Watson Lake Fish Ladder Proving Successful

A collaboration between public and private entities who came together on a project to improve the river and its habitat.
Video: Fish ladder on the Poudre River reconnects two miles of fish habitat.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife monitoring efforts of the fish ladder installed on the Cache la Poudre River at the Watson Lake State Wildlife Area two years ago shows it has been a success across several fronts.

The fishway was designed to allow passage around a diversion structure in the river. This project is a realization of a partnership formed between private and public entities. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Aquatic Biologist Kyle Battige

“Overall, we are happy with the project and have documented fish moving upstream and downstream in the structure,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Aquatic Biologist Kyle Battige. “The fish ladder has improved conditions on the river and reconnected over two miles of river habitat by providing upstream movement opportunities for fish that had not existed at the Watson Lake Diversion Structure location since it was built in the 1960s.”

Monitoring Fish Movement

Two separate Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tagging efforts helped Colorado Parks and Wildlife in monitoring fish movement up and down the river after the ladder was installed. Colorado Parks and Wildlife tagged 71 fish on April 26, 2019 that were released in the downstream half of the fishway for initial evaluation. Researchers with Colorado State University also tagged fish downstream of the fishway as a part of a larger movement study on April 4, 2019.

Data from the PIT tags documented successful upstream and downstream movement with 41 of the 71 Colorado Parks and Wildlife tagged fish utilizing the ladder and 36 of those fish successfully ascending the entire structure. The other five fish were recorded on one of the other two operational antennas within the structure, but not at the top antenna. Our detection data indicates that 51 percent of fish tagged by Colorado Parks and Wildlife successfully ascended the entire structure.

Additionally, eight brown trout tagged by CSU and released 50 meters or further downstream have been documented using the fishway.

“Documenting 51 percent of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife-tagged fish along with CSU- tagged fish utilizing the structure over the course of several months is exciting,” Battige said. “The fish ladder is performing as designed and is allowing fish to move freely up and downstream through the reach as they want. Further evaluation is warranted to investigate movement success across a broader size range within each fish species, but to date we have documented adult fish successfully navigating the fishway” 

Of the three species of fish tagged – longnose sucker, brown trout and rainbow trout – at least one individual across all tagged species has successfully navigated the fishway.

Water Velocities and Discharge

Other areas monitored that indicate a successful project are measured water velocities in the fishway, discharge measurements in the fishway, and water delivery to the hatchery. In addition, the cone screen constructed above the fish ladder where water gets delivered to the hatchery prevented fish entrainment by screening water delivered to the hatchery and that has not clogged during the fall leaf seasons, decreasing Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff time spent cleaning old inlet infrastructure. The cone screen is powered by a solar panel and has been an overall benefit to hatchery operations while not impacting water delivery.

Watson Lake fish ladder
Watson Lake Fish Ladder

In order to satisfy the measurement of Northern Water’s potential future augmentation flows from Glade Reservoir, the fishway was designed to carry up to 30 cubic feet per second (cfs) before spilling over the dam. Based on Colorado Parks and Wildlife measurements since construction was completed in the spring of 2019, the fishway more than meets that criteria, with its overall capacity being closer to 50 cfs. 

Morning Fresh Dairy, one of the project partners, is also utilizing the structure to measure future water flows. 

Partners

There was a seamless collaboration between public and private entities who came together on the project to improve the river and its habitat. Trout Unlimited, Morning Fresh Dairy, noosa yoghurt, Northern Water, and Poudre Heritage Alliance all were key partners in this project.

Lessons gleaned from this project will help ensure that future ladder designs include careful consideration of tradeoffs between flow measurement and fish passage along with minor design tweaks to optimize water velocities in fish ladders.


Written by Jason Clay. Clay is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife northeast region.

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