Obituary for a river

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Editors note: It’s a shame that funerals have to be wasted on the dead. That’s to say that it’s a shame that we tend to wait until someone is lying in a coffin and well past the point of caring before we reflect on how much they meant to us, all the things they accomplished and the degree to which they will be missed.

With that in mind, we didn’t want to make that same mistake this time around so we decided to go ahead and write our obit for the Fraser River before it’s officially dead. It seemed a reasonable thing to do for something so profoundly beautiful, natural, important and severely threatened.

While we are well aware that the fight to stop the Denver Water Board’s Gross Reservoir dam/expansion project — and as as a result, the Fraser River diversion — is going strong, we felt that giving folks a taste of what will be lost should Denver Water prevail was in order.

That said, it’s not really accurate to say that the Fraser is dying. The truth is, it’s being killed. The river has been dying a slow death since 1936, the first year that the Denver Water Board started diverting the Fraser’s spring runoff east to the Front Range in order to meet the needs of an exploding Denver population. Since that time the Water Board has been continuously buying the rights to more and more of the Fraser’s water, as if such a thing can be bought and sold like a car or a cheeseburger.

Did the eagles or the fish or the elk or moose get a say? Were the residents of Fraser or Tabernash or Winter Park or Granby asked if they think it’s a good idea to send the river that sustains their communities through a tube of rock to the other side of the mountains? Did the citizens of Colorado get a vote? The answer is no on all accounts.

There is apparently only one law in this land and that’s Colorado water law, which says if you hold the right piece of paper in your hand, the river is yours to do with as you please, no matter how misguided, environmentally irresponsible or insignificant your intention.

With the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state basically giving their blessing to the Denver Water Board’s badly flawed plan to divert most of the river’s remaining water into a significantly enlarged Gross Reservoir in Boulder County — it seems as inevitable as it is ludicrous that we are about to sound the death knell for a mountain river that should either belong to no one or everyone.

And all for no greater reason than to meet the growing lawn-care needs of our sprawling urban landscape .

Do not go gentle Fraser River. Do not go gentle.

It’s hard to say when the Fraser River was born. As far as anyone can remember it has always been there.

The first inhabitants on its banks were the Utes. When spring snowmelt flowed down the west side of the Continental Divide, the water spirits weren’t quiet here.

In the early 1800s, French fur trappers passed through the valley. Eventually, the first settlers arrived, ranchers who used flood irrigation on their pastures. It was a cycle. The water soaked down into the fields until it reached the ground water and then slowly made its way back into the river. It was sustainable. But things change.

In 1928, the Moffat Tunnel was completed, and the first railroad passed through the Continental Divide. It shipped timber to the booming Front Range cities, where the Denver Water Board had been tasked with acquiring enough water for this exploding population.

“David Moffat was both a railroad man and a water man,” says Kirk Klancke, the conservationist and retired water manager who is widely credited with the “Save the Fraser River” movement. As soon as Moffat started building a smaller survey tunnel parallel to the railroad tunnel, Denver Water began buying water rights on the western side of the Divide. Klancke speculates that Denver Water already knew the survey tunnel would become a water tunnel.

“It was the only water tunnel built like this in Colorado history,” he says. And the cheapest: it was taxpayer-funded.

In 1935, the survey tunnel was enlarged and lined. The following year, Denver Water delivered their first shipment of the Fraser River through the mountains. They didn’t actually buy the tunnel until 1976, Klancke says.

“Until then, Denver Water rented it for a song,” he says. “And they bought the ranches, bought the water, for a song. These ranchers were so poor, just trying to eke out a living up here.”

The railroad had also brought some skiers to town. In 1937, the first rope tow was installed on Berthoud Pass and Colorado’s first T-Bar appeared at Winter Park a few years later.

When the Klancke family moved to Fraser in 1971, there were only a couple hundred residents. The river was the most beloved feature in town, and the old-timers loved to tell Kirk about how it was President Eisenhower’s favorite fishing spot, how it had earned the moniker “The White House of the West.” Between fighting communism abroad and McCarthyism at home, Eisenhower allegedly remarked that he was most relaxed while fishing on the Fraser.

Meanwhile, Denver Water kept buying more of the river. 

“The old-timers didn’t think much of it, just to make a buck and get out of ranching,” explains Donny Thompson, who has spent much of his life working on the Fraser as a ditch runner and data collector.

“It wasn’t until later that the ranchers realized, ‘We’ve sold off our water rights, what have we done?’” says local historian Tim Nicklas.

