Sunday, July 12, 2020

River flow and reservoir updates show area still in drought

“We need a lot more rain—which we hope is on the horizon”

By Cayla Vidmar

The rain experienced in the valley this weekend was a relief. But according to Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD), the rivers dropped back to pre-storm levels almost immediately. In short, we need a lot more of the same. Forecasts call for a wetter than usual monsoon season, which seems to be kicking off with afternoon rain showers predicted.

On Monday morning the Taylor Local Users Group, an advisory committee for the UGRWD, decided to reduce the release from Taylor Reservoir from 250 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 230 cfs. This decision was “agreed upon by the two boating operations on the river as the minimum to which they could still operate their businesses,” Kugel said, noting this level still allows for a reasonable recreation experience on the river.

This decision was made in order to conserve water storage in Taylor Reservoir, which has been dropping since early June. Both Taylor Reservoir and Blue Mesa are below their average fill levels for this time of year, a result of an unseasonably early run off, which occurred three to four weeks early this spring.

Blue Mesa is now 48 feet below full (a three-foot drop from last week’s reporting), and Taylor Reservoir is 14.5 feet below full. One of the primary concerns according to Kugel is “These low storage levels provide minimal relief for next year’s water supplies, should we experience another dry winter.” Kugel adds, “Irrigation, recreation, fisheries and the environment are all suffering to varying degrees due to our severe drought conditions.”

Streams and rivers that feed these reservoirs are currently seeing flows that typically occur in the fall. The Slate River was running at 25.6 cfs as of Tuesday, July 10. When the Slate River hits 23 cfs, an administrative call will be made, enacting water rights usage to the most senior users. This call is normally not made until September, but could be months earlier this year due to drought conditions, according to Kugel.

The drought year of 2002 seems to be a recurring benchmark for water levels, and Kugel says “Our supply is slightly better than 2002, but we’re rapidly approaching that level. We had a significant late summer monsoon in 2002, and if we don’t get those this year, we could reach levels at or worse than 2002.”

In review of the short-range and long-range forecast, Kugel says we may see wetter than normal conditions July through September. However, “along with the forecast for higher precipitation is a higher forecast for temperatures,” he says. “High temperatures have the potential to erase the gains of those monsoonal rains.” When asked just how much rain is needed to curtail the drought conditions, Kugel says a hard number is incredibly difficult to come by, when factoring in a myriad of conditions, including the evaporative effect of high temperatures.

Reviewing the upcoming 10-day forecast, Kugel says the “monsoonal pattern is beginning … It looks like a wetter pattern is emerging and we’re hopeful that will be the case.”

The Taylor Local Users Group will meet again on August 3 at 9 a.m. Their meeting is open to the public at the UGRWCD at 210 Spencer Ave in Gunnison.

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