KNOW YOUR STREAMFLOW: How streamflow affects wildlife

Prehistoric birds are nesting among us. Thanks to the flowing waters of the Uncompahgre River that feeds into the Gunnison River, the great blue heron lives year-round in Ouray County. 

A great blue heron. Photo credit: Ridgway State Park

The Upper Uncompahgre River Watershed is teeming with wildlife that is connected in a variable, wild chain of life. The water in the river feeds everything from grasses and other flora to elk, deer, otters, and beavers. 

Even intermittent streams that flow for only part of the year support invertebrate life and fish spawning and incubation. Aquatic insects are an important link in the food chain, nourishing Kokanee salmon and trout so they can carry out vital functions like spawning and traveling upstream. Thus, the heron and other wildlife have diverse food sources.

As the streamflow in the Uncompahgre and its tributaries changes throughout the seasons according to precipitation and snowmelt, so do the behaviors and distributions of organisms around the watershed. For example, aquatic insects are adapted to the rhythm of high snowmelt flows in spring that gradually taper down to the low base flows of fall and winter. If the timing or magnitude of this rhythm changes, then the insects cannot complete their life cycles and the food web takes a big hit.

Please remember to enter the Uncompahgre River Classic peak flow prediction contest by May 1 (for free)! You could win great Patagonia gear and bragging rights as the most drip streamflow forecaster of the year.