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Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is inviting the public to two open house meetings to discuss the plans to remove the “low-head dam” on the Arkansas River, that is 1.5 miles upstream of the Mount Shavano State Fish Hatchery. The open houses are scheduled from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, February 1, 2022, and will be held at the Scout Hut, located at 210 East Sackett Avenue in Salida.

 CPW will explain their plans to remove the dam and solicit public feedback on the $1.8 million project, which would be partially funded by grants. Construction is planned to start after the end of the whitewater boating season, generally after August 15, and wrap up prior to fish spawning season; roughly October 1 to November 15.

The dam, first build around 1956, was originally intended to collect water for the downstream hatchery and was rebuilt in 1988 with an adjacent boat chute. Removing the dam is intended to eliminate the dam as a threat to the thousands of boaters the Arkansas River sees each year. As water spills over the dam, it creates a powerful recirculating suction that can capsize and trap boaters and swimmers. 

The dam stopped serving as a water supply for the hatchery in 2000, after whirling disease, which infects rainbow trout, was detected in the Arkansas River a few years prior. CPW spent $1.5 million to convert the hatchery to spring water to raise its fish. 

The “low-head dam” and adjacent boat ramp on the Arkansas River are seen in a Google Earth image. Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“Spring water provides the hatchery with clean water at a constant temperature year-round and is optimal for raising trout,” said Bryan Johnson, CPW hatchery manager. Johnson noted the hatchery still needs supplemental water and may someday take water from the river again, but the dam is no longer needed to get to it. “We are not completely abandoning the idea of using river water. The hatchery still needs additional water to return to its full production levels from the 1990s. But a large diversion dam is no longer needed.”

Removing the dam will also benefit the river’s supply of Gold Medal River fish, including brown trout, rainbow trout, and native white suckers, by opening around 85 miles of upstream river to fish migration. Barriers like the dam divide populations into two segments, which limits genetic diversity. Free movement also helps prevent fish overpopulation by balancing habitat and forage with the fish the river can support. 

“This project will ensure that the aquatic species that live in the river will have the ability to move freely up and down the river corridor as they are meant to do,” said Tom Waters, park manager for CPW’s Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) which spans 152 miles of the Arkansas River from Leadville to Pueblo. “It will also provide safer passage for recreational users in this popular stretch of river. The environment, the river enthusiasts, and the community will benefit from the removal of this low-head dam.”

The removal plan would also be welcomed by the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association (GARNA), a nonprofit outdoor advocacy group.

“As a child growing up in Salida, I remember at least one tragic death of a kayaker who went over the dam,” said Dominique Naccarato, Executive Director of GARNA . “I am excited about the removal of the low-head dam. Removing the low head dam today will likely save a life in the future.”