Click the link to read the article on The Crested Butte News website (Katherine Nettles). Here’s an excerpt:
UGRWCD senior water resource specialist Beverly Richards reported that the Gunnison River at the Gunnison Whitewater Park was flowing at 3,210 cubic feet per second (CFS) last weekend, and is very close to peaking. Richards said there is currently only one small portion of Gunnison County to the west that is facing drought, and the three month outlook shows drought conditions not recurring with the exception of a few areas to the north. Richards reported that precipitation has generally been within the historic normal range in the past 30 days, while snow water equivalent (SWE) maps show 193% of normal for the entire Gunnison Basin and 153% of normal for the upper basin. SNOTEL sites where SWE is measured are melting out. “But that was for May 19,” she said, which reflects that in May there isn’t usually much snow left.
The entire Gunnison Basin water storage is at 75% of average; reservoir storage for the Upper Gunnison Basin is 61%; and projected unregulated inflow for Blue Mesa Reservoir is at 131% of average. Richards said Blue Mesa is projected to be 97% full with a max fill amount of 102,869 acre feet. There is no indication from the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) as of yet about how much water might be called downstream.
“Reservoir storage across the Upper Colorado River is going up, but Lake Powell is expected to only be about 37% full,” said Richards, due to the volume that will come out. For perspective, she offered an estimate that Lake Powell could be filled in three years if the region had the same kind of snowy year as 2023, and if no one took water out. With the reality of outflows, however, she said it would take 6 to 8 years with winters like this one to refill Lake Powell.
2023 GRANT FUNDS SUPPORT NUMEROUS PROJECTS THROUGHOUT UPPER GUNNISON BASIN
The Board of Directors of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) voted at the March 27th Board meeting to award $297,170 to organizations and individuals in the Upper Gunnison River Basin. These grant funds will be used for projects that will enhance water supply, improve stream and irrigation conditions, conserve water, provide water education benefits and restore wetlands. There was a diverse group of project applications from all over the Upper Gunnison River. Examples include a City of Gunnison native plant xeriscape project at 11th & Quartz Street intersection with educational signage, Coal Creek Dam Construction (Lake Irwin), and irrigation demonstration projects – one utilizing a combined plastic irrigation pipe, headwall, and turnout gate for improved irrigation water management and another utilizing an IntelliDitch HDPE Liner to prevent seepage loss.
All applicants were required to provide a 50 percent cost match and their projects had to be consistent with the District’s purpose, mission, and objectives.
UGRWCD General Manager Sonja Chavez noted during this year’s funding cycle, the District received requests for funding that totaled $370,613.
“It was a very competitive cycle and I strongly encourage those who were not funded to reach out to us to discuss their project and how they can make it stronger for the next cycle,” said Sonja.
Sonja also pointed out the District Grant Funding Program is a prime example of the District’s responsible allocation of tax revenues to directly benefit diverse water improvement projects in the basin. “I am delighted to report that during this cycle, our District grant funds were leveraged at a ratio of 1:3 with outside funding sources which just amplifies returns on District investment.
The UGRWCD Grant Program follows an annual cycle with applications due in February each year. General Manager Chavez urges potential applicants or individuals, even those just wondering about a water project, to reach out to the District now so that the District can help with infrastructure assessment or engineering that can assist in ensuring that the project can be funded. If you have a water project in mind, please call the District at (970) 641-6065 to schedule a consultation.
The Upper Gunnison Basin Cloud Seeding Program started in the 2002/2003 winter season, following a feasibility study the year prior funded by Gunnison County in response to significant drought in 2002. After the program’s first year, the UGRWCD took over and in the time since it has grown to 15 generators, on both public and private land. The UGRWCD wants to add more generators in other qualified locations, starting with one on private land on Black Mesa. According to the UGRWCD, cloud seeding is one of the cheapest forms of augmentation water for the river basin at an estimated $0.53 per acre-foot annually. And it can provide critical water to support Gunnison River basin flows, Blue Mesa Reservoir and the local economy.
“Typically, what we plan for is that in the last five years or so the programs run at about $114,000 to $118,000 per year,” says Sonja Chavez, general manager for the UGRWCD.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board gives anywhere between $67,000 and $94,000 and the UGRWCD covers the remaining $20,000 to $45,000. Chavez says that program costs are increasing, however. “We are adding a new generation site, and we are going to be looking for new funding partners,” she says…
Cloud seeding cannot create a snowstorm, but it can increase the precipitation from a storm that already exists. Cole Osborne, project meteorologist for NAWC, explains how the process works using manual and remote-controlled generators and propane tanks to blast a mix of silver iodide and sodium iodide into the atmosphere.
