The Blue Mesa Reservoir, which feeds into the Colorado River, is at 39 percent capacity, according to the Bureau of Land Reclamation. The last time the reservoir west of Gunnison was at a similar level was in 1987, said Sandra Snell-Dobert, a spokeswoman for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area.
Soon, water levels are expected to drop to the point where launching and operating boats at most ramps won’t be possible, Snell-Dobert said
Low water levels and rising temperatures also have allowed for blue-green algae blooms. Although no direct environmental impacts have not been observed, some species of this algae can produce toxins that are harmful to dogs.
The Gunnison River Basin varied between 50 percent and 80 percent of its average snowpack this winter, hitting a low of 51.6 percent Dec. 20 and a peak of 79.81 percent April 20.
Other Colorado River reservoirs are facing similar shortages.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead in Arizona dropped to dangerous levels this week because of what scientists are calling the effects of the Colorado River’s worsening “structural deficit,” The Associated Press reported.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead hit 48 percent and 38 percent capacity, respectively.
The Colorado River basin, which feeds lakes Mead and Powell, has been drying out over the last two decades, scientists said. With the demands from farms and cities exceeding the available water supply, the strains on the river and reservoirs are being compounded by growing population, drought and climate change.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources reports the basins were 50 percent full at the end of August, in contrast to last year’s 120 percent average capacity. The average for this time of year is about 82 percent.
The Yampa-White, San Juan-Dolores, Rio Grande, Gunnison and Colorado river basins are classified as being in either “moderate” or “severe drought.”
The Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison on the Curecanti National Recreation Area, is near historic lows — it’s 39 percent full — and has closed almost all its boat ramps. Iola closed Thursday night, the Lake Fork ramp closes Monday. That will leave only the Elk Creek ramp on the reservoir’s north shore along Hwy. 50 open, said recreation area spokeswoman Sandra Snell-Dobert. “Elk Creek, the ramp will remain open as long as we can keep it open.”
The last time water levels were this low on the reservoir was in 1987, Snell-Dobert said. Blue Mesa usually only closes if there’s not enough staff or if the reservoir freezes. The reservoir levels now have also caused some abnormal boating hazards.
“Mostly it’s rocks that are becoming exposed as the water level decreases. There are a lot of rock promontories and islands, and those kinds of things that we haven’t seen in a long time,” she said. But despite the boating restrictions, Snell-Dobert said shoreline fishing, kayaking, canoeing and other hand-launched, non-motorized boating are still allowed at the reservoir.
From email from the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership:
11th Annual Ridgway RiverFest, Saturday, June 30, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Rollans Park, Ridgway. Enjoy a community watershed celebration with live music, river races, food booths, arts & crafts, beer, margaritas, silent auction, and more. Funds raised support activities of the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership. For info: http://ridgwayriverfest.org…
River of Lost Souls Reading, Monday, Aug. 13, Sherbino Theater, 604 Clinton St., Ridgway. Come meet and ask questions of author Jonathan P. Thompson about the gripping story behind the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster that turned the Animas River orange with sludge and toxic metals. Organized in cooperation with the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership. For info: http://www.uncompahgrewatershed.org/events/…
Ouray Ice Park – Uncompahgre River Canyon Cleanup & BBQ, Saturday, September 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Join the Ouray Ice Park and Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership volunteers to pick up litter and debris in the ice climbing areas of the Uncompahgre River Canyon in Ouray. Then, enjoy a BBQ party to celebrate our efforts. For info: http://www.uncompahgrewatershed.org/events/
[Bob] Hurford’s general sentiment about this year’s drought was shared by all who presented reports at the Ouray State of the Rivers meeting at the Ouray County 4H Event Center May 16. The presentations came two weeks after Gov. John Hickenlooper activated the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan for the agricultural sector in 34 of the state’s 64 counties, including San Miguel, Ouray, Montrose, and Delta counties…
Hurford explained that over half of the Rocky Mountains’ water supply is in its snowpack. As of April 1, Colorado’s snowpack was 68 percent of average and 64 percent of last year’s. Data maps show that the April 1 snowpack was between 50 percent and 69 percent for Ouray and Montrose counties, and below 50 percent for San Miguel County. Division 4, the eastern area around Gunnison, has the most snowpack; the San Juan Mountains have the least, with snowpack above Ridgway Reservoir at just 46 percent of average.
