November 30, 2011--Water for the river (Telluride News)

The San Miguel River winds surreptitiously around the edge of town before dropping some 3,000 feet on its way to the desert. For the most part, the river is unhindered by man’s works. For anglers and recreational boaters that means a trove of enjoyable stretches. But farmers, ranchers and even some municipalities need water from the river, so it was necessary to build a few diversion dams over the past few decades. One of those diversions, administered by the Colorado Conservation Company, supplies agricultural water to contractors near Naturita, in San Miguel County’s West End. Built in the 1950s, the diversion had wreaked havoc on the riparian ecosystem, posed a hazard to boaters and kept a 1,500-foot stretch of the riverbed dry. Noting the need to reestablish fish habitat and improve safety for boaters, a coalition of environmental groups, state and federal agencies, and the CCC embarked on a 10-year restoration project. That project is now complete. “There were a whole lot of partners in this, the most important of which was the CCC,” said Dan Kowalski, an aquatic biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “They own the diversion structure and the water rights, so without them this wouldn’t have been possible.” Construction, which entailed building a fish ladder and a low-flow channel, wrapped up last month. When it was built, the dam bypassed several thousand feet of the river before reentering downstream. To fish, the low concrete structure seemed an impenetrable wall, particularly to the Flannelmouth sucker, which aren’t particularly good jumpers. The fish ladder was designed to accommodate both nonathletic fish like suckers and agile sport fish like brown and rainbow trout.

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