Aspinall unit operations update: Blue Mesa Reservoir is currently projected to fill to an approximate peak content of 795,000 acre-feet

Blue Mesa Reservoir

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The May 1st forecast for the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 970,000 acre-feet. This is 144% of the 30 year average. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin peaked at 143% of average. Blue Mesa Reservoir current content is 384,000 acre-feet which is 46% of full. Current elevation is 7462 ft. Maximum content at Blue Mesa Reservoir is 829,500 acre-feet at an elevation of 7519.4 ft.

Based on the May 1st forecast, the Black Canyon Water Right and Aspinall Unit ROD peak flow targets are listed below:

Black Canyon Water Right
The peak flow target is equal to 7,158 cfs for a duration of 24 hours.
The shoulder flow target is 966 cfs, for the period between May 1 and July 25.

Aspinall Unit Operations ROD
The year type is currently classified as Moderately Wet.
The peak flow target will be 14,350 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 10 days.
The half bankfull target will be 8,070 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 20 days.
(The criteria have been met for the drought rule that allows half-bankfull flows to be reduced from 40 days to 20 days.)

Projected Spring Operations
During spring operations, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be made in an attempt to match the peak flow of the North Fork of the Gunnison River to maximize the potential of meeting the desired peak at the Whitewater gage, while simultaneously meeting the Black Canyon Water Right peak flow amount. The magnitude of release necessary to meet the desired peak at the Whitewater gage will be dependent on the flow contribution from the North Fork of the Gunnison River and other tributaries downstream from the Aspinall Unit. Current projections for spring peak operations show that flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon could be over 8,000 cfs for 10 days in order to achieve the desired peak flow and duration at Whitewater. With this runoff forecast and corresponding downstream targets, Blue Mesa Reservoir is currently projected to fill to an elevation of around 7515.5 feet with an approximate peak content of 795,000 acre-feet.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 960 CFS in Black Canyon

Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 130 cfs on Friday, May 3rd. This will bring flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon up to shoulder flow levels, as described in the decree for the Black Canyon water right. The current forecast for the April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 970,000 AF of inflow, which is 144% of average. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for May.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 680 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 830 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 680 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 960 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 825 cfs through Black Canyon

Looking downstream from Chasm View, Painted Wall on right. Photo credit: NPS\Lisa Lynch

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be increased by 250 cfs on Wednesday, May 1st. This will bring flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon up to shoulder flow levels, as described in the decree for the Black Canyon water right. The current forecast for the April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 860,000 AF of inflow, which is 127% of average. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for April and May.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 675 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 575 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be 675 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be around 825 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

@USBR: Aspinall Unit Forecast for Spring Operations: Current projected inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir = 925,000 acre-feet

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The April 1 forecast for the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 925,000 acre-feet. This is 137% of the 30 year average. Snowpack in the upper Gunnison River basin is currently 132% of average. Blue Mesa Reservoir current content is 259,000 acre-feet which is 31% of full. Current elevation is 7440 feet. Maximum content at Blue Mesa Reservoir is 829,500 acre-feet at an elevation of 7519.4 feet.

Black Canyon Water Right
The peak flow and shoulder flow components of the Black Canyon Water Right will be determined by the May 1 forecast of the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir. If the May 1 forecast is equal to the current forecast of 925,000 acre-feet of runoff volume, the peak flow target will be 6,513 cfs for a duration of 24 hours. The shoulder flow target will be 915 cfs, for the period between May 1 and July 25. The point of measurement of flows to satisfy the Black Canyon Water Right is at the Gunnison River below Gunnison Tunnel streamgage at the upstream boundary of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Aspinall Unit Operations ROD
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the peak flow and duration flow targets in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, will be determined by the forecast of the April – July unregulated inflow volume to Blue Mesa Reservoir and the hydrologic year type. At the time of the spring operation, if the forecast is equal to the current forecast of 925,000 acre-feet of runoff volume, the hydrologic year type will be set as Moderately Wet. Under a Moderately Wet year the peak flow target will be 14,350 cfs and the duration target at this flow will be 10 days. The duration target for the half-bankfull flow of 8,070 cfs will be 20 days. The criteria have been met for the drought rule that allows half-bankfull flows to be reduced from 40 days to 20 days.

