Community | Conservation | Voices from the river

Protecting a unique native in Colorado

A project to protect a genetically unique population of Colorado River cutthroat trout in Colorado is nearing completion. Abrams Creek, near the town of Gypsum, is the only native trout population in the Eagle River watershed.

The cutthroat in Abrams Creek have been given a “highest priority” for conservation by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The fish in Abrams Creek reside in a fairly low elevation drainage and have likely developed favorable adaptations to warmer temperatures and drought conditions as they have evolved. This is a major asset for the fish and could benefit reintroduction efforts for native cutthroat as changing climate concerns mount.

Irrigation practices on Abrams Creek open April 1 each year and an estimated 40 percent of water diverted away from the creek never reached intended lands due to leakage in the ditch.

A collaboration of partners came up with a plan and money to replace the ditch – owned by Buckhorn Valley Metro District – with a pipeline. The pipe allows for rights holders to get the irrigation water they are legally entitled to and will keep 40 percent more water in Abrams Creek at the same time. A screen on the pipeline will also prevent these unique native trout from ending up on a field.

“This is a unique project that balances the need for water, benefits the fish and the aquatic habitat,” said Pamela Sponholtz, Project Leader for the Colorado Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. “It shows what a community of partners can achieve when we work together.”

The pipeline has been completed. The screen will be installed and a flume that blocks fish passage in Abrams Creek will be replaced before a ribbon cutting ceremony planned for late June.

The project was announced in the summer of 2016 by Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Buckhorn Valley Metropolitan District No. 1. Since then a number of partners have joined the effort. They include: the Colorado Water Conservation Board; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the Town of Gypsum; the Eagle River Watershed Council; the Bureau of Reclamation through a Cooperative Watershed Management grant; Bureau of Land Management; Eagle River Chapter of Trout Unlimited; Alpine Bank in Gypsum; Fortius Realty and NAI Mountain.

“It is a valuable water right and it is a valuable fishery. This project helps both and we get to protect a very rare and beautiful fish,” said Mely Whiting, counsel for Trout Unlimited.

The increased flows on Abrams Creek will be protected from other uses by a state-held instream flow water right and by federal land use protections because the reach of water occupied by the Colorado River cutthroat is entirely within U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management boundaries.

“The Abrams Creek project is a great example of collaborative work between a diverse stakeholder group including Trout Unlimited, the Buckhorn District, and state and federal agencies,” said Linda Bassi, Chief of the Stream and Lake Protection Section with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “It is a multipurpose project that will protect an important population of native trout and meet several of the state’s long-term goals outlined in Colorado’s Water Plan.”

Brett Prettyman is the Intermountain Communications Director for Trout Unlimited. He is based out of Salt Lake City.