Coming out of extreme drought, water releases a pleasant surprise
For 51 days this spring and summer, water managers opened the spigots on McPhee Reservoir, sending millions of gallons of water down the Dolores River – a boon to fish, farmers and boaters.
During the last 20 years, only 10 years have been boatable. But this year was remarkable for the number of boating days after extreme drought conditions in 2018.
McPhee Reservoir started 2019 with one of the poorest water levels in its history, but extraordinary snowfall allowed the Dolores Water Conservancy District to fill the reservoir and release 135,000 acre-feet of water.
The high-flow days will benefit the ecology of the entire corridor, said Mike Preston, general manager of the district. The big releases occurred between Memorial Day weekend and the first week of July, with a short intermission after Memorial Day.
The district met with stakeholders, such as boaters and biologists, weekly to determine water management strategy, Preston said.
“So far, everybody is pretty happy,” he said.
The Dolores River Boating Advocates were pleased with the number of boating days. While it was not the longest season ever, it was a good run, said Sam Carter, program and outreach coordinator for the group…
The high levels in the reservoir will allow the district to provide irrigators all the water they have rights to and hold over water in the reservoir for next season, Preston said. The releases from the reservoir will also have lasting benefits for native fish and trees along the river, experts said.
The high flows help maintain and improve habitat for three species of native fish: roundtail chub, bluehead sucker and flannelmouth sucker, said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The bluehead and flannelmouth sucker populations are both depressed in the Dolores. Their populations have been hurt by non-native fish and changes in habitat because of the dam, he said…
This summer, White said he may have observed benefits of the last big water year on the Dolores, which was in 2017. He was surveying fish in Slick Rock Canyon and found an abundance of young flannelmouth suckers possibly from 2017 or 2018, he said. Higher water helps support spawning…
The large amount of spring runoff released from McPhee also kept the water district from needing to tap into water set aside specifically for fish, Preston said. So now the same amount of water can be released over a shorter period of time, which will be beneficial for fish.
The high-water year will also have lasting benefits for trees, such as cottonwoods and willows, because it will recharge the groundwater in the floodplain, said Cynthia Dott, a biology professor at Fort Lewis College. Dott specializes in studying the floodplain forest habitat and has worked on the Dolores River with her students.
Rainwater does not provide enough water to recharge the water table, and when the table drops too low, it can hurt large cottonwoods, she said. But there should be plenty of groundwater for the trees to tap into next year, she said.
“They will have plenty of water to keep their feet wet,” she said.
The high flows were also traditionally needed to scour the banks of rivers and leave open, muddy areas for young cottonwood seedlings to get established, she said.
However, because there have been so many years of low flows on the Dolores, willows have established themselves along the banks and high flows now are not enough to rip them free, she said.
One the region’s foremost water experts is being offered another job in the industry that would take him back to Durango. Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District, is in negotiations with the Southwestern Water Conservation District for the top job.
According to the SWCD website, “on July 15, pursuant to C.R.S. § 24-6-402(3.5), the Board of Directors of the Southwestern Water Conservation District selected Frank J. Kugel as the finalist under consideration for the position of Executive Director.” The SWCD board plans to approve a conditional offer employment at its August 6 meeting and formally make the offer on August 7.
Kugel confirmed the situation and said if all goes well and the SWCD board accepts the terms of employment, he would begin the new position on September 3.
Kugel has led the UGRWCD for almost 13 years. “The Southwestern Water Conservation District serves all of nine counties, as opposed to three with the UGRWCD, so it is a higher profile position for me,” Kugel explained in an email this week. “I have worked with the SWCD for 18 years, 11 of which were while inspecting dams while living in Durango. The other seven years were while I was Division 4 Engineer in Montrose and dealing with water administration in the San Miguel and lower Dolores River basins.
“The Southwestern District shares a number of common challenges with UGRWCD, namely Colorado River issues and drought contingency planning and demand management,” Kugel continued. “They also face a challenge of having nine separate river basins, most of which individually flow out of the state.”
The SWCD board unanimously chose Kugel as the top finalist for the executive director job as the previous executive director had retired in April. Board president Robert Wolff explained there is a two-week public notice period before a formal job offer is made, so that will happen after the August meeting.
“For me personally, several things about Frank stood out,” Wolff said. “He is fluent with all the Western Slope water issues we are dealing with, and he lived in Durango back in the 1990s. He is well thought of in the water community as a whole and he seems to know how to manage a district.”