Today, over half the Fraser parts from its former path. Instead of joining the Colorado River to flow to the Sea of Cortez, these waters travel the one-way tunnel to the Front Range. Today, 60 percent of the Fraser’s flow is diverted — on average.

“Sometimes, it’s 70 percent,” says Grand County Commissioner James Newberry. Sometimes, it’s less. Today, the river is roaring, thanks to the ample snowpack that accumulated on the peaks around Berthoud Pass this winter.

“This spring, it’s almost like it used to be,” says attorney Jill Klancke (Kirk Klancke’s sister). “Even growing up in the ’70s, Denver Water was already taking a lot, but the spring runoff was still so wild and beautiful.”

Jill was 15 when her family moved here. The river was so turbulent that the ice cubes in their refrigerator had dirt on the bottom, stirred up from the riverbed before a new water sanitation plant was built.

“Back then, the river was running so fast, it would flood the wetlands all around every spring,” she says.

The wetlands are a major concern now that the river is facing a final diversion plan.

“The wetlands are needed by about 90 percent of the wildlife in Colorado, and take up only about 2 percent of the land area,” says Paul Rollrah, a retiree who has lived in close proximity of the Fraser River for over 15 years. “If the river dries up, the wetlands dry up. This isn’t just about fishing. It’s about moose and elk and coyotes and everything else.”

The wildlife is part of why fly-fishing on the Fraser is special to river conservation advocate Erica Stock.

“When you’re fishing, and you turn around to find a moose at your back, you know there aren’t many places like this,” she says.

Seeing the river tumble uninhibited northward through Winter Park, Fraser, and then Tabernash, it’s hard to imagine this flow as fleeting, a brief high before the end.

“The river has been dying a slow death,” says Scott Linn, who has been fly-fishing the river for 25 years and serves on the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. “You don’t have a to be a scientist to look at the river and know it’s not right.”

Linn noticed the first symptoms about 10 years ago, when he started catching fewer fish. Paul Rollrah, who recently moved to Tabernash after many years in Winter Park, noticed the river’s declining health around the same time.

“We’ve had sad times, when flows got so low and you could see distressed fish,” he says. “Anytime the water got around 70 degrees, they’d be dead.”

And temperatures have changed dramatically.

“We’d take the kids on picnics when they were young, in the ’70s,” Kirk Klancke says. “They’d jump in the river, and they’d be running out screaming a few minutes later, with their lips all blue.”

These days, when he takes his grandkids to the same spot, they’ll swim for hours — the water is that warm. Which sounds great, unless you’re a trout.

Inside Mo Henry’s Trout Shop in Winter Park, owner Mitch Kirwan is standing on a ladder in Chacos, affixing a sculpted trout on a piece of driftwood to the wall. Temperature is crucial, he explains. When spring flows aren’t high enough to scour out the channel, the river gets wider and shallower. The cooler depths are lost, and the trout die.

“There are not nearly the numbers and quality of fish that there used to be,” he says.

After 25 years of fishing the Fraser, Kirwan has plenty of memories of the “good old days.” In 2004, he and his brother started their guiding business. “But sometimes the flows are almost shut off. I’ve got guides out there, and there’s almost no water in the river — suddenly.”

Of the 37 or more streams that run down the west side of Berthoud Pass to the Fraser headwaters, Denver Water now has diversions on all of them, Kirwan explains. Without the rushing spring flows, the river never gets flushed out. Sediment builds up. Kirwan has seen cutthroat trout (the trout species native to the Fraser) struggle the hardest with the rising temperatures and sediment levels.

It wasn’t all Denver Water’s fault, as Grand County Commissioner Newberry points out. As more cars drove over Berthoud Pass, more sand had to be applied to the road. The sand made its way into the river.

“The poor Fraser was hit with a double whammy,” recalls Jill Klanke.

The combination of more sand and lower flows was wreaking havoc. In 2002, Kirk Klancke started a project to trap the sediment coming off Berthoud Pass. In 2013, he finally saw the new pond trap its first load: 680 tons of sand that was headed for the river. Still, today, the fish are struggling.

“You notice it when you handle them,” Kirwan says. “They’re like us. When they’re not eating so well, they get softer, slower.”

The fish depend on aquatic insects for food, he explains. Division of Wildlife researcher Barry Nehring has found insect species that have disappeared below the confluence of the Fraser and the Colorado Rivers. It would be hard to blame this disappearance on anything but diversions like the Moffat Tunnel, he says.

For now, the Colorado River seems to be outliving the Fraser. But it’s unknown how the death of the Fraser will affect the Colorado.

