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San Juan Stream Improvement Map

Historical Perspective

When funds were appropriated by Congress for the construction of Navajo Dam in 1956 most of the consideration was for how Navajo Dam would fit into the requirements of the Colorado River Storage Project.  The emphasis at the time was to provide for a Siltation Basin, Flood Control, Recreation and water for Irrigation and Industry.  As part of the agreement to build the dam, the Navajo tribe was provided irrigation water as part of the NIIP project south of Farmington.  Although not part of the original design, a 30 MW hydroelectric plant was added in the 1980's for the City of Farmington.  At the time Navajo Dam was built by the Bureau of Reclamation, the understanding of the Recreation part of the benefit from the dam was thought of in terms of what happened on the lake - boating, fishing, sailing, waterskiing.  The decision making process in Congress, who appropriated the funds, did not include specifications or provisions for the tremendous tail water fishery that developed in the first few miles below the dam.  Early on, NM Game and Fish recognized that the cold, clear water released below the dam had the potential to transform the existing river into a Coldwater fishery and stocked the river with Rainbows, Cutthroats and Browns.  It didn't take long for it to people to become aware of just how special this new tail water fishery would become.  As a result NM Game and Fish progressively sectioned off parts of the upper river as Special Trout Water (STW) to preserve the quality of this fishery by placing restrictions on catch limits and fishing techniques.  Over the years these technique and catch regulations have progressively become more restrictive and the lower boundary of the STW has progressively moved downstream.  Through the careful management over the years by NM Game and Fish, the San Juan has retained its special character as a tremendous tail water fishery in spite of flow changes introduced in the 1990's.   In recent years, Stream Improvement projects have become an important part of preserving and even enhancing this world class cold water fishery. 

Water is a precious resource in the western United States and pressures by different interests over the years have impacted the way the Navajo Dam is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation.  These influences are particularly important pertaining to how flows are managed throughout the year.  During the earlier years of dam operation flows were higher than they are today for most of the year without a significant increase during spring runoff.   This release schedule was inconsistent with the natural flows of the river and are believed to have had a negative impact on the well being of native fish species downstream which came under the protection of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.  The need to reduce water losses through evaporation for the entire Colorado River Storage Project and pressures from the Endangered Species Act have resulted in lower flows for most of the year with a springtime high water release which more closely follows the historical flows prior to the dam being built.  Today the flows are generally around 450 - 500 cfs during most of the year except for a period in spring (usually late May) where the flows are gradually increased to 5,000 cfs and them ramped back down to 450 - 500 cfs.  The duration of the high water is determined by available snowpack from the San Juan Mountains and needs downstream.  This high springtime release is thought to benefit the cold water fishery immediately below the dam by removing silt and decaying organic matter in addition to providing better spawning conditions for protected endangered species downstream.  Much of the San Juan River is wade able at the 450 - 500 cfs level, at high flows (1500- 5000 cfs) many parts of the river become difficult or dangerous to wade.  The high flows tend to move fish toward the banks where even at higher flows they can be caught by fishermen, also, drift boats provide access to most of the river during high flows. 

Today the Bureau of Reclamation operates the dam to best fulfill the legal and political requirements imposed by multiple, often competing interests.  This is essentially a compromise with the San Juan fishery and proponents of the fishery having voices, but only a couple of voices among many others with powerful influences. 

Navajo Dam was constructed 1958 - 1962 by the Bureau of Reclamation with public money as part of the Colorado River Storage Project.  The Bureau of Reclamation operates the dam today in a challenging legal and political environment.  The BOR is the country's largest supplier of water providing water to 31 million people and one out of every 5 farmers in the Western US.  In addition, the Bureau provides more than 40 billion kilowatt hours of electricity to the Western US bringing in revenues of nearly a billion dollars. 


Project 1 Phase 1 (Nov to Dec 2005) and Phase 2 (Nov, Dec 2006)- Simon Canyon to Duranglers Corner

The first major San Juan Stream Improvement project was started in Nov 2005 and completed in Dec of 2006 with two phases of construction.  This emphasis of this project was designed to improve the river channel complexity and flow rates of the area between Simon Canyon and Last Chance Riffle by adding structure (Rock Gardens) and to increase flow rate in parts of the main channel (J Hooks and Cross Vanes).  Due to a relatively low river gradient flows in some parts of the San Juan are naturally slow.  The slow flows can lead to particulate matter forming deposits on the streambed with excessive siltation reducing the viability of the streambed for insect growth and healthy weed beds, compromising the overall health of the fishery. 

Phase 1 and Phase 2 of this project introduced structure in the middle of the stream to increase channel complexity and provide trout cover, but also used structure to funnel slow water from the sides of the river toward the middle, thus increasing flow rate in this area.  The channel complexity was improved by adding Boulder Clusters which break the current flow and provide current relief for holding fish. To increase the flow rate Cross Vanes and J Hooks were added.  Cross Vanes and J Hooks are boulder structures extending from the side of the stream upstream toward the middle which hold back water on the sides of the river somewhat channeling more of the flow toward the middle of the river.   The result is increased flow rates through the middle of the river creating better conditions for weed bed growth, insect growth and trout cover.  The initial Phase 1 introduced Boulder Clusters and Cross Vanes to area between Simon Canyon and Duranglers corner.  Phase 2 extended the Cross Vanes, J Hooks and Boulder Cluster downstream from Duranglers Corner to the bottom of Last Chance Riffle. 