Kugel said he is fortunate to have this new opportunity and also lucky to have been in the Gunnison Valley for a dozen years. “I have been blessed with a supportive board and top-notch staff over these past 13 years,” he said. “We have done great things to develop and protect the quality and quantity of our precious water resources. The Upper Gunnison basin is a very special place and I will always hold it, and its people, near and dear to my heart.”
“You’re all here at a momentous time,” guide Trey Roberts said before the drop. “You’re about to raft a big, famous, rare river.”
Jeanette Healy of Utah had been waiting 10-plus years for this chance on the Dolores. Doug Nie, a kayaker from Albuquerque, had been waiting even longer. Also here were Rick and Beverly Anderson, a young couple from Albuquerque as well.
“We figured we could do the Las Animas and Arkansas out in (Buena Vista) any year,” Rick said. “But this is our one chance to do Dolores.”
Chances have been tough to come by since the 1980s, when the McPhee Dam began trapping the water that Dominguez and Escalante found to be rushing during their 1776 expedition. El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, they called it — the River of Our Lady of Sorrows…
Most joyful now are the boaters who had hoped this year’s snowpack would grant McPhee’s occasional controlled “spills.” As of last week, the Dolores Water Conservancy District expected releases to remain at or above 1,200 cubic feet per second through June 23, keeping the river fun until then at least.
That would mean a rafting season of almost one month here, which seems a short window. But longtime river rats regret to say that’s long for the Dolores.
Bill Dvorak, who’s frequented the state’s rivers since the ’60s, can’t recall a longer season. He ran the Dolores in 2017; his last time before that was 2009. “Every six to eight years is about when I get on it,” he said.
And he gets on it almost every floatable opportunity. The Dolores, after all, is easily his favorite river in Colorado…
Provisions are still vague. Releases are indeed unpredictable, said Michael Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. The Bureau of Reclamation factors in current reservoir levels with never-perfect forecasts. Then there’s juggling ever-increasing demand: Farmers combine for the largest allocation of the supply, recent spreadsheets show, followed by the downstream fishery, tribe and municipalities.
“McPhee is a hard-working reservoir,” Preston said. “We use every inch of our active storage capacity to take care of things.”
The height of that arch is reached at Snaggletooth, the legendary Class IV rapid aptly named. Swirling eddies are like mouths ready to inhale, the jumble of rocks like jaws ready to chomp.
From an embankment, we stopped to analyze the beast. And yes, [Christian] Wright was scared. “If someone says they’re not scared, don’t get in their boat,” he said.
The National Weather Service on Saturday issued flood advisories for the Mancos, Animas and La Plata rivers, and residents reported flooding along the Dolores River about 10 miles north of town.
“We have major flooding on Road 37, Dolores, 10 miles north of Dolores,” Jeffrey L. Jahraus told The Journal. Eight to 10 properties were getting water, he said.
The flooding began Tuesday and has continued intermittently, Jahraus said. About a half-acre of his neighbor’s property was under water.
Flooding has happened at their property once or twice before, he said, but never like this. The Jahrauses live along Road 37, right by where the now-famous rock slide happened on Memorial Day Weekend…
At the gauge in Dolores, the river was flowing Saturday morning at 4,200 cubic feet per second, about 256% the average June 8 rate of 1,604 cfs. Saturday afternoon, it reached 6.7 feet at the gauge, more that a foot shy of the 8-foot flood stage…
Meanwhile, flood advisories continued Saturday until further notice for the Mancos, Animas and La Plata rivers.
The river flow along the Mancos River was expected to remain near to slightly above bankfull, and minor lowland flooding was possible. Saturday morning, the river was at 5.3 feet – several inches above bankfull – and flood stage was at 6 feet. The river was expected to rise to about 5.4 feet around midnight Sunday.
La Plata River
A flood advisory also continued Saturday for the La Plata River at Hesperus. The flows along the La Plata River were expected to remain slightly above bankfull, and flooding is possible, the National Weather Service said. Bankfull stage is 5 feet, and flood stage is 5.5 feet. Saturday morning, the river was at 5.1 feet and expected to rise to nearly 5.3 feet by Monday morning.
The Animas River was flowing Saturday at 6.6 feet. The National Weather Service said the river was expectd to reach 6.93 feet by Sunday morning, a foot shy of the flood stage of 8 feet. Moderate flooding would occur at 9 feet, and major flooding at 10.5 feet. The record height of the Animas is 11 feet, the weather service says.