Projected Spring Operations
During spring operations, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be made in an attempt to match the peak flow of the North Fork of the Gunnison River to maximize the potential of meeting the desired peak at the Whitewater gage, while simultaneously meeting the Black Canyon Water Right peak flow amount. The magnitude of release necessary to meet the desired peak at the Whitewater gage will be dependent on the flow contribution from the North Fork of the Gunnison River and other tributaries downstream from the Aspinall Unit. Current projections for spring peak operations show that flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon could be over 7,500 cfs for 10 days in order to achieve the desired peak flow and duration at Whitewater. With this runoff forecast and corresponding downstream targets, Blue Mesa Reservoir is currently projected to fill to an elevation of around 7500 feet with an approximate peak content of 660,000 acre-feet.

Aspinall Unit dams

The War for the Roads — Jonathan Thompson (@jonnypeace)

From RiverofLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

This story by Jonathan P. Thompson ran in the Silverton Mountain Journal in winter of 2002. Given the historic avalanche cycle, and the lengthy closure of Red Mountain Pass, it seemed like an opportune time to re-up it. Spoiler: Silverton has been shut off from the world by avalanches many times in the past. In 1932, the roads and railroad were shut down from February until the end of April. Yikes!

Eddie Imel died 10 years ago this March (editor’s note: in March 1992). Imel was a plow driver for the Colorado Department of Transportation on the Ouray side of Red Mountain Pass. Like all the plow drivers between Ouray and Cascade, Imel was part of the infantry; he was a foot soldier in the war to keep Highway 550 into Silverton open and keep the town it feeds alive. Imel was the third soldier to die in that war in 22 years and, like the other two, he was slain by the deadliest enemy of this unending conflict: the East Riverside Slide.

The winter of 1991-1992 was not an especially heavy one in these parts. In fact, after a good start–43″ of snow fell in Silverton in November–the snowfall petered out. December (15″), January (10″), and February (15″) were all unusually dry months for snow in the San Juans. Long periods of sunny days and cold, clear nights between storms served to rot out the early, scant snowpack. In other words, conditions were ripe for a serious avalanche season upon the arrival of the big, spring storms.

And arrive they did: Over 30 inches of snow fell in the San Juan Mountains and the slides were running all over the place. Highway 550 was finally closed, but by the time the gates were shut, it was too late. The CDOT truck that swept the road to make sure all motorists were out of danger dodged big slides before being blocked by a portion of the East Riverside Slide that had hit the road just north of the snowshed. Edie Imel and Danny Jaramillo were piloting a CDOT plow, attempting to clear the road so that the sweep truck and other motorists inside the snowshed could get to safety. The plow came to a stop, the two soldiers got out to adjust the chains, and, as the East Riverside is apt to do, it ran again, burying the plow and the drivers.

Everyone in the snowshed, CDOT officials, and local law enforcement reasonably assumed both victims of the slide were dead. A body recovery effort would have been too risky, so it was delayed. The motorists in the shed were escorted back to safety, the mourning began, and, 18 hours after the slide ran, a call came in from the emergency telephone in the snowshed. Danny Jaramillo had tunneled his way out of the cement-like snow. Imel’s body was recovered not long after.

The system, or rather the lack of a real system, for determining avalanche hazard and deciding when to close the road had failed one too many times. Things had to change.

Silverton’s connection with the outside world has always been vulnerable to snowslides. Before there were plow drivers risking their lives to keep the arteries and veins of San Juan civilization from being blocked, there were mail carriers. Before the railroad arrived in 1882, Silverton’s winter link to the lowlands usually consisted of no more than one man on a set of “snowshoes,” or long, wide, heavy wooden skis. Men with names like Greenhalgh, Aspaas, Bales, Mears, and Nelson skied regularly over Cunningham Pass (south of Stony Pass) with huge, 50- to 60-pound sacks on their backs or dragging sleds full of mail and supplies. It was not a job for the faint at heart — avalanche danger was ignored, at least one froze to death, and others, somehow, survived both snow and cold — but it was a necessary one. Without their efforts, Silverton would have had to shut down come winter.

Newspaper clipping from March 1906, after a huge storm resulted in a deadly St. Patrick’s Day avalanche cycle.

In 1882, the railroad finally reached the heart of the San Juans, but by no means did this signal an end to avalanche troubles. The snowshoe-riding mail carriers of old, as long as they avoided being hit by slides, could simply ski over the top of the slide debris, but the train could not. From Needleton to Silverton, the tracks pass through the depository for dozens of slides, some of significant size. Dramatic photos of the Saguache slide (probably also known as the Snowshed slide north of Elk Park) show a trench dug for the train through a 60 foot pile of snow and debris. Nearly every winter saw at least one avalanche-caused blockade during which the train could not reach Silverton. Sometimes they only lasted a few hours while tens or even hundreds of men cleared the tracks. But there were times when Silverton was cut off from the world for days, weeks, and, in one case, three months. In 1884, Silverton was without a train for 73 days. Food ran short and milk cows were killed for beef.

