TOPOCK – A project to revamp the water delivery at Topock Marsh is behind schedule and over budget.
Linda Miller, manager of the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Topock Marsh, said the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act project will “provide a substantial water savings for the refuge as the water delivery system being installed is shorter than the existing earthen ditch. Plus, being lined with concrete will allow water to move more quickly with less evaporation to the refuge, allowing us to use our water more efficiently.”
When the project was announced in April, 2010, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was awarded a $1.95 million ARRA contract for repairs to the inlet canal and to build a new intake water system to better bring water into the Topock Marsh. However, Miller said the total project now will cost $3.8 million when complete.
The project calls for renovations to the inlet canal on the north side of the marsh and for a concrete lined canal to bring water from the Colorado River into the marsh further south.
“In phase two of this project, expected to go out for bid in fiscal year 2012, the Refuge will be adding pumps, which will allow us to bring water from the river to the marsh even when river levels are low,” Miller said, noting that the marsh elevations typically fluctuate between 453 and 456 and a half feet.
The contractor building the new canal and shoring up the inlet canal is C3, LLC, from Greenwood Village, Colo. Miller said the project currently is about 44 percent complete, with the second phase set to go out for bid in 2012. An official completion date for the project won’t be known until the contract is awarded for phase two, but there currently has been no money received for that phase. Miller said the first phase is expected to be complete in September, although the project was initially set to be compete in March, 2011.
In order to begin work on the project, the water flow to the marsh has had to be reduced. Miller said: “While the inlet canal is not currently being used due to the construction project, our second inlet structure, the Farm Ditch, has been improved under this project and is now functional and providing water to the marsh We’ve raised the marsh to about one half of its normal level.”
To keep Topock Marsh from becoming too low, Miller said, refuge staff opened the outlet structure on the South Dike, which typically is used to release water from the marsh, and using gravity flow brought Colorado River water into the marsh as the river levels were higher than the marsh.
“Using the Farm Ditch and the South Dike outlet structure, we are about one and a half feet below where we would normally be in marsh levels this time of year,” Miller said.
The Bureau of Reclamation approves an annual water usage amount of Colorado River water to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the Havasu Wildlife Refuge, and FWS is free to use the water allocation at any time during the calendar year to meet their “operational needs.”
Reclamation monitors flow at the Inlet Canal, Farm Ditch, and South Dike, where technicians develop ratings from field measurements. From the ratings, Reclamation can estimate the real-time flow into and out of the marsh, operations officials said. Information is transferred from the field into a database and then to a website so that Reclamation can monitor water usage and for public use.
During the first four months of 2011, the net difference of water flow into the marsh is 5,743.12 acre feet less than was put into the marsh during the first four months of 2010, despite using the South Dike’s gravity flow system to bring water back into the marsh, according to data on Reclamation’s website.
“Addressing the accuracy of the projections provided is difficult as there are several unknowns that must be factored in, such as seepage and rainfall. All of the figures provided should be considered provisional,” Miller said.
Golden Shores resident Tom Daugherty, who moved to the area from Southern California specifically to be close to the Topock Marsh, has been contacting several local, state and federal agencies responsible for water and wildlife to try and determine why the water levels in the Topock Marsh are so below the level in previous years,
“I believe the Fish and Wildlife Service is not following their own recipe for the marsh. Raise the water in early spring for the endangered Southwestern Flycatcher and lower the water in the fall to expose aquatic plants for migrating ducks and geese,” Daugherty said. “This recipe is posted on their website and has worked for years.”
Several setbacks have delayed the project from being complete in March including a diesel spill in March.
“An unexpected spike in water levels in the inlet canal caused the banks to erode where the contractor was working and two pumps with external fuel tanks fell into the canal during the early morning hours,” Miller said. “An estimated 300 gallons of diesel fuel were involved.”
Miller said refuge staff closed structures on the North Dike to prevent the spill from going into the marsh.
“Some birds, primarily coots, were affected by the spill when it first occurred,” Miller said. “Water sampling was conducted several times following the spill, to ensure that cleanup standards were met.”
C3 paid for the cost of cleanup, she said.
One of the priorities of the Havasu Wildlife Refuge is to preserve a habitat for many animals, including endangered fish and birds. Miller said during the planning stages of the project, refuge biologists looked closely at potential impacts to wildlife and designed mitigation measures to avoid impacts.
“While the lower water levels this year may not be what some species thrive on, others such as shorebirds appear to be using the additional habitat exposed by construction to their benefit,” she said. “The lower water levels have also impacted refuge visitors, such as fisherman launching boats on refuge facilities. This short term impact is expected to be outweighed by the increased water flow capability the refuge will experience in the upcoming years when this project is complete.”
“I think they should immediately remove the new incomplete control structure at the original water supply north canal. This will allow water to flow into the marsh as it has from the 1960′s. They could return to this project once they have completed the Recovery Act canal,” Daugherty said.
Miller said the refuge plans to gradually increase water levels in the marsh to a typical seasonal level, and that incoming flow will be managed to ensure that the rise in level is gradual allowing wildlife time to adapt.
“With the current gravity flow system, a rapid increase in water levels would be difficult to achieve,” she said.
Daugherty’s concern is for the wildlife in the marsh and the potential short term impact on the species living there.
“I believe the local US Fish and Wildlife staff is limited and needs additional expert input to solve these problems. I have reached out to state legislators and our Congressman Trent Franks’ office in an effort to get the different agencies to look at the situation. I just do not want the marsh to become an environmental disaster this summer,” Daugherty said.
Current engendered species in the Marsh are the Southwestern Flycatcher and the Yuma Clapper Rail.
The 4,000-acre Topock Marsh was created from a historical river meander in 1966 when the South Dike outlet structure was constructed. Presently, the marsh represents over 40% of the remaining backwaters of the Colorado River, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.