From the Brigham Young University The Daily Universe (Josh Carter):
Lake Powell is benefitting considerably from this year’s runoff following a strong snow year in the Rocky Mountains. The lake has risen 16 feet in the last month and is experiencing an inflow of 128% the average. While water levels are expected to continue to rise until the peak month of July, there is still a long way to go before the lake reaches full capacity.
“This year definitely helps,” said Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Officer Marlon Duke.
“But people need to keep in mind that when we came into this season Lake Powell was about 140 feet low. Even after this year, we’re going to be about 100 feet below full pool. So what we really need is three or four years just like this in a row.”
Lake Powell is currently stuck in the worst drought of its 56-year history. Its water levels and inflow have dropped significantly since the summer of 1999 — the last time Lake Powell was essentially full at 97% of capacity. The lake hit an all-time low in 2005 when its elevation sank to 3,555 feet, 145 feet below full pool.
The lake did experience a spike during the summer of 2010, when its levels got within 40 feet of full capacity. The drought has since continued, however, affecting not only Lake Powell but its sister reservoir Lake Mead as well.
“In 2000, when the drought started, Lake Powell and Lake Mead were both full,” Duke said. “Today Lake Powell is about 42% full and Lake Mead is even lower than that. Before we can start talking about whether or not the drought is over we need those reservoirs to be full again.”
Lake Mead was formed in 1935 and Lake Powell in 1963 after the completion of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, respectively, along the Colorado River. They were created in hopes to store and provide water for the Colorado River Basin states during times of drought. Lake Powell predominately serves the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, while Lake Mead provides for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.
While both man-made reservoirs have served their purpose throughout the current drought, experts are thankful for this year’s runoff after a particularly low year in 2018.
“We’re coming off of 2018 which was the second-driest year ever since we’ve been keeping records in the Basin,” Duke said. “We were worried because if we had another year like 2018 then that would have really put us in some trouble.”
The drought hasn’t been the only threat to the lake’s water levels in recent years. A couple different proposals and campaigns are calling for Lake Powell to be drained and to distribute its water to Lake Mead and elsewhere.
“Fill Mead First” is a campaign first started in 1996 to encourage conversation about restoring the dammed Glen Canyon to its natural state. As the drought continued, the campaign has gained traction, arguing that Lake Mead needs more water from Lake Powell to ensure big cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego have enough. The campaign also argues that Lake Powell loses water through both rapid evaporation and water seeping into the porous sandstone walls.
BYU geology professor Gregory Carling talked about the potential benefits that could come from restoring Glen Canyon to what it once was.
“When the Glen Canyon Dam was built, it not only flooded one of the most beautiful canyons in the world but also thousands of archeological sites and side canyons,” Carling said. “Also, the way it is now with Lake Powell and Lake Mead half-full, both are losing lots of water through evaporation. So there probably is some sense in looking into what the benefits would be of draining Lake Powell and filling Lake Mead.”
Carling added, however, the proposal would have to go through a lengthy legislative process in order for anything to change.
“There are a lot of legal requirements and bureaucracy behind that, so it’s not just as easy as saying, ‘let’s drain one and fill up the other,’” Carling said. “You’d have to go back through a hundred years of the law of the river.”
Those opposing the “Fill Mead First” campaign argue that Lake Powell, one of the most popular boating and camping spots in Utah, supports the local economy through both recreation and tourism. The lake saw over 4 million visitors during each of the past two years for the first time in its history. Lake Powell supporters also argue the lake ensures a steady water supply to Lake Mead and the Lower Basin states.
The Lake Powell Pipeline is another proposal aimed at transferring water from Lake Powell to nearby Kane and Washington Counties in southern Utah. The proposed pipeline would run approximately 140 miles underground and deliver over 82,000 acre-feet of water per year to Washington County and 4,000 acre-feet of water per year to Kane County.
The proposal did take a hit last year when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled it would need greater oversight from other federal land agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service. Officials expect a final decision to be made on the project by 2020.
Even amid the recent controversies experts hope the Colorado River Basin can take full advantage of its water resources, especially in times of drought. Representatives from all seven Colorado River Basin states recently met to sign drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basins.
“This brings us one step closer to supporting agriculture and protecting the water supplies for 40 million people in the United States and Mexico,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Working together remains the best approach for all those who rely on the Colorado River.”
“The City of Farmington has temporarily closed sections of trails in Berg Park due to rising water levels.” City spokesperson Georgette Allen said in a press release June 7. “Trails on the north side of the Animas River near the All Veterans Memorial Plaza will be closed throughout the weekend.”
