“Fortunately we have a relatively full reservoir”
For a third year in a row, the state water board has made a call on a stretch of the Slate River to protect stream flows. But those junior water users along the stretch who have augmentation plans through the local water conservancy district have already met their obligation to provide the missing water.
After the runoff from last winter’s huge snowfall, there was plenty of water kept in Meridian Lake, ready to head downstream. And after a particularly dry summer, the water turned out to be needed.
On October 3 the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) stream and lake protection deputy section chief Jeff Baessler authorized a call on the state’s in-stream flow (ISF) rights on the Slate River. The state obtained the ISF rights in 1980, as part of the creation of the CWCB’s Stream and Lake Protection Division. The rights are designed to ensure adequate stream flows to protect the fish and the riparian environment of the river.
And if a call is made, that means upstream users need to shut off their water supplies or provide a source of “augmentation” water.
In 2002 the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) purchased the rights to use 75 acre-feet of water Meridian Lake Reservoir to provide such a source.
Although the Slate River runs past the town of Crested Butte, the town’s water supply comes from Coal Creek, and is outside the boundary of the state’s water call. Mt. Crested Butte’s water supply comes from the East River. The call affects more than 50 property owners with water rights junior to 1980, primarily in the Riverbend subdivision.
In-stream flow calls on the Slate River have also been made in 2004, 2006 and 2007.
The UGRWCD discussed the latest water call on October 27. District manager Frank Kugel said the summer season has been “extremely dry.” Despite the heavy snows of winter, in the past seven months the basin has received 75 percent of its average precipitation. During the month of September alone the Gunnison Basin received only 65 percent of its average precipitation. On October 27 Blue Mesa Reservoir was down to 74 percent of capacity.
“Fortunately we have a relatively full reservoir at Meridian Lake,” Kugel said.
Since the Meridian Lake Reservoir topped out this summer, Kugel said, “We needed to make some space to capture next year’s runoff without spilling it.” But after a dry September, Kugel said he anticipated there could be a water call on the Slate River.
Once the call went out, Kugel said, they began releasing one cubic foot per second, which is greatly in excess of the 16 gallons per minute mandated for augmentation water. “(Meridian) dropped a foot since October 7,” Kugel said.
Board member Ken Spann asked if there was a point when the UGRWCD had met its obligation for releasing a total amount of augmentation water. “Isn’t there a point where you can say we have released enough water to the river to meet all of our contractual obligations?” Spann asked.
Kugel said, “We’re probably past that.”
Local Division 4 water commissioner Richard Rozman agreed. “I think we passed that a while ago, but that’s a good point,” he said.
UGRWCD attorney John McClow said because of the ice, snow, and very steep slope to access the Meridian Lake Reservoir, the UGRWCD made a special volumetric obligation with the state for the augmentation water, to prevent having to continually monitor the release gate in unsafe conditions. “If the releases made so far have satisfied the volumetric commitment of the decree then we have no further obligation,” he said.
Meridian Lake Reservoir, sometimes called Long Lake, is formed from a natural glacial lake near the Washington Gulch trailhead. The dam is only about eight feet high. The Meridian Lake Park homeowners also own Meridian Lake Park Reservoir, which is an artificial reservoir downstream and closer to Crested Butte. Both water sources feed Woods Creek, which joins with the Slate River near the town of Crested Butte.