'Now the fish are gone'


By Cary Denison

After a little more than two years of working for Trout Unlimited, I did not expect my slap in the face, “oh yeah that’s why I do what I do” moment to come while waiting for copies at my local copy shop in Montrose, Colorado.  If it had happened while watching my son hook a trout in the famed Black Canyon of the Gunnison or while stripping a streamer on the Uncompahgre River a couple of blocks from my office, it would have seemed—well, more right. Then again, maybe I’d have missed the importance of it all together.

I was in a rush to get a handful of copies of short project summaries of large-scale irrigation canal piping projects that were funded at least in part to solve a streamflow problem: Convert an open ditch to pipe, reduce water transit loss, improve flows—pretty simple.  I was prepping for a meeting with a group of local farmers and community leaders that is known as NoChicoBrush. An odd name indeed, but we felt the name drove home the point that even though the group was interested in moving water efficiency projects in the lower Gunnison basin forward, we were not interested in drying up productive agricultural land, thereby returning it to Chico brush, more commonly known as greasewood.

My past experiences with this print shop were professional, nothing more. In the five years prior to working for Trout Unlimited, I’d frequented the shop many times. Copies of blue prints, water rights inventories, maps, permits—you name it—the woman who ran the shop had witnessed a steady flow of my professional documents and never uttered a word. Not for my lack of trying to pry one out of her either. For several years I’d taken it upon myself to try to engage her in small talk—and I had failed time after time and finally given up.

On this particular day, as she quickly strode back behind the counter with my copies in hand, she glanced down at them, quickly picked up on the theme, and said, “Why would Trout Unlimited care about piping ditches?”

I don’t yet have an elevator speech about my work with TU unless that elevator ride is around 20 minutes long, so I belted out the need to conserve water where possible and how addressing inefficiencies in agricultural water deliveries is a good tool for improving stream flow and minimizing habitat loss in important coldwater fisheries like the Gunnison River and other tributaries and on and on—until I was met with her cold hard stare. I guessed the small talk was over so I stopped and moved toward the register.

She paused, nodded her head and said, “I understand. I live near a small creek that runs off the mesa, and I used to go there to watch the trout swimming about in the creek. But the farmer above us dried up the creek, and now the fish are gone.” It was obvious by her tone that she missed the fish, and that she had made the connection between irrigation water efficiency and preserving trout habitat.

There it was—about 45 words more than she had ever spoken in my presence before, and it all hit home.

TU’s employees and its enormous team of volunteers understand well the goal of protect, reconnect, restore and sustain and how that ties to the joy of fishing and enjoying the outdoors. But this woman, making this connection to the simple joy of watching trout in the stream—and then feeling their loss—really hit home with me.

That’s why the work I do is important.

Though no one at the NoChicoBrush meeting had to endure the copy shop story being retold, they do understand that through collaboration we can create win-win projects that address the importance of making the best use of water, so we can avoid the loss of our irreplaceable fisheries and natural resources.

Cary Denison is Gunnison River Basin Project Coordinator for Trout Unlimited.


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