Dead fish at Bonny Lake (Dan Wood/9NEWS)
PHOTOS: Draining Bonny Lake
The fish at Bonny Reservoir, near Idalia, are a casualty of a 2003 Supreme Court decision Colorado was forced to honor.
The ruling says Colorado owed the state of Kansas billions of gallons of water under a decades-old water-rights deal called the Republican River Compact.
Since state officials started draining Bonny Lake's water in the fall of 2011 because of the decision, thousands of fish have died at the reservoir.
Last week, workers from the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, which owns Bonny's land in cooperation with the State of Colorado, had to unclog the drain from the dam using pitchforks, because so many fish had piled up.
Backhoes then buried fish underneath the reservoir's soil.
Colorado State Engineer Dick Wolfe says the practice has taken place, sometimes every other day, to keep water flowing to Kansas.
Wolfe says his department has worked with the Bureau of Reclamation to humanely bury the fish so they would not become a health hazard or a visual problem at the lake in the long term.
Knowing they would drain the lake, last year state officials tried to get fishermen to catch as many fish as possible by taking away catch limits at Bonny.
"We were trying everything we could," Wolfe said. "We got advice from PETA on how to euthanize the fish."
Ultimately, Wolfe decided against that tactic, and said in order to keep the water flowing to Kansas, workers had to clear the outlets and bury the fish.
"I know everybody tried to get the fish out of there," he said. "They did as much as they could as was practical to get out."
He also says wildlife, like eagles and other birds of prey, have helped clear some of the fish.
Fishermen, who have collected some of the last walleye and crappie in the lake, say the scene has been tough to watch.
"Most of the dead fish are stuck in the silt," Blayne Baugh, who's fished Bonny Lake's rocky shores for 34 years, said. "What can you do? It makes you feel disgusted inside."
"It's unbelievable how many game fish have died in this last month," fisherman Dave Henkel said. "Soon as this water warms up, there'll be lots of dead fish."
As of Friday, records from the Bureau of Reclamation showed the reservoir at 0.2 percent full.
The lack of water at Bonny Lake has also killed business for people like Kenny Condrey, who runs Papa's Bait Shop at the entrance to the park.
Condrey says he expects to make an eighth of last year's profits, keeping his shop open for the few small ponds around the area.
"There's just a lot of folks that don't even realize it's even gone," Condrey said. "I'm most upset for the kids out here who won't be able to fish."
Friday, Wolfe said draining Bonny has had a positive effect on the Republican River Compact compliance, though results could take years to compute since the compact is based on a five-year running average.
"If we hadn't done that, then we would have been that much further out of compliance," Wolfe said. "There were no other options on the South Fork."
For years, Colorado Natural Resources officials have believed Bonny Reservoir, which sits on the south fork of the Republican River, held the best potential to make up a water debt owed to Kansas under the 1942 Republican River Compact.
The compact collected dust for years until Kansas water officials noticed they were not getting enough water from Nebraska's and Colorado's portion of the river.
In 2003, Kansas won a Supreme Court battle to force Nebraska and Colorado to make up for water they reserved from the river in violation of the compact.
Water was already drained from Bonny Reservoir to make up for the debt owed to Kansas, but not enough, and a drought complicated issues even more.
So late in 2011, Colorado officials started draining the lake.
"We have spent four years looking for a better solution than draining Bonny," Colorado Assistant Director for Water Alex Davis told 9NEWS in August 2011. "It is really a tragedy that we have to take this step."
Davis and other Division of Natural Resources employees considered multiple options for years to keep Bonny open and pay back Kansas - including taking water from farmers - and building a pipeline to funnel water into the Bonny Lake from the northern fork of the Republican River.
Both options proved too costly, she says.
Kansas also sent mixed messages about Bonny in 2011, according to Colorado State Engineer Dick Wolfe, when Kirk, Colo. Resident Audrey Hase, a proponent of Saving Bonny Lake, received a letter from Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.
"We know that many Kansans and other citizens regret the draining of Bonny, which has served as a valuable recreational area for many residents of Northwest Kansas and surrounding communities for decades," Brownback wrote Hase. "Because Colorado is a party to this compact - it is a named party in the lawsuit - but Kansas seeks no relief against Colorado at this time."
That letter threw a wrench into negotiations about Bonny Reservoir, Colorado officials say.
"It's given people a whole different perspective on how Kansas feels," Colorado State Engineer Dick Wolfe said in August. "It's wrong. It's not an accurate statement."
Wolfe also says Kansas water engineers never budged on proposals to keep Bonny Reservoir from being drained.
"It was not an easy decision," Wolfe said. "But we had no other choice."
Bonny's Next Steps
Yuma County, where Bonny Reservoir's land sits, is actively trying to negotiate with the State of Colorado and Federal Bureau of Reclamation to take control of Bonny Lake's land.
READ: The outline of the Repurpose of Bonny Reservoir
Currently, the state is operating the reservoir as a wildlife refuge.
"I thought there'd be a simple answer of Googling, 'Repurposed State Park,'" Yuma County Economic Development Director Pat Duran said as he stood on Bonny's dam on a windy day in February.
Duran is working with county commissioners, state officials and Congressman Cory Gardner's office to find ways to re-use the land.
"The idea is to repurpose the property without the water," Duran said.
The county's ideas include marketing Bonny to horseback riders along the Front Range, and opening the land to model airplane clubs and target shooters, Duran says.
He also has to deal with a $1 million visitor's center, built by the state, beginning to show a lack of investment with roof shingles flying off.
"There's a lot of stories out here on the plains about conservation," Duran said. "We're going to have a multimedia theatre in the visitor's center."
If left untended, the campgrounds at Bonny Lake are sure to go to waste as well.
"We've got a lot invested in this," said Mary White, an avid camper at Bonny for years. "And a lot of time."
White and her husband said a group of campers worked at the park regularly to clean the grounds, and would hate to see the camping spaces go unused.
The county would not charge taxpayers any money to keep the park open, Duran says.
Instead, park users would pay fees, and establish partnerships and memberships to keep the park in operation.
Duran says he hopes negotiations are done by this summer with the state and the federal government.
Fish continue to die
As the negotiations continue, fishermen are casting their final lines at Bonny over the next few weeks.
"I think this is my last trip," said Dave Henkel, as he turned to climb the rocks of Bonny Dam toward his truck.
"I can't believe they let this happen," Blayne Baugh said holding a string of croppy, just yards away from the backhoe burying other fish beneath the soil. "It's gut wrenching."
(KUSA-TV © 2012 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)