Malfunctioning dam equipment discovered this week at Groundhog Reservoir has forced Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. to begin draining the lake in order to make repairs, officials report.
As a result, Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued an emergency fish salvage Thursday for Groundhog Reservoir that removes all bag possession limits until April 1, 2019.
Anglers with a valid fishing license can keep all of the fish they can catch, said Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
"The lake level is dropping pretty quickly," he said.
Fishing must be done only by traditional and legal means using standard fishing equipment.
The 25,700-acre-foot reservoir is less than one-quarter full, so anglers will experience muddy conditions getting to the water. The boat ramp is out of the water and is closed, but some hand-launched boats may be possible. Groundhog is in Dolores County and is accessed via the Dolores-Norwood Road.
The reservoir has a minimum pool requirement of 3,690 acre-feet, but the irrigation company is allowed to go below that in order to repair or maintain dam structures, Lewandowski said. The water will be released from the dam and enter a series of creeks and eventually flow into MVIC's storage facilities at McPhee and Narraguinnep Reservoirs.
MVIC owns the lake, and it's also managed as a state wildlife area by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which stocks it with sport fish.
Bonnie Candelaria, owner of Groundhog Lake RV Park and Campgrounds, said the decision to drain the lake came as a surprise and will hurt her business, but they understand that dam maintenance is a priority.
"It's just been a tough year with the low water level from drought, the wildfires, the forest closures," she said. "Right now, we are encouraging anyone with a valid fishing license to come up and harvest these fish before they die."
On Tuesday, officials decided to drain the lake. Candelaria said she found out Wednesday night that the work had begun. It was a scramble to get larger boats off the lake as the water level dropped, she said.
Advance notice of the decision to drain the lake would have been helpful, she said.
"Even 24 hours notice would have been good, because we would have had more time and a dry shoreline to work with to get the boats off the lake," Candelaria said.
MVIC board member Danny Wilkin said that once the extent of dam equipment problems was realized, the board had to act quickly.
"It was discovered that the dam gates were not operating properly and are leaking," he said. "We hate to drain the lake because we know the fishing has been good, but it's one of those things where we have to make the repairs. It is better to do it now than when the lake is full."
He added that not informing the campground sooner "was a miscommunication, and we apologize for that. It was not intentional."
The campground had been looking forward to a good September fishing season as the lake level stabilized to its minimal pool, creating a dry shoreline for fishing access, Candelaria said.
"The hunters who come up in the fall love to fish here," Candelaria said. "Because of the lake topography, there will still be some pools of water that remain, but the boating season is over."
Wilkin said the lake will be drained over the next 20 days, at a rate that minimizes impacts to recreation as much as possible. The last time it was drained was in 2004, also to make repairs.
Parks and Wildlife plans to restock the lake once it refills in the upcoming water year.