The winter of 1906 will long be remembered as the most tragic, avalanche-wise, in the San Juans. Big January storms pounded the region following a relatively dry November and December, and the slides came down. Five men were killed at the mouth of the tunnel of the Sunnyside Mine near Eureka when they were engulfed by a slide. Eleven avalanches were reported between Silverton and Elk Park that ranged from seven to 30 feet deep and 50 to 450 feet long; the train was kept at bay for 18 days.

All of that was minor compared to what followed in March when an enormous storm sat over the region for about a week, relentlessly pounding the San Juans. Slides swept away the Shenandoah boarding house, killing twelve men, and ravaged a number of other structures in the area, often killing their inhabitants and making that the most deadly avalanche season ever in the San Juans. Twenty-four people lost their lives to snowslides in San Juan County that winter.

Transportation in and out of Silverton came to a standstill. Two-hundred men of Japanese descent worked to clear 50-foot deep piles of debris that at least 15 slides had deposited on the tracks between Needleton and Elk Park. It took 33 days for them to break through. Local newspaper editors blamed the Railroad, not the snowslides, for the delay in opening the tracks, a sentiment that would echo throughout the years, even after the highway became the main link between Silverton and everywhere else.

Perhaps the worst winter, in terms of Silverton being cut off from the outside, was 1931-1932. By then the highways to Ouray and Durango were gaining importance as supply routes through the San Juans. That gave the newspapers someone else, the highway department, to blame for closures. After a December storm, the editor of the Silverton Standard wrote: “Now during the recent storm it was not deemed expedient for men to attempt to keep the highway open, but after the storm settled it was clearly the duty of the maintenance department of Colorado to open the roads, or at least determine that they should not be opened. What was done? Nothing. How long in our case did the situation continue? For at least one week.”

Silverton continued that year to be pummeled by storm after storm. In February, following a devastating “San Juaner,” all highways were closed, including those to Howardsville and Gladstone; a slide wrecked the Iowa-Tiger boarding house at Silver Lake; all telephone lines in and out of Silverton were down; and the train crashed near Rockwood while attempting to reach Silverton. One couple hiked out to Ouray in order to escape the confines of Baker’s Park, some snowshoed to Rockwood in order to catch the train, and a 350-pound load of butter, eggs, and meat was brought by toboggan from Ouray. In April, it was reported that the Riverside Slide had deposited a pile of snow 300 feet long and 60 feet deep. The road to Durango (which at that time traveled down avalanche-riddled Lime Creek, not over Coal Bank Pass) was opened on April 30, and the Ouray side was cleared shortly thereafter.

Only four years later Silverton was shut off again by slides for weeks, prompting a team made up of Louis Dalla, E.F. Sutherland, James Baudino, John Turner, and Carl Larson to snowshoe down the canyon to Needleton to fetch the mail.

By the time one of the biggest winters in San Juan history hit in 1951, the railroad’s importance had been diminished somewhat by the improved highways, especially to the south. But in the San Juans even good highways, which traveled through slightly less avalanche-prone areas, are liable to be shut down, and that’s exactly what happened that year. There was so much snow that people had trouble getting around town, not to mention over the passes. The Highland Mary Mill in Cunningham Gulch was wrecked by a slide, killing one. The highway to the north opened after six days, and it took several more days of around-the-clock effort, to break through the dozens of slides that covered the road to the south.

In spite of the huge winters, the series of avalanches that hit the roads with regularity, and the lack of any avalanche policy governing Highway 550 at the time, not one motorist had been killed by an avalanche on the highway by the middle of the 20th century. Nevertheless, following the huge winter of 1952, the Colorado Highway Department implemented an official policy dealing with road closures and avalanche hazard. The policy said that if avalanche danger was determined to be high, the road would be closed, control work would be done, the debris would be cleared, and the road re-opened.

At first glance, the system seems identical to the current one. In practice, however, the road was usually kept open until the slides were coming down so big, and with such frequency, that the plows were simply unable to punch through them anymore. It was a policy that, at best, was unscientific. Louie Dalla, road supervisor for the Silverton district, who was known as a man who almost always kept the roads open, described the non-policy policy in a 1963 interview with Allen Nossaman: “About the only good rule is not to go in a storm. They ask us how an accident could have been prevented in many slides. The best answer to that is — They should have stayed in bed. The study of slides is a science, and the study comes pretty close to getting the answers but not close enough.”

