Instream Flow Management for Listed Fish in the Upper Colorado River Basin: Water Year 2023 Example  

David Graf

Instream Flow Coordinator, Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, USFWS


In the early 1980s, federal permitting under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act required replacement of depletions for water project development to avoid injury to four federally listed fish that occupy the upper Colorado River basin (Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub, bonytail).  At that time, Federal ESA permitting for water projects, and specifically water depletions, required mitigation from project proponents and resulted in a piecemeal approach that also required significant federal, state, and private resources to implement.  Ongoing discussions throughout the 1980s resulted in the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, established in 1988, that embraces a partnership-based, programmatic approach to Section 7 ESA consultation and permitting for the impacts of water depletions on listed fish.  The Recovery Program focuses on two main objectives: (1) to provide programmatic environmental compliance under Section 7 ESA for water depletions; and (2) to recover the four listed fish.  The Recovery Program is comprised of a broad partnership of Federal, State, and non-governmental partners that oversees implementation of the Program.  The Program Directors Office is charged with administration and implementation of a broad suite of recovery activities occurring throughout the basin.  Instream flow management is one of seven Recovery Program ‘elements’, and flow management for listed fish in the upper Colorado basin requires a highly collaborative and adaptive approach to address ever-changing hydrologic conditions and needs for threatened and endangered fish. 

This presentation uses the 2023 water year to illustrate Program objectives and operations throughout the upper Colorado basin (above Lake Powell), including a closer look at providing environmental flows to the 15-Mile Reach (15MR) of the Colorado River, roughly Palisade to the Gunnison River confluence.  To help meet 15MR flow targets, the Recovery Program has upstream storage pools, lease water, and other more variable supplies that are used to maximize opportunities for listed fish to reproduce and survive.  Underscoring the Program’s progress in listed fish recovery are the partnerships that operate at multiple levels throughout the Program that enable fish recovery and human water uses to continue.  These partnerships will remain critical in a future with greater water demand and increasingly complex resource management challenges in the upper Colorado River basin.