Lower Colorado Basin in crisis management
[ By Katherine nettles ]
In a tale of two updates, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservation District (UGRWCD) has positive news to share on how the consistent rains this summer have improved the drought conditions locally; however the Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD) is looking at a less encouraging reality that ongoing problems downstream of the Gunnison Valley might affect the future of water storage, agriculture, planning and litigation.
On Tuesday, August 9, UGRWCD water resource specialist Beverly Richards reported to Gunnison County commissioners that general hydrology in the Gunnison Basin is better off than it was in early summer and drought conditions might even be lifted in the next month.
Richards showed a drought monitor from August 2 compared with July 5 when drought conditions had moved into a more severe category after inadequate moisture in late spring and early summer. “Gunnison County is now almost entirely in moderate drought conditions, and that is due largely in part to monsoon rains that we’ve gotten for the past month and a half.” The precipitation for the past 30 days ranged around 75% to 150% of normal, even reaching 200% just north of Hinsdale County. Richards did note that the basin has been in drought for the past 150 weeks, since September 17, 2019. “That’s a long stretch,” she observed.
That long run might come to an end if rains persist. The 30-day outlook shows a 33% probability of above normal precipitation for the entire Gunnison Basin, and even more so in western Colorado. Richards said that if the outlook rings true much of the county’s drought conditions might be further improved, “And even a portion of Gunnison County is showing that drought conditions will likely be removed.”
Stream flows are just about normal for this time of year, which is also an improvement from the past three years. Reservoir storage for the entire Gunnison River Basin is at 72% of average, and 58% of average for the upper Gunnison Basin. Blue Mesa topped out at 48% of normal, and is now going down with current storage levels at 44%. The Upper Colorado River drainage basin is at 65% of average, having improved from June when it was at 59% of average.
Algae blooms are worsening in Blue Mesa and creeping into other parts of the reservoir as the season continues. The UGRWCD is working on a USGS and National Park Service study of the algae blooms to better understand and predict them.
“We have been receiving calls and emails from people saying that they are seeing more algae in our local rivers. This is not necessarily alarming,” said Richards. They are likely associated with ongoing drought, low stream flows and resulting warmer water temperatures. Water quality monitoring efforts are keeping an eye on it, however.
Other ongoing projects in the upper Gunnison Basin include a gap weather radar, which has been delayed due to a contractor issue and is still in need of dedicated funding support, and drought contingency planning. UGRWCD general counsel John McClow discussed the recent Inflation Reduction Act that included $4 billion in provisions to combat drought. “That’s encouraging there as well,” said Richards.
Upper Colorado Basin
CRWCD board member Kathleen Curry and McClow discussed the long-term needs of planning around a thirsty lower Colorado River basin and critical shortages at Lake Powell and Mead. Lake Powell is 27% full at 3,535 feet, just 10 feet above the critical storage elevation needed to ensure hydroelectric energy production. Lake Mead storage elevation was 1,040 feet on July 31 which has initiated official shortage conditions. The level at which shortage is declared is anything below 1,075 feet.
McClow said there are predictions that Blue Mesa will be at 32% of capacity at year end. The plan remains to release 500,000 acre feet from Flaming Gorge, and the Bureau of Reclamation is asking lower basin states to implement drought contingency measures and demand management strategies.
McClow noted the consistent trend is less water. “The lower basin is consuming more water than there is; it finally caught up with us,” he said, and there will need to be a significant reduction in both agriculture and consumption on the lower states. He said growing alfalfa to export to China, for example, doesn’t make sense in the lower basin.
Gunnison County commissioner Liz Smith asked what the Gunnison Valley might do to help in long-term planning. “Locally we’re doing pretty well,” McClow responded. He said the UGRWCD has good programming and outreach, municipal conservation is strong and, “Our irrigators are by necessity consuming moderate amounts of water…they are very successful at it, and very efficient. In our home community we are where we need to be.”
State-wide, McClow said every major municipality has been working on this. “Aurora has decided they are going to pull up grass,” he said. And if lower basin states fail to come up with a plan by August 16, “the federal government will act unilaterally to protect infrastructure,” he cited. However, he added that nobody really knows what that means, and the authority there has never been tested.
Curry echoed McClow’s remarks. She summarized the most recent Gunnison Basin roundtable meetings, river district meetings, and other water law related meetings during which the state engineer and other experts have presented.
“I would say there are more questions than answers,” she said of water conservation enforcement.
The nine roundtables in the state might be allocated funding from water supply reserve funds to bring each roundtable to about $1 million in funding. “We could start funding project requests at a higher level,” Curry said of the potential bump for the Gunnison Basin Roundtable.
The updated 2023 Colorado Water Plan is now available for comment and can be found at cwcb.colorado.gov/colorado-water-plan.
Commissioners and Curry discussed the importance of communicating the values of local ag when discussing water conservation.
“We grow a native crop, we don’t have to seed it, we don’t have to fertilize it, we don’t use pesticides, we don’t use electricity; we grow something that’s sustainable,” said Curry. “And I bet you five bucks that most people who drive by don’t even know that it’s grass hay instead of alfalfa.” She suggested that people adjust personal conversations to highlight that better to visitors and newcomers. She also said the importance of ag in Colorado is sometimes undervalued. “When we’re talking about food production for our country and food security, that should be taken into account.”