Kirwan has been lobbying to make “catch and release” mandatory on the Fraser. But the river runs through private lands, and locals recall how abundantly it once fed their families. One day in the ’80s, while Tim Nicklas’s family was living on the Fraser, they lit up the grill. 

“Hang on,” Nicklas’ young son said. “I’ve got to catch a fish to cook.”

Less than five minutes later, he strolled back from the river with a freshcaught trout. Maybe the river was in his blood: Nicklas’s great-great grandfather was a Colorado water commissioner who carried a gun to enforce water law. Today, his son is studying water law.

“It makes me proud,” Nicklas says, “because he’s kept the values I’ve taught him.”

And sharing values, Kirwan says, is one of the best things about time on the river. Halley Cook, Jill Klankes’ daughter, learned to fish on the streams that bordered their land. She watched the water levels drop, but she also watched her Uncle Kirk’s crusade to save the river.

“When it was all starting, he made these blue bumper stickers,” Halley recalls. “You started seeing them on every car in town. And you’d go into the restaurant, and there was the sticker: SAVE THE FRASER RIVER.”

Grand County Commissioner James Newberry has seen plenty of these stickers.

“To me, it’s like putting a sticker on your car that says ‘Save Tibet,’” he says. “It makes people feel good, but how are you actually going to save Tibet?” But Halley grew up watching her community band together for the river. She remembers the Denver Water Board’s campaign to encourage water conservation.

“It has a whole new meaning when you see the damage they’re doing to your hometown’s water,” she says.

Denver Water is currently planning to divert another 20 percent of the river to the Front Range. If the permits are passed, they’ll expand Gross Reservoir in Boulder County to store the additional water. Trout Unlimited fought this proposal for years, led by President Kirk Klancke. They recently stopped fighting.

“They own the water,” Kirk Klancke says.

The community seems to have accepted the reality as well.

“Absolutely, they’re already taking too much out,” Kirwan sighs. “But, simple fact is, Denver owns that water.”

As we sit in the shop’s camping chairs, a young father and son walk in. An employee fits the kid in waders. A hanging sign reads, Good Things Come to Those Who Wade. Kirwan especially loves guiding kids who’ve grown up playing video games. He remembers fishing with one when a bald eagle flew overhead.

“I saw it in his face,” he recalls. “It really affected him. You notice it in people who don’t get out here much. They’re suddenly absorbed in what they’re doing. Daily life just fades away.”

Sometimes, you need a river for that. Roger Hedlund has lived in Fraser for 32 years, and he attributes his best times to the river.

“One of those bluebird Colorado days, out fishing, I got to see the river at its best, back when it was really flowing,” he recalls. “That was probably one of the best days of my life.”

Like everyone else interviewed for this story, Hedlund explains that the effect of the river goes beyond fishing. You could just be watching it, or listening to it. Today, it cascades with certainty, like nothing could ever pull it from its path. But tomorrow will be different.

Without the river, the local economy will collapse, Kirwan says. But the river is dying without fanfare.

“Even when we take out Front Range folks, only about 10 percent of them seem to know about what Denver Water is doing,” Kirwan says. “The Front Range is thirsty, but not necessarily for drinking.”

He blames lawn maintenance for a large portion of the Fraser River’s diversion.

With or without lawns, Front Range cities keep sprawling. Some of us come here looking for a better kind of life, the kind fed by snows and wildness and rushing mountain streams, he says.

“The things that draw people to this state are the things that are being destroyed,” says Commissioner Newberry. “We’re sacrificing one part of Colorado for another.”

Newberry doesn’t think the next diversion can be stopped, so he is hopeful that the Gross Reservoir expansion will ensure Denver Water’s commitment to mitigation work on the Fraser. He’s not alone.

“With Denver’s money, we can probably afford it,” Klancke says, but it will still take community effort. Denver has pledged about $4 million to mitigation projects like the sand reclamation project that took 11 years to realize, he says.

Trout Unlimited has already estimated that a similar-sized project would require about $7.1 million.

There are several other mitigation projects under discussion, like mechanical shaping to deepen the channel so the river might live on, albeit in another form.

“Honestly, the river will never be the same,” says Trout Unlimited Treasurer Scott Linn.

It seems the swift current of Colorado’s urban sprawl rushed faster than the Fraser. At the end of the tunnel, on the Front Range side, the growing population’s need, or perhaps more accurately put, desire, for water is unquenchable.

“If we had a time machine,” Commissioner Newberry says, “maybe we could go back to when there were no diversions coming out of the Fraser.”

But we have no time machines and rivers don’t flow in reverse. Rest in peace Fraser River. Only a miracle can save you now. We’ll see.


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