The fish are returning to Fraser Flats. It took years of vision and persistence, but Trout Unlimited’s long-game strategy of collaboration on the Upper Colorado River is paying big dividends for anglers and local communities that depend on a healthy river.
Exhibit A is the Fraser Flats Habitat Project. The Fraser River, a key tributary of the Upper Colorado, had been degraded by years of water diversions and other pressures.
TU and a host of water stakeholders joined forces to reverse that decline. The effort, called Learning by Doing, brought together a variety of partners including Denver Water, Northern Water, Grand County, Trout Unlimited, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to help restore the Upper Colorado watershed.
The group’s inaugural project at Fraser Flats aimed to restore a roughly one-mile stretch of the Fraser between the towns of Tabernash and Fraser, with the goal of providing healthy habitat for trout even during periods of reduced flows. The Fraser in this section had become too wide and shallow, resulting in sedimentation and high temperatures that smothered bug life and pressured coldwater-loving trout.
Design work began last fall. In late spring, more than 150 volunteers turned out to plant willows and cottonwoods along the streambank for shade and bank stability. Then in summer and fall, the group brought in Freestone Aquatics to narrow the river with point bars and other structures to increase velocity and depth of the river. Freestone also created a series of riffle and deep pools to provide better holding water for trout.
The results already have been nothing short of spectacular.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife conducted a fish survey on Oct. 5, shortly after completion of the project, and found dramatic increases in the biomass of brown and rainbow trout in the stretch compared to previous surveys, and an even larger increase in numbers of larger (14" and up) fish.
Preliminary electrofishing survey results from CPW showed the reach experienced a 415% increase in brown trout biomass, and a 550% increase in the numbers of brown trout greater than 14" in length. While rainbows are a smaller component of the population (15% of biomass, 25% of larger fish #s), they also blossomed with an increase of 267% in biomass and a 400% boost in fish over 14".
"We are elated," Mely Whiting, legal counsel for Trout Unlimited, told the local Ski-Hi News. "This is amazing. The biomass [in the river] has more than tripled, just from last year, and only in the matter of a couple of weeks since the project was completed.”
Biologists also reported seeing large brown trout actively spawning in many areas of the stretch. In short, Fraser River trout have wasted no time moving into the improved habitat.
What’s more, starting in spring 2018, the project will also provide public fishing access along a half-mile of the Fraser Flats section.
“This section of the Fraser River is the healthiest I’ve seen this river in the 47 years I’ve lived here,” TU’s Klancke said. “The best part is we’re hoping to do more river improvements like this in the future with our Learning By Doing partners.”
Colorado Public Radio this week aired a segment about the successful project and the "unusual partnership" between TU and Denver Water .
Watch the video below from Denver Water for another good overview of the project benefits.