Gunnison Basin ends winter season at about average snowpack 

Almost half the basin is dry or in moderate drought

By Katherine Nettles

As winter transitions to spring in the high country, the Upper Gunnison Basin might be heading into a warm and dry spell and holds at about average for the year on snowpack. A three-month forecast is predicting spring might be (mostly) here to stay, with warmer and drier weather to come. Spring runoff may be kicking into high gear in the next few weeks as the layers of dust within the snowpack from two recent wind events could lead to a faster melt off period as well. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is currently forecasting that during the next three months, there is a 40-50% chance of above average temperatures and below average precipitation.

According to Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) senior program manager Beverly Richards, soil saturation and weather could make a difference for spring runoff season.

“The soil moisture at this time is a little dryer than this time last year so the combination may have an effect on runoff amounts and timing,” she said.

Richards noted two dust events so far this spring, a major one on March 4 and a minor event on April 1. “These events have both been covered with snow since they occurred but with the warming temperatures and lack of precipitation this may also add to the ramping up of runoff which will likely begin in the next few weeks,” she said.

Drought conditions around the basin range from absent to moderate. As of April 2, 53% of Gunnison County was experiencing no drought conditions, and 47% of the county was experiencing abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions. In the 129-year record, this winter (January to February) was the 56th wettest year and February was the 64th driest, Richards said.

As of April 8, precipitation has ranged from 50% to 150% of normal in the county over the past 30 days, and a small portion in the southeastern corner of the county measured up to 200% of normal during the same period.

According to the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) the Upper Gunnison Basin snow water equivalent (SWE) as of April 7 has been measured as 116% of normal overall. 

Specific locations measured as follows: 125% of normal at the Upper Taylor River location; 122% of normal at the Butte location; 107% of normal at Schofield; 126% of normal at Park Cone; 127% of normal at Porphyry Creek; and 92% of normal at Slumgullion. 

Blue Mesa Reservoir is projected to fill to about 85% this spring. Reservoir storage for the entire Gunnison Basin is at 63% of average, and 65% for the Upper Gunnison Basin. The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) has projected that Blue Mesa will fill to 85% in 2024. The National Park Service reported that Elk Creek boat ramp at Blue Mesa opened on April 11, and the reservoir was at 7,485 feet elevation as of April 10. This is about 34 feet (10 meters) below full pool at 7,519 feet (2291 meters).

The BOR has reported that among reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin, the Flaming Gorge is 86% full; Fontenelle is 33% full; Morrow Point is 94% full, Blue Mesa is 66% full, Navajo is 65% full, Lake Powell is 33% full and total storage across the basin is at 63%.

The 2023/2024 cloudseeding program seeded a total of 1,554 hours this winter using both manual generators and the remote generators at Lake Irwin and Black Mesa. The program ran through April 15.

The first Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) flights for the East and Taylor Rivers were flown on April 3 and 4 and Richards said that forecast data was presented to the Taylor Local Users Group meeting held on April 9. Those results will be available to the public in the coming weeks.

 

Conservation projects and regional planning

Richards reported that the UGRWCD’s annual grant program awarded a total of $260,000 for 17 projects. The grant awards included $10,800 to the town of Mt. Crested Butte for the Crested Butte Boardwalk Bog Bridge project, which involves re-planking the bridge and installing wetland signage. Western Colorado University was awarded approximately $25,500 for its study exploring the effects of harmful algal blooms on the foraging patterns of kokanee, and the Arch Ditch irrigation project and Dos Rios Golf Club each were awarded the maximum amount of $50,000. Both of those projects involve modernizing the systems with automation for more efficient water use and water conservation.

Sonja Chavez, UGRWCD general manager, said that a major priority of the UGRWCD is wildfire-ready watershed preparation, so the district has been coordinating with several agencies and private landowners on making public and private lands better prepared for wildfire on many levels, from creating fire breaks to managing water conservation and forest health.

John McClow, who was recently appointed to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to represent the Gunnison Basin, also gave an update from the board’s March meeting in Denver. “The primary focus of that meeting was money,” he said. 

McClow reviewed that in 2023, the general assembly appropriated $25 million nationally for Water Plan Grants, and the funding came in two rounds that were just completed. “Of local interest, the city of Gunnison received a grant of $1.5 million for their well water infiltration infrastructure system.” He said the Upper Colorado River Commission has also been operating a System Conservation Pilot Program funded by the BOR. “It’s a temporary, voluntary, compensated reduction in consumptive use,” said McClow. The money awarded to participants is uniform at $509 per acre-foot of conserved consumptive use, and there were 57 such projects awarded in Colorado totaling about 19,800 acre-feet of conserved consumptive use.  

McClow said that the BOR has received five proposals for post 2026 reservoir operations for the Colorado River. 

These include Upper Basin States, Lower Basin States, a tribal proposal, a non-governmental organization proposal, and one from three environmental scientists focused on the Grand Canyon. He said the tribes proposed that they have a bigger voice in the use and development of their water rights. The BOR continues to assess the proposals, which have several differences, and plans to come out with a draft Environmental Impact Statement at the end of the year.

“We have not had much luck recently discussing matters with the Lower Basin States. They have declined to participate in the last two meetings that we invited them to,” continued McClow of the UCRC, but he said the Lower Basin States have agreed to participate in a principals meeting this month, which is encouraging.

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