Karen Guglielmone, the Town of Telluride’s environment and engineering division manager, presented the yearly water audit to Town Council in a Tuesday work session, which emphasized the importance of conservation, despite the town’s abundant water supply.
“We are a steward to our water resources,” she told council. “We are stewards for what we need now and into the future.”
The annual report has been produced since 2014, when the town adopted a Water Efficiency Plan, which was subsequently approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) late that year. The annual report reveals figures such as overall municipal water use — and losses — and indicates trends that can help officials modify the plan.
Water losses are attributed to a number of factors including leaks, unauthorized consumption, faulty metering and data errors.
Leaks, Guglielmone explained, are common in municipal water systems as they age. One such leak occurred under East Columbia Avenue in 2018, which officials then said had likely been a progressive event due to pressure from a rock. Directly on the waterline. There are more of those, Guglielmone said.
“We can expect a slow increase of leaks over time,” she said. “We have others we can’t locate precisely.”
Despite the challenges of controlling losses, in 2018 the loss rate dipped by 13.5 percent when compared to the last five years of collecting data. Last year’s losses were calculated to be 26 million gallons, down from 2017’s 37 million gallons. Telluride’s losses are still high compared to other municipalities.
“We’re high on our water loss,” she said. “Fifteen percent is the goal, though 25-30 percent is more the reality,”
Residential water use is holding steady, according to the report. The fact that it stayed about the same (118 million gallons) is “pretty cool,” Guglielmone said…
Town Attorney Kevin Geiger noted that overall the town is in good shape as far as its supply is concerned.
“Our water portfolio is robust,” he said. “(Blue Lake) is a very large reservoir for our town. It is the envy of municipalities in Colorado.”
Telluride’s water rights are also strong…
Incorporating the Blue Lake reservoir and the Pandora water treatment plant became necessary when the town’s growth overtook what Mill Creek could provide, Geiger explained. Past water usage reports, which reflected peak days such as those that occur during the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, necessitated the work to bring Blue Lake into the fold…
Council member Geneva Shaunette said she liked the idea of the stricter irrigation practices that the town imposed during last year’s parched summer.
“I’m a fan of every other day irrigation,” she said. “Maybe grass isn’t the best thing.”
Unfortunately, even though low maintenance buffalo grass uses half the water, many landscapers’ clients prefer water-hungry Kentucky bluegrass, Guglielmone said. “We can’t police everything.”
FromThe Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:
A 10-day whitewater boating release is planned for the Dolores River below McPhee dam and reservoir, managers said this week.
The recreational water flows will be let out from Tuesday to May 30 and are scheduled to accommodate boaters over Memorial Day weekend.
“Timing the release early for the three-day holiday was a big interest for the boating community,” said Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Beginning Tuesday, the managed “spill” will increase at a rate of 400 cubic feet per second per day to achieve a 1,200 cfs flow by the morning of May 24. The high flow will be maintained through May 27, then ramp down to 800 cfs through noon May 30. A gradual ramp down over a few days will follow.
However, the managed release is expected to continue after May 30, but to what extent has not yet been determined, water officials said.
Winter snowpack that reached 140% of normal is enough to fill McPhee Reservoir and provide the boating release below the dam. Recent cooler and rainy weather in Southwest Colorado has slowed the snowpack runoff, creating uncertainty about the final timing…
The inflow rate will depend on hard-to-predict temperatures and potential rain in the coming weeks. McPhee is expected to reach full capacity by mid-June, said district engineer Ken Curtis, and all irrigators will get a full supply for the season…
The 97-mile stretch of the Dolores River below the dam from Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock is revered by boaters for its challenging rapids and remote, red-rock canyon wilderness.
The three- to five-day Slick Rock-to-Bedrock section through winding Slick Rock Canyon offers a pristine river running experience. The 18-mile, one-day Ponderosa Gorge has convenient access and fills with locals and tourists when the river runs. No permit is required to boat the Dolores River.
The expert Snaggletooth Rapid is especially notorious for drenching boaters and occasionally flipping boats. A road along the river accessed from Dove Creek is a popular spot to spend the day watching boaters negotiate the wild hydraulics created by the rapid’s “fangs.”
Also this week, temperature suppression flows of 100 cfs were released from the dam to benefit the downstream native fishery. The strategy is to delay the spawning of the bluehead and flannelmouth suckers and roundtail chub until after the whitewater release.