Looking like another summer of drought in the Gunnison Basin

Water doesn’t grow on trees – so don’t waste it

[ By Mark Reaman ]

The future dilemma of water issues in the Gunnison Basin and western U.S. is closer than anyone wants to admit.

“About six years ago, I remember listening to Colorado River Risk Study modeling presentations on the potential impact of two years of back-to-back drought on Lake Powell storage levels and potential for Colorado River Compact curtailment,” said Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) general manager Sonja Chavez.

“I didn’t think it would get here so soon or that we’d be dealing with three years of back-to-back-to-back drought,” she said on Tuesday, April 27. “While we are not in a situation of compact curtailment in 2021, levels in Lake Powell continue to drop and it looks like we will have another lean year much like what we saw in 2018.”

Given existing drought conditions, it is expected that Blue Mesa Reservoir will peak by filling to only 59 percent after the snow melts this summer. It currently is sitting at about 45 percent full and the expectation is that it will finish the year in December at 47 percent. Taylor Park Reservoir is currently 60 percent full. The current snowpack in the Gunnison Basin is at 69 percent of average for this time of year.

“Current conditions show that 90 percent of Gunnison County is now under severe drought conditions,” reported water resource specialist Beverley Richards. “The entire state snowpack is currently at 85 percent of average for this time of year and while some river basins, especially those east of the Continental Divide have seen some improvement, all the river basins in the state remain below average for the year. As a result of the dry conditions in the Gunnison River Basin, stream flows will likely remain low and reservoirs will see little recharge in the coming runoff season.”

How you’ll see the impacts
The lack of snowpack and predictions for higher air temperatures will likely mean that rivers will peak around early June. Add to that the fact that we saw snowpack peak around March 31 which is 5-6 days earlier than previous years and drought conditions will be noticeable earlier.

The boating season on the Taylor and Gunnison Rivers for example, will likely be short, with a probable August finish. Floating the Slate River will not last long so there may not be much if any opportunity to ride the Upper Slate if people abide by a voluntary no-float period in the late spring/early summer to protect the Great Blue Heron rookery area. Fisheries may feel the impact of increasing temperatures associated with low flows and harmful algal blooms that can be toxic to humans and pets have been a regular occurrence in Blue Mesa the past few summers. Expect to deal with them again this year.

“We have been talking to entities throughout the valley to help get the word out about the need to conserve water. The municipalities have been great and say they will help spread awareness,” said Chavez. “Paying attention to our outdoor water use or lawn watering can also have major positive impacts on conservation. So, the hope is to educate locals and second homeowners about alternative ways to conserve around domestic water use. We are also ramping up our outreach to the local lodging and restaurant industry to start working with their guests to do simple things like ask folks if they would like a glass of water with their meals before providing one or to expect that sheets only get changed every three days unless requested.”

Local ranchers are struggling with the lack of water as well. In good years, they might expect to be able to grow two cuttings of hay during the summer, but Chavez said the projection this year is one. “And production is expected to be pretty measly,” Chavez said. “It will not be a good year, but we hear from our agricultural community that the ranchers are already working closely on communication around water sharing.”

One good piece of news the District received is that the Division of Water Resources (DWR) recently made clear a decision that should keep some water in our valley that in previous years might have headed to the lower Gunnison Basin and farmers in the Uncompahgre Valley in Montrose and Delta.

Chavez explained that she and UGRWCD attorney John McClow got official word from DWR who consulted with the State Attorneys General that they would not honor a Gunnison Tunnel water call. Basically, if there is additional water available for appropriation that is flowing over the Gunnison Tunnel diversion as a result of releases made by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to meet flow targets on the Gunnison River at Whitewater as part of the requirements under the Aspinall Unit Re-operations Record of Decision, that water has to be accounted for.

“Essentially, water rights junior to the Gunnison Tunnel won’t be curtailed or have their diversions shut off this year or perhaps indefinitely as a result of this decision and that’s a good thing,” Chavez explained. The conversation around better accounting was started years ago and according to McClow, “The bottom line is that it’s going to make the Uncompahgre be a lot more accountable for their water use and storage use.”

Chavez and Richards said the drought conditions are not specific to the Gunnison District or Colorado. “It is the entire Western U.S.,” said Richards. “It is pretty bleak.”

“The drought is certainly on everyone’s mind,” added Chavez. “Everyone across the West is worried about water right now and we are living with the impacts of uncertain hydrology and changing climate. There just isn’t much water being produced in our mountains and watershed right now and it hurts everyone.”

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