Soils in the lower Gunnison Basin are naturally high in selenium and salts. When irrigation water from agricultural and non-agricultural sources (e.g. landscaping, ponds, golf courses, etc) infiltrates into these soils, selenium is mobilized, begins to move through groundwater systems, and eventually enters our local water ways where it can cause reproductive problems for aquatic life. The lower Gunnison and Colorado rivers and their tributaries currently exceed federal and state selenium levels considered to be safe for aquatic life.These rivers serve as critical habitat to four endangered fish species which have been adversely affected by reduced flows, diminished water quality, and other adverse changes in their habitat.
There is potential for significant conflict between existing and future water uses and the Endangered Species Act. In the West, some major conflicts have been related to selenium and irrigation. However, stakeholders in the Gunnison River Basin believe that such conflict can be avoided through pro-active programs that emphasize both protecting existing and future water uses and the recovery of the fish. These programs are only successful if all stakeholders in the basin work together collaboratively and proactively.
Gunnison River Basin Selenium Management Program
The Gunnison River Basin Selenium Management Program is a stakeholder partnership among federal, state, and local government agencies, water districts, and the public to identity and implement solutions to reduce selenium concentrations. The long term goal of the SMP is to sufficiently improve water-quality conditions to assist in the recovery of endangered river fishes. The success of the SMP will greatly reduce the chance of future conflicts between endangered species protection and small and large water users in the basin. Completion of the Gunnison Basin Programmatic Biological Opinion in 2009 for the entire Gunnison Basin has been a high priority for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado River Water Conservation District, Selenium Task Force, and other stakeholders. The PBO depends upon the success of the SMP, and the success of the SMP depends upon the participation of all Gunnison Basin stakeholders.
Programmatic Biological Opinion
A Programmatic Biological Opinion is an endangered species consultation or analysis written by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that addresses multiple actions for an individual resource program, land use plan, or other larger scale planning effort. For example, a PBO could address the effects of multiple water uses in an entire basin on endangered species. This is the case with the Gunnison Basin PBO. It is termed "programmatic" because it addresses a variety of public and private water uses in a comprehensive manner and provides ESA compliance for all the water depletions by water users in the Gunnison Basin.
The ESA provides a means for conserving the habitat upon which endangered species depend and to provide a program for the conservation of such species. The ESA directs federal agencies to participate in conserving these species and to evaluate any federal actions to ensure that their activities are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of species or adversely modify designated critical habitats. The FWS reviews these evaluations on federal actions and writes a biological opinion on the proposed effects of the actions on endangered species.
As part of this ESA consultation process, Reclamation and FWS evaluated the effects of reoperation and changed water releases from the Aspinall Unit (Blue Mesa, Morrow Point, and Crystal Reservoirs) on downstream endangered fish. During this consultation, the state of Colorado and the Colorado River Water Conservation District requested that the evaluation include all water uses in the Gunnison Basin and thereby complete ESA compliance for public and private water users throughout the basin. In 2009 the FWS prepared the PBO that provides ESA coverage for all water users in the Gunnison Basin.
The Gunnison Basin PBO also completed ESA compliance on the Dallas Creek and Dolores River projects.The FWS issued “jeopardy” biological opinions for both projects. A jeopardy opinion means that the project as planned would cause significant harm to the endangered fish. In order to avoid harming endangered Colorado River fish, other sources of water were sought to reduce effects of depletions in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers caused by the Dallas Creek and Dolores projects. In both cases, it was decided that the release water would come from the Aspinall Unit.
The Gunnison Basin PBO calls for re-operating the Aspinall Unit to provide higher or more natural spring river flows and moderate base flows. It also calls for developing a SMP to reduce selenium concentrations in the Gunnison River which are affected by the many water uses in the basin.