Water saving tactics and dam repair needs at critical levels
By Katherine Nettles
Against the backdrop of the Colorado River Compact crisis and drought contingency planning, local water managers are trying to ensure the Gunnison Valley is focused on both creating solutions and protecting its agriculture (ag), ecosystems and recreation. That is a fine line to walk, from wetlands restoration projects near the Taylor Reservoir to water use demand-management pilot programs spearheaded by the Upper Colorado River District. However, funding will be available for those willing to participate in demand management strategies.
In a report to Gunnison County commissioners on the Colorado River Water Conservation District this month, district board member Kathleen Curry shared some recent endeavors to manage water and how the river district is involved in those efforts. The Upper Colorado River Commission rolled out a new federally funded program in December to help reduce water usage, called the System Conservation Pilot Program. The program is offering $125 million for projects that reduce historic consumptive use and will pay water users to take action.
“This is actually a pretty big deal,” said Curry. She said the river district wants to ensure a thorough applicant review process, and to provide sound policy to ensure that other water users are not injured and that water speculation is avoided.
The district is also spearheading a pilot program for demand management, determining how much water it could potentially generate and how it would be managed. “In our case the water would be stored in Blue Mesa Reservoir,” Curry explained.
The river district is trying to do what it can, summarized Curry. “What’s really driving this is the ongoing situation with Lake Powell’s declining levels…this is all being driven by the issues on the big river. And the Gunnison is certainly a part of that whole conversation. A big part of it.”
Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD), shared that despite the river district board’s efforts to increase the attendance of ag users at the late February meeting, “ag users were not jumping up and down to participate in a program like this.”
Chavez said demand management is hard on soils, and it can take three to six years for ag producers to return to their former productivity levels after participating in such a program.
She said there will be two pilot programs, one being in a highly structured federal project area like the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. The other would be in a less organized situation without shareholders. The district is putting together a smaller subcommittee of ag producers to continue planning the program, she said. “We want to protect our producers. I have feelings about bringing additional attention to the Upper Gunnison Basin, given that we are above a federal reservoir, given the dependency of our ag producers on irrigation return flows, downstream water right holders and adjacent land holders. It’s really complex. We know we need to be a part of a loose solution; we know we need to prepare for the possibility of an issue with compact compliance. So, I think we’ll just continue to work with the group on that and possibly even through the drought contingency planning process that we’re anticipating,” she concluded.
Gauging local values
The district recently polled those living in the Gunnison Basin water district to get a sense for their priorities. Curry reported that drought, wildfires and water availability for ag, fisheries and water quality were regarded as serious problems, while concerns over recreational water were deemed of less concern. Curry noted those concerns had increased since the previous survey, taken in 2016, but concern for recreational water had decreased.
“It would be good for all of us to think about how this is a priority for people in the district,” she commented.
Wet meadows restoration
“We do have some concerns with some of the work that is happening up on Trail Creek above Taylor Reservoir,” said Chavez, speaking of another local approach to water retention using beaver dam analogs. She said the structures, which retain water longer during runoff season, could be beneficial to the ecosystem and overall water tables. But the timing, the number and rate of analogs installed could have an impact on the amount of water that flows down the system as well, to ranchers and other water rights holders.
“It’s going to take time for that water to spread back out into the floodplain. We are looking at this closely, but we believe in it.”
Chavez said the UGRWCD wet meadows restoration program will be sponsoring a study looking at these systems closely through the U.S. Geological Survey in a five-to-seven-year project. “In the meantime we can continue what we’re doing,” she said. “We just have to be careful, thoughtful, make sure that what we’re working just within the stream bank and not have any diversions,” to avoid infringing on downstream water rights.
“We know these floodplains are critical to slowing down wildfires and creating habitat and spaces where animals can go in the event of fire to save themselves. They also save a ton of water,” she said, as up to 28% more water flows in a system using the analog structures.
“We consider it a second snowpack. All of our water up here, we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. All we have is Taylor. What we get usually flushes right by us, and you get what you get when you get it. So if we can store that snowpack in our system a little bit longer throughout the season, it might be a benefit to our producers.”
Lake Irwin challenges
Lake Irwin was reclassified as a high hazard dam in 2022, and local governments are looking for funding to shore up its infrastructure. The lake holds 367-acre feet of water for both Irwin’s domestic drinking water supply and in-stream flows in Coal Creek.
Irwin, Crested Butte and Gunnison County are seeking to coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service to fund mitigation along with recreational campsite upgrades, all of which ideally would be pursued in 2024. The costs to repair the wood infrastructure and pipelines that divers determined have holes and corrosion have ballooned from original estimates of $500,000-$600,000 to $3.2 million.
“It’s at high risk of failure, and it’s showing fatigue. So we have been working with the town of Crested Butte to raise funding for that,” said Chavez. She said they have gone to FEMA, the Colorado River District, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Gunnison Basin Roundtable.