In other words, it was up to the motorist, not the highway department, to ultimately assess the danger and make the decision about whether to travel the road or not. It is a noble sentiment, and one from another time before liability and lawsuits were the norm. Up until 1991, the only avalanche forecasters were the plow drivers themselves, their command centers the cabs of their plows. The policy was imperfect, at best and, in 1963, its fatal flaws were first revealed.

On March 3, 1963, Reverend Marvin Hudson made his usual trip over Red Mountain Pass to preside over services at the Silverton Congregational Church. He had his daughters Amelia and Pauline in the car with him. A large storm had hit and the East Riverside Slide had already run once. His car was slip-sliding across the road as he passed under the ominous East Riverside slide, so the Reverend stopped to install his chains. That is when the Riverside ran again. It took rescuers a week to find the Reverend’s body and another to find Amelia’s. Pauline was not recovered until May 30.

The tragedy inspired a Colorado Highway Department Engineer to recommend the construction of a snowshed under the Riverside, a suggestion made by a Swiss avalanche expert two years earlier. The shed was not built, the road closure policy remained the same, and, in 1970, plow driver Robert Miller was killed by the Riverside’s infamous second release.

Angered citizens demanded the construction of a snowshed but Highway 550, which is still one of the last places to get funding from the state transportation coffers, would get no protection. Nothing was done.

It took yet another fatality, under similar circumstances, to motivate the state to finally build the snowshed. This time it was plow driver Terry Kishbaugh who was taken by the East Riverside on February 10, 1978. Seven years later, the snowshed was built. At least one expert recommended the snowshed be 1,200 feet long; others said that the absolute minimum length for it to be effective was 400 feet. When all was said and done, the snowshed only covered 180 feet of highway (as it does today), leaving cars, and plow drivers, and Eddie Imel and Danny Jaramillo exposed to the deadly torrent known as the East Riverside slide.

Those were the fatalities. Then there were the close calls. According to CDOT statistics, 68 cars were hit by slides between 1951 and 1991 between Coal Bank and Ouray. These included a Trailways bus that was knocked off Molas Pass by the Champion slide and a bus bashed by the Brooklyns filled with miners coming home to Silverton from their shift at the Idarado Mine. Injuries were relatively minor. Finally, when the San Juans had to say goodbye to a third plow driver in 22 years, things changed.

In July 1992, CDOT announced its new Highway 550 Avalanche Hazard Reduction Plan. Weather and snowpack evaluation stations would be installed under the plan; avalanche control equipment such as Howitzers would be implemented; CDOT workers would all be trained in avalanche awareness; and fixed control-gun towers would be installed. Most significantly, however, the avalanche forecasting job would go to two Colorado Avalanche Information Center professionals based in Silverton (plow drivers, however, continue to serve an important role, communicating their on the road observations to forecasters).

Silverton’s forecasters are devoted, full-time, to assessing the avalanche hazard on the passes. Even during long periods between storms, they patrol the passes and analyze the snowpack, its structure, and its stability, allowing them to know approximately how much snow, and at what density, the current snowpack can hold in the event of a storm. When a storm does hit, the forecasters are out on the highway alongside the plow drivers, constantly monitoring conditions and passing recommendations on to the local road supervisor in Durango or Ridgway. Ultimately, it is the road supervisor, not the forecaster, that makes the decision to close the road.

The days of waiting for several big slides to come down before deeming the hazard high are over, according to Silverton Avalanche Forecaster Andy Gleason. This has sometimes caused impatience in Silverton, where people still remember the old days and where mail, supplies, and commuter routes are shut down along with the roads. And, of course, when the road is closed it means the precious few winter tourists and their money are kept out, an issue that may even get more urgent when the new ski area opens. Many citizens, especially those that have been around for a while, feel that it is premature to close the roads before any slides have come down.

Gleason disagrees. “When I recommend closure I’m always asked: ‘What slides hit the road,” said Gleason. “If we were doing our job really well we would answer that nothing hit the road, but this is what is about to hit the road.” Gleason concedes that, partly because of the importance of the roads to Silverton, the road is usually not closed until smaller “indicator” slides such as the Blue Point have run. Or, he says, if two inches of snow fall in one hour or less in the Uncompahgre Gorge, then it is time to lock the gates with or without indicator slides. “It will avalanche,” said Gleason.