Colorado, Utah, Arizona and California had the lowest amount of precipitation in the U.S. this winter, and those four states — plus Nevada and New Mexico — had the highest temperatures from November 2017 to January 2018, according to statistics in Hurford’s report.
Data from reservoirs in October 2017 show that Colorado had one of its best years with close to 120 percent of average water levels statewide, 100 percent of average in Division 4 and around 116 percent of average in Ridgway Reservoir. Over the last two decades, reservoirs were at or above 100 percent for 11 years.
“We can survive one bad drought. Two bad droughts in a row and that gets us,” Hurford said.
Ridgway Reservoir Dam Superintendent Tony Mitchell, of Tri-County Water Conservancy District, showed National Weather Service forecast data that estimated January-April 1 flows into the reservoir at 88 percent of average in 2016, 111 percent in 2017 and 49 percent in 2018. For the period of April 1 through July, the main runoff season, flow estimates were 92 percent of average in 2016, 96 percent in 2017 and 40 percent in 2018.
Responding to a question about why the reservoir has looked lower than usual this spring, Tri-County Water Conservancy District Manager Mike Berry said late-season releases to the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA) were larger than usual last year, precipitation was low last summer and storage levels are kept lower than normal to avoid water spilling over the dam, which would send non-native fish into the Uncompahgre River, endangering the trout there.
UVWUA Manager Steve Andersen, who is also a director on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said, “My association will be OK this year. There’s not as much water as we would like to have, but we will be able to make a crop this year.”
However, to ensure its downstream water users have enough water, the association in Montrose may have to put a call on water use later in the season, shutting headgates to irrigators upstream in Ouray County (who have junior water rights). Andersen does not expect to make a similar call on water on the upper Gunnison River side because of better snowpack, which should maintain higher flows there. He said the association would use that Gunnison water before resorting to a call on the Ouray side…
The last time that Ouray irrigators had to shut their headgates due to low stream flows and obligations to more senior water rights holders downstream was in 2012. That is when the Ouray County Water Users Association was founded…
With the drought conditions came concerns about wildfires, and Ouray and Montrose counties implemented Stage 1 Fire Restrictions on [May 21, 2018]. Stage 1 limits the areas where fires, smoking and spark-igniting activities can take place, according to the State of Colorado Department of Fire Prevention. Stage 2 adds more restrictions, while Stage 3 is the strictest, limiting entry into closed areas and setting fines as high as $10,000 for violators, or imprisonment for six months.
A cooperative that serves four Western states could soon be losing customers amid concerns it’s not moving away from coal quickly enough.
Colorado-based Tri-State Generation & Transmission boasts of having the most solar generation of any G&T in the United States.
But whether it’s shifting to renewables quickly enough from its coal-heavy portfolio — and flexible enough to accommodate locally-generated electricity — has become a central issue with several of the 43 member cooperatives.
Directors of one of those member co-ops, La Plata Electric Association, voted in January to study alternatives during the next 10 to 15 years. The decision was made by the Durango, Colorado-based co-op after a petition was signed by 1,000 people and 100 businesses calling for 100 percent renewables with deeper penetration from local sources.
“We are buying our electricity from one of the dirtiest sources in the United States and paying well above market prices,” says Guinn Unger Jr., a La Plata director who favors a study of the co-op’s alternatives. “Why wouldn’t we want to explore our options?”
Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric Association began negotiating a buy-out with Tri-State last year with much the same goal: greater development of local renewable resources.
A template for both Colorado co-ops was established in 2016 when a New Mexico co-op, Taos-based Kit Carson, left Tri-State and signed an all-requirements contract with Guzman Renewable Energy Partners, a wholesale broker. Guzman paid the $37.5 million exit fee to Tri-State. It also promised to work with Kit Carson to develop 35 megawatts of solar arrays in Kit Carson’s three-county service area until 2023, when federal investment tax credit is set to expire. Kit Carson and Guzman are also planning to add battery storage.
Luis Reyes Jr., chief executive of Kit Carson, says consultants to his co-op concluded that ratepayers would save $50 million to $70 million over the life of the 10-year contract. The plan includes rapid construction of local solar farms and robust purchases of wind generation likely combined with battery storage.
Bob Bresnahan, a Kit Carson director and retired executive from Nike, says he believes solar will meet a third of residential electrical demand by 2022. He also contends the co-op can make deep inroads in its goal of 100 percent renewable generation by 2030.
