Colorado’s second oldest fish hatchery is finally recovering from last year’s drought conditions.
“Last year was a very nervous situation with how low the water levels got,” said Toby Mourning, manager of the Durango Fish Hatchery.
In Southwest Colorado, 2017-18 was the second-lowest water year in recorded history, which had ripple effects on communities across the region. The Durango Fish Hatchery, Mourning said, was not spared.
The hatchery, located at 151 E. 16th St., receives its water from three natural springs along the Animas River Trail. Normal spring/summer flows, Mourning said, bring about 1,600 gallons a minute into the hatchery.
Last year, however, the springs peaked at just 500 to 600 gallons a minute, forcing hatchery managers to make some tough decisions.
The Durango Fish Hatchery raises and stocks about 135,000 catchable rainbow trout and about 1.3 million juvenile fish throughout Southwest Colorado each year. But the amount of available water has an influence on how many fish can be raised.
With less available water last year, hatchery managers stocked fish in streams and rivers earlier than normal.
“We had to get rid of quite a few fish,” Mourning said. “Probably one-third of the fish we’d normally have.”
In some cases, typically reliable waterways, such as the Piedra River, were too low to support new fish.
“We had to visit numerous sites to find suitable waters with enough habitat and flow to sustain the fish,” Mourning said. “Even some of the lakes were starting to get on the warm side.”
Then, in July 2018, one of the biggest waterways the hatchery stocks, the Animas River, was taken off the list of viable waters after flooding and debris flows from monsoon rains on the 416 Fire burn scar killed nearly all fish in the river.
But conditions started to change for the better around mid-December after early season snow started to replenish the hatchery’s springs, Mourning said, allowing the hatchery to restock fish eggs.
As of Monday, Mourning said the springs are up to their max inflow at around 1,600 gallons a minute, and as a result, fish populations are back up to normal numbers and stocking is going well this year.
“Everything turned out really well,” he said.
The state-owned Durango Fish Hatchery is the second oldest fish hatchery in Colorado, second only to the Leadville National Fish Hatchery, which is federally owned. It’s also home to several unique restoration efforts, notably the Weminuche, Trapper’s Creek and San Juan strains of the Colorado River cutthroat trout.
During the 416 Fire, crews went into the burn area to retrieve rare lineages of the San Juan cutthroat trout, which are now kept in isolation at the hatchery. Mourning said those fish are in good condition, though it’s unclear when they will be released back into the wild.