The ultimate goal of the avalanche reduction program, according to Gleason, is to create more avalanches of smaller size. “Our perfect avalanche control day would be if every slide ran small to the edge of the road so that there is no clean-up necessary,” said Gleason.

Although this policy may mean more frequent and earlier closures, ultimately it could result in cumulative closures of fewer hours during a winter than under the old policy. Most importantly, of course, it means that everyone — the plow drivers, the motorists, the law enforcement people patrolling the roads — are safer.

Its first decade of existence has been a successful one for the Avalanche Hazard Reduction Plan. Imel’s was the last avalanche-related fatality on Highway 550, close calls are rare, and during the past five years, long, sustained closures have been kept to a minimum. In 1998-1999 Red Mountain Pass was closed for a total of 110 hours and Molas/Coal Bank for 17 hours; in 1999-2000, the road to the north was only out of service for a total of 33 hours and Molas was closed for a paltry 6.5 hours; and last year, an average snow year, Red Mountain was down for 83 hours and Molas/Coal Bank for 30 hours. These numbers are not small, but in earlier years it was not unheard of for the road to be closed in both directions for 83 hours at one time.

Improvements during the last five years have helped the forecasters and controllers immensely. Snow measurement stakes have been placed in the starting zones of the West Lime Creek and Mother Cline slides; Howitzers have returned to their traditional place in avalanche control work, making helicopters less necessary and allowing for more efficiency and quicker control work; and the forecasters learn more about the snowpack each year.

Still, the new plan is not perfect. Gleason would like to see more forecasters here (two, Silverton-based forecasters cover Coal Bank, Molas, and Red Mountain Passes in addition to Lizard Head Pass, which is two hours away by CDOT truck); more passive control measures such as snowsheds, snow fences, and snow defense structures; better automated weather stations; and a remote avalanche detection system (one is being researched here but Gleason signed a waiver promising not to talk about it).

John Greenell (a.k.a. Greenhalgh) and his trusty pair of snowshoes was one of the mail carriers that provided Silverton a link with the outside world in its earliest winters of existence. He was known as a man that could make the trip up Cunningham Gulch, over Cunningham Pass, into the Rio Grande Country and to Del Norte and back in any type of weather.

On Monday, November 27, 1876, Greenell set out from Carr’s Cabin on the other side of the divide on the return trip (over Stony Pass this time) to Silverton. He never arrived. A group of searchers found his body a few days later, frozen to death near the top of Stony Pass, his hand rigidly clutching his mailbag.

We have changed a great deal since Greenell’s days, but the mountains are just about the same. Winters are still hard, avalanches still rush down mountainsides, and Silverton is still, occasionally, isolated from the outside world.

A heavy duty snow blower punches a hole through the snow that came down the West Riverside slide triggered yesterday, Monday, March 4, on north Red Mountain Pass, US 550. The snow shed which protects the traveling public from natural slide activity is seen in the background.

Paonia turns the water back on

Water infrastructure as sidewalk art

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Paonia began restoring water service Monday to residents affected by an outage resulting from leaks and poor production from the springs that provide the town’s raw water supply…

The town began restoring service Monday morning but was doing so slowly to avoid pressure spikes. Knight expected that by the end of Monday most people who weren’t getting water would be seeing some water pressure, although that might not be the case for homes at higher elevations or at the end of water lines.

The town is expecting full pressure systemwide to be reached by this afternoon.

A notice to boil the water before drinking it remains in place as the service is being restored to allow time for lines to be flushed and chlorine to make its way through the system. Knight said if things go well, water samples may be able to be taken today. Still, it will take about 24 hours to get test results to the state to determine whether the notice can be lifted.

The town last week cut service first to about a third of the 1,800 people it serves, and then to about 200 more taps. That happened after it found and fixed some leaks, but its spring water supplies weren’t able to replenish the lost water in its main tank. Knight believes those springs were affected by last year’s drought.

The town continued service to what it considered essential areas, such as those serving school, urgent care center and nursing home facilities, and downtown businesses.

The town is now restoring cut-off service thanks to a number of factors. Mount Lamborn Ranch agreed to make water available from Roeber Reservoir, and state officials helped the town find additional water in the town’s springs, Knight said. Also, a few more large leaks were found.

Knight said a leak-detection crew from the city of Westminster found one of them, and the city of Montrose sent a construction crew to fix it. It’s one of numerous examples of support Paonia has gotten from state, county and local governments. Others who have helped include plumbers who have offered to check residents’ pressure relief valves on their hot water tanks in preparation for water service to be restored.