La Plata’s contract commits it to getting 95 percent of its wholesale electricity from Tri-State Generation & Transmission through 2050. This commits La Plata to paying Tri-State 7.3 cents a kilowatt-hour even as wind and solar prices continue to tumble. Elsewhere in Colorado, Xcel Energy has received bids from wind developers at less than 2 cents a kWh and solar plus storage far below what Tri-State is charging La Plata.
Member cooperatives of Tri-State can produce more than 5 percent of their total electrical use, the result of a 2015 ruling by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Still in question are the terms. Tri-State, in an appeal to FERC, wants a ruling that says that member co-ops must pay for what Tri-State calls its fixed costs related to power production. FERC has not ruled on that case, which was filed in early 2016.
‘We’re bullish on renewable energy’
Tri-State’s 43 member cooperatives collectively deliver electricity to 200,000 square miles in New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. Their 615,000 metered members/customers include Telluride and other ski areas in Colorado and giant circles of corn on the Great Plains, oil-and-gas fields in New Mexico and some of Denver’s fastest-growing suburbs.
Co-ops created Tri-State in 1952 to deliver electricity from new giant dams being built in the Missouri and Colorado River basins. Hydro still provides about half of Tri-State’s 1,115 megawatts of renewable generation. Wind constitutes the largest share of the new renewables, but the 85 megawatts of contracted solar are tops in the nation among G&Ts. Member renewable projects total 98 megawatts.
“We are bullish on renewable energy,” says Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey.
In 2005, with demand still rising sharply, Tri-State was bullish on coal. Wanting to build a major new coal-fired power plant in Kansas, it asked member co-ops to extend their all-requirements contracts by a decade, to 2050, the presumed lifespan of the plant. Kit Carson and Delta-Montrose refused.
Finally, in March 2017, Tri-State got permits from Kansas to build the plant but has indicated it will not do so. Instead, it is shedding coal-fired generation. In December, the association lost its 40-megawatt stake in a unit at New Mexico’s San Juan Generating Station. It’ll lose another 100 megawatts of part-time generating capacity at Nucla, Colorado, by 2023 and then 102 additional megawatts of generation at Craig, Colorado, before 2026. All are the result of settlements under the Clean Air Act to reduce regional haze.
Unger, the La Plata board member, says 60 percent of Tri-State’s electrical generation still comes from coal. Tri-State will only confirm 49 percent for 2017, but also reports 19 percent of its electricity comes from contract purchases.
In Durango, La Plata’s subcommittee has met several times, but Unger says it’s still not clear to him that La Plata should, like Kit Carson, leave Tri-State. He’s disturbed that nearly half the board members didn’t want to evaluate the co-op’s options.
“We should be asking ourselves, what are the facts?” he says. “People are not willing to look at it.”
Unger is also annoyed by implications that Kit Carson was forced to increase rates after it left Tri-State to pay the exit fee. “News articles indicate that the rate increase was to help the co-op with unprofitable affiliates, but the timing is a concern,” wrote Mike Dreyspring, chief executive of La Plata Electric, in an op-ed published in the Durango Herald.
Kit Carson’s rates, responded CEO Reyes, “have not increased one cent due to the buyout.”
‘Coal is no longer the lowest cost fuel’
Directors of Delta-Montrose were unanimous in January 2017 in approving exit negotiations. Neither DMEA representatives nor Tri-State will comment on the talks, citing a non-disclosure contract.
“What our board members want most is the flexibility to be able to diversify generation resources,” says Jim Heneghan, DMEA’s renewable energy engineer. Directors, he says, see local renewable generation as a vehicle for economic development.
Delta-Montrose began pursuing this vision of local generation about a decade ago. it’s in a region of organic apple farms and other agriculture production along with one remaining coal mine. Scores of high-paying coal mining jobs have been shed and the region still lags the economic vigor found in more urban areas.
A diversion project east of Montrose completed in 1909 contains a major fall before delivering water to farms. In harnessing that falling water to produce electricity, Delta-Montrose hit Tri-State’s 5 percent cap on local generation. When an outside developer proposed a third hydro plant to Delta-Montrose, the co-op took the proposal to FERC. In 2015, FERC agreed that the co-op was required, under the Public Utility Regulatory Act of 1978, to negotiate purchase of power generated by what PURPA calls a qualifying facility.
