Trying to keep a river from dying in Colorado

A brown trout caught during an electroshocking fish survey on the Big Cimarron River in Colorado. Trout Unlimited photo.

By Cary Denison

The Big Cimarron River shouldn’t go dry. This may seem

like an obvious declaration about any trout stream. But the truth is, here in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin, and many other places in the West, water demands outpace supply even on average water years. This leaves many of the West’s rivers and streams, like the Big Cimarron in southwestern Colorado, depleted and fractured.

Big Cimarron River emanates from the bottom of Silver Jack Reservoir, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation facility that captures water from the three major streams on the north-facing slope of the Cimarron Range. In normal years, summer flows hammer through tight canyons, around boulders the size or Clydesdales, passing stands of aspen and spruce as it plunges more than 1,700 feet in 20 miles on its way from Silver Jack down to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Crystal Reservoir. From there, it empties into the famed Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. Big Cimarron supports all manner of wildlife, including wild trout, and is a treasured spot for many western Colorado anglers.

But this summer was not normal—not by a long shot. And I shouldn’t have been shocked when I stood on a county road bridge and watched the remnants of the river collecting in dark pools behind powder grey boulders then disappearing into cracks in the river’s bed. The sight turned my stomach, especially because I knew that my work was supposed to prevent such an occurrence.

Watch a video explaining the importance of the Big Cimarron River in Colorado to agicultural and recreational users.

As I drove down the valley that that day, I chewed on author Norman Maclean’s statement about rivers at low summer flows: “… part of the way to know a thing is through its death.” Based on what I had seen on the Big Cimarron I decided there are some things I’d rather not know. With some luck, and more deals like the one we made in 2018, the Big Cimarron River will keep some of its secrets from future generations.

Cary Denison works for Trout Unlimited as the Gunnison Basin Project Manager under the Western Water and Habitat Program. He is based out of Montrose, Colo.

By Brett Prettyman.