Knight said the town had been processing as little as 135 gallons a minute, but now is up to 550 gallons a minute, which far exceeds even normal usage of the system and is letting the town refill tanks. Still, its springs are producing about half of normal for this time of year, so it is continuing to encourage conservation.

The town is planning another community meeting today at 6 p.m. at the Paradise Theatre to update residents on the situation.

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

The problem started on Feb. 17, when Paonia’s water operators noted a loss of water in a 2 million gallon storage tank. A team went out looking for a leak, but could not locate it. As the leak continued, the town’s water system lost enough pressure that the state of Colorado imposed a boil order. In response, town officials declared a state of emergency.

A potable water tank arrived soon after, on loan from the National Park Service, which affected residents could use to fill up vessels to take water back to their homes. A team, aided by the city of Westminster, was sent out to locate the leaks. They found one in a supply pipe that was spilling into the North Fork River. After locating the leak, the town’s water delivery system came back online on Feb. 22.

Four days later, town officials discovered that its water customers were consuming more than what was being produced at its water treatment plant. A series of 22 springs at the base Mount Lamborn serves as the town’s raw water supply. Because of record-breaking dry conditions during much of 2018, the springs are running at half their normal volumes for this time of year.

To avoid seeing the town’s entire supply dip to a dangerous level, town administrator Ken Knight chose to shut down some water users to allow the system to recharge. First he denied water to 27 mostly rural providers who purchase water from the town to deliver to customers within Delta County. Then Knight turned off the majority of the town’s residential users, choosing to maintain service at Paonia’s schools, town buildings, downtown business district and other facilities deemed critical to the town’s operations.

Since then, Knight says the town has been working with a local rancher association to tap into a privately-held reservoir to fill the town’s system. That’s allowed most of Paonia’s downtown core to keep receiving water while the rest of the community has been out of water or on a boil notice.

Even when water service returns, which could come as early as Monday, the town will remain on a boil order until the town can flush its system, pull samples of the treated water, and send them to a lab for testing. If those samples show the water is safe to drink, Knight says Paonia residents could get service back without a boil order in place by Wednesday afternoon.

If samples come back positive for contaminants, that process would be delayed until the water is deemed safe.

Paonia: “We realized we simply were using more water than we were able to produce based on the raw water supply” — Town Administrator Ken Knight

Paonia. Photo credit: Allen Best

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The town of Paonia was forced Tuesday to cut off water to about a third of its users in the second phase of a water emergency that began when it issued a boil order last week due to leaks and resulting low pressure.

Although the town believes it has fixed the leak problem, it’s now struggling to build back up storage in its main, 2 million gallon tank because its spring-fed water supply was diminished by last year’s drought.

Town Administrator Ken Knight said the town’s springs are producing about a quarter of what they currently do this time of year, and the water tank had only about a foot or foot-and-a-half of water left as of Tuesday morning.

“We realized we simply were using more water than we were able to produce based on the raw water supply,” he said.

The town decided to cut off service to 27 water companies it serves, and continue to supply areas that include downtown businesses, school facilities, and an urgent care center and nursing home. The town is providing bottled water, and the National Park Service also has loaned a potable water truck from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to give people drinking water. Delta County also is providing a truck that supplies raw water for uses such as flushing toilets and other nonconsumptive uses, Knight said.

The town’s water problems began early last week due to two major water leaks Knight said weren’t immediately noticeable because the leaked water ran underground to the nearby North Fork of the Gunnison River, rather than surfacing on streets as leaks typically do. Knight suspects at least one leak, which occurred in the area of a fire hydrant, was caused by the freeze-thaw cycles this time of year, but he said the cause isn’t yet known.

Due to low pressure and the potential for backwash in the system, the town had a state-mandated boil-water order in place from Monday through Friday of last week.

Service was back to normal over the weekend, but then the issue with the low spring water supply surfaced.

Knight said the problem is that last year’s low snowpack was compounded by a lack of rain later in the year, so heading into winter the springs never had the chance to recharge…

The water system serves about 1,800 people. Knight said it could be 24 to 48 hours before water service is restored to those who have been cut off, but that’s an educated guess and the town should know more this morning.

Once service is restored, a boil order will be in place for a while for those currently not getting water until tests of the restored water supply are completed. Knight said Mesa County health officials provide that testing and have been doing so in a timely manner amidst the current crisis. He credited Mesa County’s health and emergency management officials along with the Park Service, Delta County, state officials and others for their assistance to the town, and also praised town residents for their patience and understanding.