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Water issues impacting local region

“Watching a slow-moving train wreck”

by Katherine Nettles

What is looking more and more like an extended drought is having major impacts in the region. Water levels in local reservoirs are approaching all time lows, a toxic algae outbreak is impacting Blue Mesa (see page 24), and local water experts are starting to look at ways to live with less water in the basin as more people show up.

Taylor Park Reservoir releases have been reduced for the remainder of September to conserve water, from 150 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 100 cfs. The announcement came late last week in response to a unanimous recommendation from the Taylor Local Users Group on September 21, involving four entities: the Bureau of Reclamation, Uncompahgre Valley Water Users, the Colorado River District and the Upper Gunnison District.

That flow rate will continue through September 30, and the group also voted to recommend setting the winter flow rate to 50 cfs from October 1 through the end of April. The recommendation was approved by the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservation District (UGRWCD) board on Monday, and a final determination on the winter flow rate will be determined at a four parties meeting on September 28.

Frank Kugel, general manager of the UGRWCD, addressed the Mt. Crested Butte Town Council last week regarding water levels across the Upper Gunnison basin. “We are generally in the first to third percentile of historic stream flow levels across our basin, in the East River, Slate, and Gunnison,” he said.

Kugel said the Blue Mesa Reservoir is currently 72 feet below the spillway and predicted to drop another 10 feet before it stabilizes for the season. “That is close to, if not breaking, the drought year record last set in 1977. We’re dropping below 300,000 acre feet in the reservoir, and the active storage is 830,000—so it has a long way to go to fill back up,” said Kugel.

Taylor Park is doing slightly better, but will still come in at 13,000 or 14,000 acre feet below the typical end of year storage goals, according to Kugel’s report. The Taylor Local Users Group tries to maintain at least 75 if not 100 cfs in its streams during wintertime, but chose a more dramatic conservation measure of 50 cfs due to the current conditions, said Kugel. This was last done in 2002 and 2003.

“Historically, the Upper Gunnison has been one of our biggest concerns for users in our basin with the threat of a transmountain diversion. We’ve always viewed ourselves as [taking up] the fight against the Front Range putting another pipe through the mountain and taking Upper Gunnison water,” said Kugel.

For now, however, the focus is on looking downstream to the Colorado River, of which the Taylor and Gunnison River are both tributaries. The Colorado River is getting “terribly short” on flow, said Kugel.

Lake Powell, fed by the Colorado, has dropped below 50 percent capacity in the past month, and Lake Mead, fed by the Colorado farther downstream, has operated below 40 percent capacity consistently since 2010. “It’s a delivery obligation that we wouldn’t be able to meet if we can’t keep enough water in Powell,” said Kugel. “There is drought contingency planning across the state.”

The Watershed Management board has undertaken three efforts to plan for the future. The first is polling users in the Gunnison River Basin about how to prepare amid projections that climate change might drop stream flows 20 percent by mid-century, while state demographers predict population increases as high as 50 percent. Current flow levels will more likely become the norm rather than an exception, said Kugel.

“This is a slow moving train wreck that’s heading our way, and we need to be prepared for that. We are asking for input from the community as to … how we can maintain our current level of water use, our recreational experience on the Slate, the Taylor, or the East, under these lower flows. How do our agriculture users grow the same number of crops, maintain the same number of cattle… serve municipalities  … and ensure that the environment is sustainable,” he said.

The second preparation effort comes from the UGRWCD breaking the district into three sub-basins—the East River, Ohio Creek, and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison—in order to better study them. This allows for needs assessments, demonstration projects, and determining  where solutions are most needed. Those projects, said Kugel, will begin next year for diversion structures, and other projects that are determined optimal to at least two or more stakeholders among environment, agriculture, recreation industries, and municipalities. The group is currently taking public input by survey at www.ugrwcd.org.

The third and final area of planning is the UGRWCD’s involvement as lead local agency in the Gunnison County weather modification permit. There are 10 to 12 stakeholders also contributing to that effort, trying to study snowpack and generate more of it. A remote cloud seeding generator was placed at the Irwin Lodge two years ago, and Kugel said he hopes for more clouds to seed this coming year than were available last winter. The hope is to get better measuring and monitoring of the snowpack to help forecasters better predict spring runoff into the reservoirs and schedule releases appropriately.

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