GUNNISON RIVER — Anyone who has ever rafted down a river likely has encountered a strainer — a potentially dangerous feature, most often a log jam, that lets water through but traps larger, solid items being carried downstream, including boats and bodies.

For many years, the Relief Ditch Diversion on the Gunnison River just upstream from Austin has consisted of rocks, concrete slabs and vertical steel bars. The purpose of the structure is to divert water to the farming fields east of Delta. But the side effects include a danger to river users, a virtual wall for migrating fish and a lot of work for the Relief Ditch Irrigation Company.

On Thursday, ground was broken on a new $750,000 dam designed to solve those problems for all involved, including three species of rare fish that call the river home. The catalyst for the project was Trout Unlimited, a coldwater conservation organization, but it also was made possible by the collaboration of the Bureau of Land Management and the Relief Ditch Irrigation Company. 

“TU is identifying opportunities like this in Colorado to upgrade aging infrastructure in a way that benefits both agriculture producers and fish and wildlife,” said Cary Denison, project leader for Trout Unlimited. “We’re very excited about the opportunity to work with the irrigators to improve the diversion.”

Doug Hamilton is one of those farmers and downstream shareholders who will benefit from the new infrastructure. He has spent years maintaining the old, cobble, push-up structure that was prone to blowout when spring and summer storms struck in the upstream drainages.

“This should cut our maintenance down to almost nothing,” he said. “I spent five years up here working on this diversion, and I remember on some big years we would just have to start building the thing all over. That work would cost a lot of money.”

Rebuilding the dam required heavy equipment to be in the river, posing a threat to wildlife at the site and downstream. The former dam also had a high gradient, which often made it difficult for fish to migrate upstream.

“Many rivers and streams in the Colorado River Basin have become fragmented over the years, preventing fish movement and degrading habitat,” Denison said. “We’re working with local partners on win-win projects like this one that both open up river habitat and address infrastructure problems.”

Only a few miles downstream, the Hartland dam between Delta and Colo. 65 was improved over the spring to allow for fish migration and safe human passage. Now, according to George Osborn, a local TU member who played a major role in that project, a river user can float a raft from the beginning of the Gunnison Gorge Recreation Area nearly all the way to Grand Junction.

Enhanced recreation opportunities, and the growing number of river users on this section of river, also was a major reason for the improvements. Edd Franz, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM, said the former infrastructure was a real threat and something officials realized could easily result in a loss of life on the river.

“The biggest thing for me is the safety issue,” Franz said. “Those steel railroad tracks that were placed in there to hold everything together could really cause a bad situation. And now, the new dam will improve the fishing in this section. I personally think it will improve the overall aesthetics of being on the river, as well.”

For Trout Unlimited, the project is cause for celebration. Helping with the ceremony and speaking on behalf of the organization was Sinjin Eberle, president of Colorado Trout Unlimited.

“This kind of stuff doesn’t happen all the time,” he said. “The most critical part of the project is the collaboration between all the parties involved. But at nearly a million dollars, this is a big deal and a big accomplishment.”

Work on the project is expected to be complete in March 2013.

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