a little bit of a funny summer,” he said. “There just weren’t a lot of green drakes on the river.”
The green drake hatch is a signature event for the Fryingpan, as the insects are a main food source for the river’s trout, which noticeably fatten up from the newly arrived protein. The fish Scott caught seemed skinnier, he said.
“A bunch of guides were talking, and we were all seeing the same thing,” Scott said.
The hatches were occurring below the Ruedi Reservoir dam, but there was a lack of the insects in the mid-river portion above Basalt.
It wasn’t just the guides who took notice.
Other fishermen and residents living along the river provided anecdotal reports “all summer long about the sporadic nature of the hatches, the delay in when the hatches were coming or just not seeing the insects at all,” said Rick Lofaro, the conservancy’s executive director.
“You could set your watches to the hatches on the Fryingpan, particularly the summertime hatches of two mayflies, the pale morning dun and the green drake,” he said.
The latter is the big hatch, the one that “everybody gets excited for in the summer,” Lofaro said.
The insects are easy to see, the fish take them aggressively, and the fishermen follow the hatch accordingly. With that portion of the bug’s life cycle “out of sync, of course it gets people’s attention,” he said.
A Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist told Clarke that she was hearing the same reports.
“That made us really perk up and pay attention,” she said.
To find out what caused the abnormal hatch, and to gauge the health of the river — which provides some of the best fly-fishing spots in the nation — the conservancy next month will begin the first part of a multi-pronged assessment.
“I’m excited to see what they find in their study,” Scott said.
Of ice and snot
This will be the conservancy’s first major assessment of the Fryingpan in more than a decade.
The last study was in 2002, which was a drought year, as was 2012. Clarke said the hypothesis is that low flows last winter, stemming from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s desire to keep the reservoir more full amid the drought, were behind the changes noticed this summer. (The reclamation bureau, which is in charge of the massive water diversion system known as the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, controls releases from the dam.)
The Fryingpan for about four months last year flowed only at 39 or 40 cubic feet per second (cfs), the minimum instream requirement, compared to a winter average of 70 to 100 cfs. Low winter flows impact rivers in two ways, Clarke said. It leads to the buildup of anchor ice that, when it breaks free, “basically scrapes the bottom of the river,” she said. That can damage aquatic vegetation and the survival rates of the insects, which, in turn, can be detrimental to fish.
Lofaro said that anchor ice acts as a “road grader” as it scours the river bottom. And if ice fills up the water column (the section that extends from the surface to the bottom), “you’ve taken out all their habitat,” Clarke added.
And the fish, of course, mean money. A 2002 economic study conducted by the conservancy showed that the 7.5-mile stretch of the lower Fryingpan injects about $1.8 million into the midvalley’s economy from tourism each year.
The conservancy in October will begin monitoring the Fryingpan’s temperatures as one part of its biological assessment, which aims to gather and analyze data for two years.
Low flows also make a river more susceptible to Didymosphenia geminate, an organism known as rock snot.
Above: Anchor ice, seen in this file photo on the Fryingpan River, can lower the survival rates of aquatic insects, which, in turn, can be detrimental to fish.
A few anglers have told conservancy staff that rock snot has been spotted in more places on the Fryingpan than usual. The organism can cover rocks and smother young caddis, stone and mayflies, Clarke said.
For 10 years or so, the conservancy has made recommendations to the reclamation bureau on flow regimes from Ruedi Reservoir to reduce rock snot’s presence, Lofaro said.
A normal river system experiences high peak flows in the springtime because of snowmelt. That flushes rock snot “out of there, so it can’t get a foothold in the river,” he said. “When you don’t have those high, scouring flows, then you see that it has the ability to spread more than it would in a natural ecosystem.”
Lofaro said the conservancy is considering a new program in which anglers would be urged to disinfect their waders. An ammonia-water mixture in a backpack weed sprayer is a good way to battle the spread of rock snot, as well as the parasite behind whirling disease, and zebra and quagga mussels, invasive species that can wreak havoc on a water way’s infrastructure. The conservancy may make such a sprayer available to fishermen, along with urging them to wash their equipment themselves.
Collecting bugs, funds
Perhaps the most important part of the biological study also is to begin next month when conservancy staff break out nets and collect macroinvertebrates from the Fryingpan.
Following state protocols in gathering the insects, rocks will be scrubbed so the organisms can be netted downstream, Clarke said. A sample will be placed into an alcohol-filled jar and shipped to a laboratory so the number of caddis, stone and mayflies can be gauged, which, in turn, will give a snapshot of the river’s diversity and biomass.
The insects “are the canary in the coal mine,” Lofaro said. “The types of bugs and the number of bugs that we have in the stream tell us a lot, right out of the gate, about water quality.”
Finally, the conservancy, or a subcontractor, will assess the population of the American dipper, a bird that lives along rivers. Along with concerns about insects, anchor ice and rock snot, river regulars also told the conservancy that they were seeing fewer birds.
The American dipper, because it swims underwater to gobble mayflies and other critters, is considered a “great indicator species” of a river’s health, Lofaro said. A declining macroinvertebrate population could be leading to fewer birds.
In 2015, with all of this data in hand, Clarke said the conservancy will be better able to approach water-rights holders and try to convince them to release some of their water in Ruedi to aid the fishery’s health.
Working with the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, which advises the reclamation bureau on use of the reservoir, and the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which is the largest contract holder of Ruedi water, the conservancy will investigate how new and existing contracts can be managed to ensure the health of the river.
Modifying the principles of the federal Fryingpan-Arkansas Project — which diverts Fryingpan water east of the Continental Divide — isn’t likely, though, as that would require congressional approval, Clarke said.
“Could this happen?” Lofaro said of voluntary releases. “We haven’t gotten a yes, but we haven’t gotten the door slammed in our face.”
The idea would be that water-rights holders could call for a release for fishery-health reasons without having to prove that the water will be used for another beneficial purpose, like drinking water for Glenwood Springs, for instance, he said.
The conservancy has raised $42,000 of the nearly $49,000 estimated cost of the biological assessment.
Basalt Town Manager Mike Scanlon said the town contributed about $10,000 to the study. But the rest of the funds have been raised from residents, Lofaro said.
“There’s been enough private interest in the biological assessment that we have raised these funds largely through private contributions,” he said.
Initial results from the insect collection could be ready in December or January, and the overall assessment results may be released in the summer of 2014.
Clarke on Sept. 19 briefed the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Citizens Advisory Board. Board members backed the plan to investigate what is going on with the Fryingpan.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Greg Poschman, who sits on the board. “It’s why we’re here.”