Project 2 (Nov to Dec 2009) - Cottonwood Flats, Pumphouse Run
The 2009 Stream Improvement in the Cottonwood Flats area provides new structure to the river in addition to narrowing the river channel in areas.  This project took place on the NM Regular Regulations section of the River on Cottonwood Flats and also included some of the River down toward Pumphouse Run. 

Project 3 (Oct  to Dec 2011) - Texas Hole - The Braids , Kiddie Hole

The Braids project, just upstream of the Texas Hole parking lot, will be a place where lifelong special memories are formed for many fishermen.  Historically, The Braids were a very productive fishery but lost some of its holding water and fish population with the lower flows of recent years.  Lower flow rates, reduced depth and in some areas siltation combined to form a less viable fishery.  Kiddie Hole, a well known fishing hole just upstream of the Texas Hole Parking lot on the South side of the river, is part of this area and experienced heavy siltation from the Rex Smith Wash during summer rains. 

With an understanding of the nature of the multiple issues and available resources NM Game and Fish has made tremendous strides in reviving and enhancing the quality of the fishery in Kiddie Hole and the Braids.  To restore the quality of the Braids the fishery needed increased depth, increased flow and more holding areas for trout.  The problem in the Kiddie Hole was different requiring relief from excessive siltation caused by the Rex Smith Wash, with increased flows providing added benefits. 

The issue of flow in the Braids and Kiddie Hole has been addressed by building a "Nose" at the upstream entrance in this area to divert some of the water which previously flowed down the Main Channel into the Braids and Kiddie Hole.  Historically, the Main Channel was never as productive a fishery as the Braids or Kiddie Hole.  Prior to this stream improvement project, about 65% of the San Juan flow went down the Main Channel and about 35% went into the Braids and Kiddie Hole.  To increase flow to the Braids and Kiddie Hole a 'Nose' or "Wedge" was built at the upper end which diverts some water from the Main Channel to the Braids and Kiddie Hole increasing their percentage of total flow to about 60%.  This increased flow results in better flow rates and increased depth.  To add additional depth and holding water to the Braids 21 pools were excavated to a depth of 2 - 3 1/2 feet and sediment was removed from Kiddie Hole.  Flows were also enhanced in this area by building up land masses to connect islands and direct flows, moving the available flow downstream at faster flow rates rather than allowing it to meander slowly through the islands.  Today there are three main 'channeled' flows through the Braids and Kiddie Hole with the water better able to maintain depth and speed. 

The siltation issue at Kiddie Hole required a different solution.  Fast moving flood waters from Rex Smith Wash previously delivered large quantities of sediment with every heavy thunderstorm.  To reduce the siltation effect from Rex Smith Wash a new sediment basin was created to remove much of the sediment from Rex Smith Wash before it entered Kiddie Hole.  To do this the runoff water from Rex Smith Wash was slowed down and then diverted into a sediment basin.  The reduced speed of the water entering the sediment basin allows some of the particulate matter to precipitate out before it is delivered to the San Juan.  As the sediment basin fills up the flood water is slowly depositing the sediment in the basin.  When the basin fills a spillway then allows water into the San Juan.  Although this system cannot possibly remove all sediments, expectations are high that the project will provide significant improvement over the situation that existed previously allowing Kiddie Hole to preserve its nature as a high quality fishery. 

Immediately after the project was finished in Dec 2011 fish moved into the new holding areas of The Braids.  Reports from fishermen have been Outstanding!

Float 'N Fish Map of The Braids

San Juan Stream Improvement Contributors
Stream improvement projects on the San Juan River have been accomplished by private contributions from Business, Individuals and Organizations listed below in partnership with funding from Government agencies.  Stream improvement projects are by their nature controversial, but the consensus by those who fish and work on the river is that past projects have benefitted the Quality of the Fish and the Fishing Experience on the San Juan.  Projects must be completed within the budget available by compromising with the many entities who have an interest in the Fishing experience and the resources of the San Juan.  With public support, compromise and teamwork with public agencies new projects are possible to provide a better San Juan River fishery for current and future generations- that's something that everyone should be able to agree on. 

The names, businesses and government agencies below have been important contributors to stream improvement projects on the San Juan. 
Business / Individuals
Adobe Contractors Inc.
Aztec Excavation Company
Conoco Phillips
Devcon Energy Corporation
Float 'N Fish
Golden Equipment Company
Volvo International
San Juan Fly Fishing Federation
Government Agencies
BLM - Bureau of Land Management
BOR - Bureau of Reclamation
NM Department of Game and Fish
NM State Parks

A Message from NM Game and Fish

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