Tri-State concedes that it cannot interfere with a member’s purchase of energy from a qualifying facility. But it wants to be able to assess the co-ops for the fixed-cost portion of sales it has lost above the 5 percent threshold.
“It’s a question of how members relate to each other within their association,” explains Tri-State spokesman Boughey. “Each association member agreed to equitably share costs, and that if members self-supply in excess of the 5 percent provision they would not be paying their fair share of the association’s fixed costs. These costs would have to be made up by other members.”
In Durango, Mark Pearson sees a different equity issue. The director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an advocacy group, he says the tens of millions of dollars exported from the local economy to Craig and other coal-mining towns would be better kept at home. Of La Plata’s revenues, 67 percent goes to Tri-State for electrical production elsewhere.
“This is great for Craig to have this money raining down on their community, but we should have that money circulating in our community. If we can keep the money local, it’s better economically for us,” he says.
Taking the long view, DMEA director John Gavan sees community choice aggregation coming, where consumers will have the choice of many power suppliers.
Unlike electrical generation even today, he foresees changes driven from the grassroots that pose questions about Tri-State’s one-member, one-vote setup. He contends smaller co-ops have been more easily influenced by the expertise of Tri-State’s coal-minded officials. “Tri-State is a Senate without a House of Representatives,” he says.
Both Pearson and Gavan see resistance to change being the fundamental issue. “It’s just hard for the old guard to change as quickly as the world is changing, to realize that coal is no longer the lowest cost fuel,” says Pearson.
ABOUT ALLEN BEST
Allen Best writes about energy, water and other topics from a base in metropolitan Denver. He began writing about energy, the climate, and their relationship in 2005. He can be found at http://mountaintownnews.net
From email from the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (Tanya Ishikawa):
Watershed group’s study confirms high arsenic levels in Uncompahgre River
Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership releases sediment release study results
RIDGWAY, COLO.– A recently released study by the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP) confirmed that arsenic levels in the Uncompahgre River in Ouray County continue to exceed state water quality standards for human health. Though not a direct source of drinking water for homes and businesses in Ouray, Ridgway, Loghill and other downstream neighborhoods, the river is used for agriculture and recreation and may be connected to underground sources that feed nearby wells.
UWP Board Member Dennis Murphy, who volunteered on the study, will make a presentation of the report’s findings to the Ouray County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Jan. 30. The nonprofit watershed group has secured $1,000 from the county and $500 from Ridgway to partially fund a followup hydrodam sediment release study, and has discussed the possibility of collaborating with the county on a study of well water on properties along the Uncompahgre River between Ouray and Ridgway.
The Uncompahgre River is known to have relatively high concentrations of several heavy metals such as manganese, aluminum and iron, since it has many tributaries that pass through both naturally high mineral content in the mountains as well as minerals exposed by past mining activity. The water flowing through the river between Red Mountain Pass and Ridgway Reservoir turns various shades of green, yellow and orange at different times throughout the year, due to human-caused and natural events that increase the flows of heavy metals.
For years, the Ouray County government has fielded calls from concerned people when the river’s color was brightest. One annual event that elicits such a public response is the sluicing of the Ouray Hydrodam, when a gate at the bottom of the dam is opened to release sediment from the reservoir. The sediment flows into and builds up in the reservoir each year, and must be released to improve operations. This release, usually once a year, sends an orange plume down the river.
“The hydrodam has a storage capacity of less than one acre-foot, which fills quickly with sediment and precipitated metals from the inflow. The annual sluice event releases accumulated sediment and metals in hours rather than slowly, over the period of a year,” said Murphy, a retired Bureau of Land Management hydrologist.
Some community members have wondered if the plume with its higher concentrations of metals has negative impacts on the Uncompahgre River. Last March, UWP studied the plume by taking water and sediment samples before, during and after the dam release at three locations along the river by a group of volunteers with hydrology expertise, led by UWP Project Manager Agnieszka Przeszlowska.
Analysis of the sampling data showed that the water and sediment released from the hydrodam raised water levels in the river for a short period. The stream flow in the Uncompahgre River near Ouray increased from 141 cfs (cubic feet per second) to 174 cfs for less than 30 minutes. Downstream near Ridgway, the streamflow peaked at 170 cfs for approximately three hours and 30 minutes, only 2 cfs higher from the 168 cfs peak the previous day.
