Blue Mesa expected to reach only 50% capacity this summer

“Drought has persisted for four years now”

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

During an April update from local water managers to Gunnison County commissioners, it was clear that the continual drought conditions persisting throughout the west and the Gunnison Valley are not making for an auspicious snow runoff period. Experts are preparing for a potentially tough wildfire season, and various efforts to gather scientific data regarding snowmelt, soil moisture and river water quality may shed light on how to prepare for future conditions. But while Blue Mesa Reservoir is expected to remain depleted after its releases to Lake Powell last summer and may only fill to 50% this summer, Taylor Reservoir might fare much better. 

Colorado River Basin

Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD) board member Kathleen Curry gave a report to commissioners on the river district’s current efforts and concerns. She said there are funding requests to collect data on river water quality and sedimentation for the burn areas within the district. “I think that’s a really wise move,” said Curry, particularly in Grizzly Creek. 

Curry relayed hydrology information from Dave Kanzer, CRWCD director of science and interstate matters, highlighting that there is lower than normal snowpack and above normal wildfire potential in the state. 

Lake Powell is at a historic low, and total inflows are expected to be about 69% of average. The end of water year elevations at Lake Powell are estimated to be 3,527 feet above sea level, after having dropped below 3,525 which indicate a potential threat to hydropower production. 

“At this point it looks like there will be some significant releases out of Flaming Gorge because [the Bureau of Reclamation] ran Blue Mesa down, as we all know, and that isn’t going to be a great contributor this year,” said Curry. She estimated that Blue Mesa might fill to about 50% this spring with a peak of 400,000 acre feet.

“There are conversations about making sure that those [Flaming Gorge] releases actually have an impact and that Reclamation learn from the experiences last year,” said Curry. Evaporation and tourism and recreation losses have been discussed at length since the Blue Mesa release happened at an inopportune height of the summer season in 2021 and with only a two-week notice from Reclamation. 

“Taylor Park is a better story,” offered Curry. “It might hit 95% capacity, which is exciting.”

Curry reported that State of Colorado demand management study efforts have been put on hold for now to let other states catch up on how they will contribute to demand management plans as well. Curry said the biggest issue is considering Lower Colorado Basin statistics. She explained that the Upper Colorado River Basin uses 4.39 million acre feet while the Lower Basin uses 10 million acre feet. “That includes the obligation to Mexico,” she said.

Upper Gunnison River Basin

Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District general manager Sonja Chavez and water resource specialist Beverly Richards also gave an Upper Gunnison Basin report and discussed snowmelt, drought conditions and possible tools to help predict future runoff seasons. Richards reviewed that 21 winter storm events took place from November through April this winter season, defined by North American Weather Consultants who track it out of Utah. Most of those events occurred in December, and cloud seeding events were run concurrently. 

Richards explained that according to a water supply report and drought monitor map there has been one brief instance in the past five years, between 2018 and 2020, when there wasn’t any drought. “So drought has persisted for four years now,” she said. 

The Gunnison River Basin snow water equivalent (SWE) as of April 10 was 96% of normal for this time of year, and the upper basin SWE was 92% of normal. Precipitation has ranged between  69% to 82% of average for the entire upper basin since December and soil moisture varies from 1-31% of normal in Gunnison County, with most areas at an average of 10%.

“The Gunnison River looks like it might be similar to last year, for example the Gunnison River at Gunnison stream gage peaked at 1,720 cfs, but we’re hoping for more as there was more snowpack than last year,” she said. “Storage in the entire Upper Colorado River Basin is 63% of average right now, and Blue Mesa and Lake Powell are the lowest in that system.”

 Richards described a few potential tools being considered in the basin, such as Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory’s (RMBL) interest in an airborne remote sensing program to track moisture during peak “greenness” from March through October. She said the program would help inform water managers of snow melt timing in the future. Chavez said the UGRWCD is also hoping to work more closely with USGS to increase monitoring frequency in Blue Mesa to understand Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) using satellite and stream and lake sampling and might apply for a grant to aid in the endeavor.

Field season for the Wet Meadows Program stream restoration kicked off last week, and Upper Gunnison Watershed program coordinator Cheryl Cwelich reported there are 17 locations identified across the Gunnison Basin for restoration work this year. The UGRWCD is discussing the potential to rent out dorm rooms from Western Colorado University to house seasonal Wet Meadow conservation crews who are struggling with housing options. 

Cwelich said the wet meadows collaborative core partners have met twice this year to discuss their vision and long-term planning. 

“We are looking at a more robust list for future projects using the Nature Conservancy’s prioritization model,” said Cwelich.  

Last, Chavez and Curry discussed how they might potentially work together between the Colorado River District and the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, alongside agricultural users in the future, “to help mitigate climate change and the impacts we are seeing on local production,”as Chavez stated. Chavez was recently appointed by Governor Jared Polis to the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission and was sworn in on April 14.

“Water has always been a focal point of everything we do here in Gunnison County…especially as a headwaters county and for agricultural reasons, recreational reasons and many other uses,” said commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck.

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