Anyone who has ever fished Utah’s Weber River knows that it is one of the last best places to catch big, native, Bonneville cutthroat trout. Even so, numbers of these fish have been in decline in recent decades and it has been more difficult to find those ‘honey holes’ that the old timers like to talk about — the ones where you could fish for 15 minutes and ‘catch your limit.’
A Bonneville Cutthroat stronghold
At TU we spend a lot of time reconnecting and restoring rivers. It’s cool work in itself, and the stoneflies and other stream critters certainly appreciate it. But, if we’re being honest, we really do it for the fish … and for the fishing.
Much of the Weber River's decline can be attributed to the fact that as the West became more developed, important tributaries were blocked with dams and road crossings and streambeds were dewatered with irrigation withdrawals. Those tributaries were historically the ‘fish factories’ in many systems, producing the juvenile fish that eventually moved downstream to live in main stem rivers.
Understandably, as more ‘factories’ were taken offline, fish numbers dwindled. TU’s Weber River project manager, Paul Burnett, is working hard to change that. In August 2013, he finalized an agreement with a local irrigator that reconnected important habitats in Chalk Creek, a major tributary to the Weber River.
Chalk Creek is a truly unique and special place. It supports one of the last strongholds for the Bonneville cutthroat trout, but the habitat is broken into smaller pieces, so TU is working with local partners to reconnect it.
Improving a “fish factory”
This most recent project removed a full-spanning irrigation dam from the South Fork of Chalk Creek. This dam prevented fish from moving from Chalk Creek to upstream waters where they were seeking spawning habitat and cooler water in the summer. We moved the point of diversion, where the water is removed from the stream, downstream into the main stem of Chalk Creek where flows are higher and withdrawals have less of an impact. We also upgraded the irrigation system to use less water and distribute it more efficiently to agricultural crops.
The result was 26 miles of critical tributary habitat in Chalk Creek that is once again accessible to big spawning fish. Over a mile of the South Fork of Chalk Creek that was historically dried up every year below the old dam once again has water throughout the year. Thanks to Paul’s efforts, at least one of those important tributary fish factories will be back in production and pumping out cutthroat trout again next year.