Colorado River District considers hydrology challenges

Augmentation on Crystal River appears imminent

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

The user demands on the Colorado River have long been an issue for communities located along its path and the path of its tributaries, and those are becoming more apparent on areas such as the Crystal River within and adjacent to Gunnison County. Stakeholder groups are forming around demand management, anti-speculation legislation and natural infrastructure solutions to keep water flowing for residents along the Crystal River even as drought conditions have prompted senior water right calls from downstream.

The Colorado River Water District is part of those conversations looking at how to maintain viable residential water supplies along the Crystal River, a tributary to the Colorado. Water levels at the Glen Canyon Dam feeding Lake Powell are projected to drop below an elevation of 3,525 feet by January 2022. That decrease will trigger other actions to protect the levels required to maintain hydroelectric energy production at the dam.

“It’s not the elevation where the turbines stop working, but it is a critical elevation in terms of planning and it’s obviously going the wrong direction for us,” said Colorado River District board member Kathleen Curry in a fall update to Gunnison County commissioners. “The hydrology on the Colorado River has not improved.”

Zane Kessler, CRWD director of government relations, reported that he attended the CRWD’s last meeting in July, and thanks to ballot measure 7A, which passed last year with 70 percent approval and debruced the district, he said the river district is better funded for some smaller projects in the area.

“We’re excited to put those dollars to work here in Gunnison County and throughout the district,” said Kessler. He described current projects the district has worked on, including a Lake Irwin piping project, culvert work at the Rosich ditch, and Upper Gunnison River restoration.

Kessler also brought up Crystal River challenges. He reviewed that in 2018 the town of Marble, Carbondale and seven subdivisions, including three within Gunnison County, were served notice by the state engineer that they do not have a legal water supply on hotter, drier years. Senior calls downstream trumped even those “who have pretty senior water rights on that river,” said Kessler. “There’s just not enough water in that river to satisfy all of the needs.”

Kessler said the CRWD has been asked by the state to come in with West Divide Conservancy District and discuss what some augmentation options might look like. He said that is not a popular concept along the Crystal River, and “tends to cause a lot of people to run to their corners.” But he said the effort to get out and meet with folks has helped to discuss opportunities with natural water storage or aquifer recharge. He emphasized that they have committed not to use dams or main stem diversions or storage on the Crystal.

“But it’s possible that we may need some ponds and a collection of resources that can get water downstream to those water users. Ultimately, we don’t want families going without water. And we don’t want our municipalities to struggle to provide for our shared constituents,” said Kessler. He said the river district is working with a natural infrastructure expert from Ouray to assess opportunities, and they may end up requesting state or federal funds for the process.

The district is also seeking a wild and scenic designation for the Crystal River. “It’s going to require a robust and thoughtful stakeholder process,” said Kessler, as Gunnison County has more river mileage than any other county in the wild and scenic proposal. “We would welcome your voice in that process and participation,” he told county commissioners.

County commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck recalled that right before the pandemic the county and river district were advocating for the process of getting appointments to the Colorado River roundtable for Gunnison County and a municipal appointment for the town of Marble.

“I think that’s an important part of it as well,” said Houck.

Kessler agreed that Gunnison County and Marble, whose voices are currently missing from the roundtable, would be important. “They are taking that process up again,” he said. Houck noted that the Crystal River discussions need to be approached as a watershed, not just one particular area or interest.

Kessler said that protection and restoration are important aspects to the process. “It’s a river that is facing serious impacts from climate change.”

There is a river district stakeholder group discussing demand management and another working group has formed to respond to anti-speculation legislation, said Curry. The river district has been working to settle on a policy regarding anti-speculation, and adopted one at the July meeting.

The river district met for its fourth quarter update in October and anticipates meeting next in January 2022.

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