During the release, measurements showed substantially raised total metal concentrations, including manganese, aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, nickel, selenium, silver, and zinc. All metal concentrations met aquatic life standards and most metals met human health standards, according to state water quality criteria.
However, both manganese and arsenic were at unsafe levels. The release is not suspected to be an original source of the manganese and arsenic concentrations, so UWP recommends additional study to better understand sources and concentrations within the watershed.
Manganese exceeded water safety standards before, during, and after the release at the sampling location below the dam, but attained levels within safety standards at the other two sampling locations at certain times around the release. No drinking water sources including wells are located near the dam, and the overall manganese concentrations were considered relatively benign.
However, the arsenic concentrations, which exceeded the human-health criterion before, during and after the sediment release at all three sampling locations, are considered more of a concern. “The EPA classifies arsenic as a Class A carcinogen, meaning it may pose the highest risk of cancer. This classification results in a very low human-health standard (0.02 microgram per liter of total arsenic),” according to the report produced for UWP by Ashley Bembenek and Julia Nave of Alpine Environmental Consultants in Crested Butte.
The arsenic concentrations are not new in the Uncompahgre River near Ouray and Ridgway, which have occasionally exceeded the human-health and raw water supply criteria in other measurements taken over the past 15 years.
The UWP study did not directly investigate the potential effect of the sediment release on public water supplies. The raw source waters for local utilities are all upstream from the Uncompahgre River and do not receive any flows from the releases. While those supplies would be unaffected by the sediment release, wells in the area may be affected. They were not studied in 2017, but plans are being considered to study them in 2018.
Murphy concluded, “This initial study was conducted under significant time, labor, and financial constraints, so did not provide as complete a picture as we had hoped. However, using what we learned from this study will be beneficial to better design future studies and monitor potential water quality issues in the Upper Uncompahgre Valley. As an example, the metal arsenic, a class A carcinogen, shows to be elevated at times in the Uncompahgre River. Sampling the water quality of domestic wells in the valley bottom, that may be pumping water connected to the river, might expose some potential health issues previously undetected.”
As far as the health impacts of arsenic on recreational users of the Uncompahgre River, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment put out an advisory after the 2015 Gold King Mine spill into the Animas River, stating that it “does not anticipate adverse health effects from exposure to contaminants detected in the sediment during typical recreational activities or through incidental contact with the sediment.”
The CDPHE recommends prudent public health practices when coming into contact with sediment and surface water containing heavy metals: 1. Don’t drink untreated water from the river. 2. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after contact. 3. Avoid contact in areas where there is visible discoloration in sediment or river water. 4. Wash clothes after contact. 5. Supervise young children to make sure they follow these recommendations.
Releases from the Aspinall Unit have been increasing over the last couple weeks as diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel have begun. So far these release changes have kept the flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon around 630 cfs. Diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are expected to increase again this week. This time releases from Crystal Dam will remain unchanged and Gunnison River flows will decrease accordingly. It is expected that river flows will decrease by 100-200 cfs this week. Currently snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is at 72% of normal. The latest runoff volume forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir projects 360,000 AF of inflow between April and July, which is 53% of average.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 890 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 890 cfs for April and May.
Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 620 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 630 cfs. By the end of the week Gunnison Tunnel diversions could be in the 700 to 800 cfs range and river flows could be in the 400 to 500 cfs range. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
Grand opening of the Gunnison Tunnel in Colorado 1909. Photo credit USBR.
Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service
From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):
On Wednesday, November 1st, diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel will end for the season. Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be adjusted in coordination with the ramp down schedule for Gunnison Tunnel diversions in order to keep Gunnison River flows near the current level of 750 cfs. There could be fluctuations in the river throughout the day until the Gunnison Tunnel is completely shut down.
On Thursday and Friday, November 2nd and 3rd, releases from the Aspinall Unit will be reduced to 300 cfs during the day time hours in order to allow for completion of the sonar survey of the Crystal Dam stilling basin. Gunnison River flows will drop down towards 300 cfs during the day while returning to 750 cfs during the non-working hours. After the sonar survey is completed at the end of the day on November 3rd, river flows will return to the current level of 750 cfs.
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 October through December.
Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are near 850 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 750 cfs. After the shutdown of the Gunnison Tunnel and completion of the Crystal stilling basin sonar survey, flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will return to 750 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.