Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The summer water picture not quite as rosy this year

“It certainly hasn’t been the miracle May”

By Alissa Johnson

Last year, the month of May prompted local water experts to update an old adage: May showers bring June flowers. Weathering the deluge wasn’t always easy for locals ready to hit the trails, but it was a boon to local water supplies.

The same cannot be said for this year. Water levels are projected to be sufficient for recreation and irrigation needs, but local reservoirs are not projected to fill.

“It certainly hasn’t been the miracle May that we had last year as far as precipitation is concerned,” said Frank Kugel, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

Snowpack across the Gunnison River Basin is below normal, particularly in the East River Basin where the predicted streamflow for the April through July runoff season is 78 percent of normal.

Spring runoff for the East River is likely to peak within the next few days. “The long-term average peak occurs on June 11, so this year’s peak seems to be on track or a few days earlier than normal,” Kugel said.

Reservoir conditions look to be quite different from last year. Last June, both the Taylor Park and Blue Mesa Reservoirs came within inches of spilling over. This coming summer, Taylor Park Reservoir is projected to reach somewhere between 90 percent and 95 percent of full and Blue Mesa is projected to reach 83 percent of capacity.

Kugel attributes the difference to a slightly better snowpack in the Taylor Park area and a recent 10-day peak flow release from Blue Mesa in accordance with a record of decision for the Aspinall Environmental Impact Study. Water was released for the lower Gunnison River for endangered fish habitat.

“Blue Mesa should start filling again but dropped several thousand acre-feet during the release and is currently at 69 percent of capacity,” Kugel said.

The Taylor Park Reservoir is currently at 72 percent of capacity and is in the midst of its peak release of 450 cubic feet per second (cfs), which started Tuesday, May 31 and runs through Saturday, June 4.

“We do that both to satisfy privately held instream flow rights on the Taylor River and to help flush sediments from the streambed and improve the fishery on the Taylor River. Once the release is complete, it will be stepped back down to 300 cfs over the course of a few days and it should remain at that for the month of June,” Kugel said.

That will make for good flows for several June events featuring local waterways. This year’s Gunnison River Festival, which features the annual river float and fish fry as well as events at the Whitewater Park, will take place just after the 41st annual Colorado Water Workshop.

Originally started by local historian Duane Vandenbusche and Gunnison water lawyer Richard Bratton, this year’s workshop features several authors, including Western Slope writer Craig Childs.

The Colorado Foundation for Water Education will also host a two-day tour of the Gunnison River Basin, providing an in-depth look at everything from Blue Mesa Reservoir to local irrigation practices and infrastructure to an organic farm and the Gunnison Whitewater Park.

The tour runs June 21-22; the Colorado Water Workshop runs June 22-24; and the Gunnison River Festival runs June 24-26.

Learn more at http://www.western.edu/academics/undergraduate/environment-sustainability/conferences/colorado-water-workshop.

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