Aspinall Unit: Crystal Dam spill

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From the Denver Post (Mark Jaffe):

Wednesday morning, the flow was about 7,500 cubic feet a second, or about 2 million gallons a minute. The stronger flow is intended to mimic natural spring runoff, removing sediment and algae and helping to break down riffles and whisk away vegetation encroaching on the riverbank, Dale said. “One year’s high flow won’t do it all, but now we can hope for a spring flow most years,” Dale said…

“This has been one of the longest, most complex water-right battles in Colorado,” said Drew Peternell, an attorney for the sportsmen’s group Trout Unlimited. To win that right, the concerns of hydropower agencies, ranchers and farmers — and downstream towns fearful of flooding — had to be addressed. “We were able to reach a consensus that everyone could support,” said Clayton Palmer, an environment specialist with the Western Area Power Authority, which markets electricity from the Aspinall Unit.

More coverage from the Colorado Springs Gazette (R. Scott Rappold):

The largest waterfall in Colorado was here Wednesday, a gushing torrent that plunged 227 feet, surpassing Niagara Falls, swelling the Gunnison River to levels unprecedented in the age of dams and diversions. The misty, rainbowed spectacle, with spray felt two football fields away, was seen by few in the gated recesses of Crystal Dam in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison…

Frank Kugel, manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, who was in the canyon Wednesday, said he was thrilled to see the water flowing over the dam. “It’s a good thing WAPA (the Western Area Power Administration) isn’t here. They’d be in tears over this,” Kugel said…

After the flow ceases this weekend, [Michael Dale, natural resources manager for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park] plans to scout the river, gauge the effectiveness of the water purge, see how much debris and vegetation washed away. The agreement calls for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the dam and hydro plant, to release water each spring, in proportion to the availability from snowpack. It will be a long time before the river recovers, and it may never look like it did when Gunnison tried to cross it, but for a few days, at least, it looks more like the mighty river that thwarted Gunnison. “The impacts of the dams were just that, 40 years, and it will be 40 of these flows before it can reverse itself,” Dale said.

Check out the Gazette slide show.

More coverage from the Denver Post (Mark Jaffe):

This week’s release of 16 billion gallons of water through the Black Canyon — designed to mimic the scouring rush of spring runoff — will begin the process of flushing sediment, algae, debris and vegetation. Sediment, riffle pools and reedy box elders have built up in the park since the 1970s, when three dams known as the Aspinall Unit blocked the natural flow of the Gunnison River. “Ultimately, the goal is to restore the Gunnison to a wild, free-flowing river through the canyon,” said Ken Stahlnecker, chief of resource stewardship for the Black Canyon. “It will take time — years.”[…]

In December a decree was filed in Colorado water court outlining how much water would be released to the park each spring, based on snowpack levels. It also protected other users’ water rights. Ranchers who rely on the Gunnison to flood their hay fields in spring kept their water. “The United States recognized our right to ranch,” said Ken Spann, owner of the Y-Bar Ranch near Gunnison. “That was big. If they hadn’t, we’d be going to court.”[…]

The Park Service’s water-rights campaign was launched after a 1982 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that denied Dinosaur National Monument a water right on the Yampa River. The court ruled that because the monument’s mission was to preserve and display fossils, it didn’t need a right that would sustain kayaking. “The court ruled we’d only get enough water for dinosaurs — which isn’t much,” said Chuck Pettee, chief of the service’s water-rights branch. “That was a wake-up call for the Park Service.” While the Park Service already had sought rights for the Black Canyon and Devil’s Hole in Death Valley National Park, it then created a branch to pursue water rights. From Yellowstone in Wyoming to Crater Lake in Oregon, the Park Service has won or is in discussions for water rights. “In the West, and certainly for the nine parks along the Colorado River and its tributaries, water defines and shapes our national parks,” said David Nimkin, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group. “Without water, we will slowly lose those parks,” Nimkin said.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.

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