Report on Discussions Surrounding San Juan Silting Problem

November 18, 2006

Greetings Concerned Citizens,

There was a meeting with Dr. Bruce Thompson, Director NM Game & Fish on Friday, Nov. 17, 2006 on the San Juan River. A group of about 15 individuals, represented by concerned citizens, area guides, NM Game & Fish, NM State Parks, Bureau Of Reclamation, and San Juan Federation Of Fly Fishers gathered in the Texas Hole parking lot to discuss concerns about the silting problem the river is experiencing. The group viewed the problems at Kiddie Hole and Texas Hole. Short-term and longer-term perspectives were considered as the group collectively identified and further clarified some of the issues, conceivable action towards improvement, and challenges associated with that action. What follows is my observation of the event, and it should be allowed that others may have seen and heard it differently. I would offer that at least one common view was shared: that this was a very productive step in the direction of improving the circumstances on the San Juan River and that a sincere appreciation was felt by and for one another amongst those who attended.

Issues:

1. Heavy amounts of fine sand (also commonly called “silt”) entering the river from at least three major washes/canyons have degraded the riverbed and contributed to the loss of many species of insects, notably mayflies, stone flies, and caddis flies. \

2. The damaged area of the river appears to be from the Rex Smith Wash, located at the popular “Kiddie Hole,” down-river through the rest of the Quality Waters.

3. There was a general consensus that the fishery has been “re-distributed,” meaning that many of the fish which were once prevalent in those areas now covered by the sand deposits have moved upstream nearer the dam, above Rex Smith Wash. The riverbed is much cleaner there, resulting in more insect life and hence food for the fish. Along with this re-distribution of the fish has come a redistribution of anglers, concentrating them into increasingly smaller areas resulting in a less favorable fishing experience.

4. Unfavorable water releases from Navajo Dam that do not emphasize the health of the fishery also contribute to the problem as the sediment does not get washed downstream and out of the Quality Waters.

5. Major unpredictable recent storm events have made the situation much worse than it otherwise might be.

6. The economic impact in terms of how area businesses have experienced downturns in revenues was mentioned but not confirmed. More evaluation is necessary to determine the precise nature of this, but several in the group commented having heard business owners say they were considering selling out or closing entirely. Some have already left the area.

Action Towards Improvement:

1. NM State Parks, in conjunction with the Department Of Game and Fish, and in cooperation with the Bureau Of Reclamation will be conducting a dredging operation at the bottom end of the Kiddie Pool within the next few weeks to remove as much of the sand and cobble deposited there by the Rex Smith Wash as possible.

2. NM Game and Fish, in cooperation with NM State Parks and other organizations, and with assistance both financial and otherwise from San Juan Federation Of Fly Fishers, the energy companies operating on adjacent Bureau Of Land Management property and others have instituted a program of habitat improvement on the lower river designed to improve scour and low flow habitat.

3. NM Game and Fish, in consultation with NM State Parks, are involved in on-going collaboration about how to divert or otherwise reduce the flow of Rex Smith Wash into the San Juan River. They are also talking about how to address the other major washes, Simon and Munoz.

4. The Bureau Of Reclamation will consider a degree of flexibility in terms of the release patterns from the dam more favorable to maintaining the fishery. The point was made, that if the amount of water during any given time interval were to remain constant, the manner in which it is released may be subject to alteration to improve the health of the fishery. Further study as far as implementation would be necessary, but the possibility of addressing this crucial issue in a favorable manner is very promising. For example: reduce the number of days at 5,000cfs during the spring flush in order to allow for a higher average flow through the summer months. This becomes particularly critical in terms of avoiding the devastating 250cfs flows the river has experienced with unfortunate increasing regularity. The observation of mandates set forth by the EIS regarding endangered species would of course continue to be necessary. It is believed by most that the necessary cleansing of the river could be accomplished by shorter 5,000cfs flows, along with staying in compliance with the EIS, in order to maintain higher average flows. The higher flows would also reduce sedimentation.

Challenges:

1. While the dredging operation at Kiddie Hole may represent a short-term solution, further action is needed to address the causes and then consider longer-term, more permanent kinds of solutions. Some of those discussed included moving the parking lot to allow the wash to drain into the alluvial plain where it has historically, thus keeping the sand out of the river. Another involved re-directing the wash upstream into present wetlands that might even benefit from that re-maneuvering although there was agreement that this would also have to be considered a non-permanent kind of solution. Yet another considered a combination of redirection and the installation of mechanisms to check the flows in the wash. Maintenance of such “sand traps” becomes a major consideration, however, and will need to be carefully considered.

2. Learning more about how to accurately identify and effectively address the circumstances that have resulted in such major increases over the past several years of heavy sediment deposits. While the factors of the drought and subsequent lower flows are seen as part of the problem, not much has been done yet to learn what the impact of the major increases in energy industry activity has been. A representative from Dept. Of Game and Fish along with one from Dept. Of Parks recently made a visit to the area above Rex Smith Wash and reported seeing “no smoking guns.” They did, however, comment that their visit was not comprehensive and did not assess harmful effects increased road cutting into the areas may be having. There needs to be a comprehensive assessment of all of this activity to learn if and to what extent it is affecting the problems the river is experiencing. Suggestions were made for the public to attend the meetings the BLM offers periodically. There were urgings for the Dept. Of Game and Fish, the Dept. Of Parks to take the initiative to engage the BLM forthwith, not waiting for the public meetings to occur, in order to begin talks on an agency level. There was no clear statement to confirm this would happen.

3. The prospects of taking action would need careful study and consideration. Ideally, a professional engineer would be engaged to study all of the factors and make recommendations to address each one effectively. The issue of costs and financial responsibility once again comes up as a major consideration. The Director of Game and Fish pointed to the favorable current climate with regard to the participation of the energy industry and suggested that this might be a continued resource in meeting this challenge.

4. Taking action to making things happen. Too often, there is a lot of talk followed by consideration followed by complacency and inaction. These are difficult challenges, involving complex problems that require the participation of many constituents. The Director of Game and Fish was pleased to be “on site” to view the situation first hand. He commented that he would take his observations back to the Capitol to discuss with others there to develop possibilities towards doing what can be done to help. He pointed out that while the San Juan River, by nature, will not again be what it was at peak of it’s “life cycle,” there are efforts that can be made to approach that condition as much as possible. He suggested there would be further visits to the river, which we all welcomed and for which we extended our appreciation. He commented upon a kind of commonality not often present in such groups: a uniformity in purpose and spirit, and an absence of divisiveness. He called for continued working together by sharing of ideas and information. He was reassured that the network of concerned citizens would continue to be active on this matter and that he would be continuously apprised about these activities.

There you have it as I saw it. It will be ultimately important for you all to continue with your letters stating concerns and your views on possible solutions. Good things can happen when we make organized, considered, and informed efforts.

Thank you all for yours! Andreas Novak


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