“The solution attracts liquid particles in a cloud, and the water molecules develop into ice crystals…so you can speed up the process and make a cloud more efficient at producing precipitation,” he says…
The UGRWCD and NAWC believe a remote generator placed at Black Mesa between Crested Butte and Gunnison will do more than any other program enhancement, in terms of water augmentation in the Gunnison Range and to Blue Mesa Reservoir. The UGRWCD, with financial assistance from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has decided to fund the initial set-up and infrastructure costs for the remote generator for approximately $67,600. Osborne says there’s a huge area they are trying to target to lead to increased spring runoff and rises in reservoir levels. According to a memo from the UGRWCD earlier this month to potential funding partners, “NAWC analysis indicates that the generator will have significant direct benefits to northern and southern tributaries to Blue Mesa Reservoir and to eastern tributaries due to positive downwind cloud seeding impacts. The remote generator would permit cloud seeding during almost all storm periods that impact the Upper Gunnison River watershed. Seeding could occur during periods with winds ranging from northerly to southerly.
Two Gunnison River water districts in the headwaters of the Colorado River system are embarking on a $700,000 drought planning effort, aided by hundreds of thousands of dollars in new funding from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The Montrose-based Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, one of the largest suppliers of agricultural water in the Upper Colorado River Basin, will spend $400,000 to develop an action plan for dealing with the ongoing and future droughts, with $200,000 in federal funds, and matching funds from local sources.
The Gunnison-based Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District will spend $300,000 for a similar program, with $140,000 in federal funds, and another $166,000 from local partners, according to its application. The Upper Gunnison district is responsible for delivering agriculture water, but also serves the city of Gunnison and the town of Crested Butte as well as the ski area.
Reclamation granted this funding through its WaterSMART program. On Aug. 2 the agency awarded more than $865,000 in drought planning funds to water districts and agencies in five states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico and Oregon, as well as Colorado.
The seven-state Colorado River Basin is facing severe water shortages and is operating under a basin-wide set of state-level drought contingency plans. Those plans include water cutbacks for users in Arizona and Nevada, and possibly California in the Lower Basin, as well as emergency releases of water from reservoirs in the Upper Basin, including Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa. The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Compared to the multi-million dollar state and federal efforts, the local WaterSmart grants are fairly small, but officials say they provide critical help in important areas and create opportunities to win matching funds from other agencies.
“This really helps because there is so much that has to be done,” said Sonia Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison district. “And anything we can get will help us leverage funding to get more done. A couple of hundred thousand dollars really helps.”
Steve Pope, manager of the Uncompahgre association, said the money will go toward developing contingency plans and designing improvements to the association’s aging federal infrastructure on which it relies.
“Our infrastructure is extremely old,” Pope said. “Even though this grant is for planning purposes it will have a big impact on our system in the sense that it will allow us to best manage our water without having to make big infrastructure changes.”
Pope is responsible for delivering 500,000 to 700,000 acre-feet of water, through more than 700 miles of canals, laterals and drains, to farmers and some small towns in the Gunnison Valley.
Both districts occupy key territory in the Upper Colorado River Basin, with the Gunnison district lying just above Blue Mesa Reservoir, and the Uncompahgre district lying below.
Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest water storage reservoir operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, has been hard hit by drought and by emergency releases of water to help stabilize Lake Powell.
Chavez said her small, largely rural district has never implemented a drought plan, in part because one has never been needed until now.
The new grant funds will allow it to better monitor and analyze its water supplies, develop ways to conserve water, and determine equitable ways for farmers and cities to use whatever water is available.
“If we get into a drought, how is my little community here going to get through that drought?” Chavez said, “and how could we better share the water we do have available?”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
On Aug. 16, the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) issued a press release restating the urgency of the situation and laying out actions it will take in coming months to protect water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency. In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said. “The Interior Department is employing prompt and responsive actions and investments to ensure the entire Colorado River Basin can function and support all who rely on it. We are grateful for the hardworking public servants who have dedicated their lives to this work, and who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of Basin states, Tribes, and communities.”
“They said, ‘Well, we appreciate all of the efforts, and here’s what the August 24-month study shows, and here’s what we’re going to do for the next year, which is basically consistent with the 2007 guidelines with a modification,’” Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District General Counsel John McClow said.
That modification from the already existing agreement, McClow said, was to hold 480,000 acre feet of water back in Lake Powell to protect the critical elevation of 3,525 feet, but to treat it as if it went to Lake Mead for the purpose of water accounting.
“So, nothing new,” McClow said. “But they said they were still looking to the states to come up with an answer. Basically, I think it was unrealistic to expect the states to deliver a plan to cut the river use by 2 to 4 million acre feet in 60 days. It just wasn’t feasible.”
The problem remains that aridification in the West has meant significantly less available water in the system over the past 20 years. That is compounded by what some have called a “structural imbalance” in how the water is used between the upper and lower basins. In 2021, for instance, the Lower Basin states consumed over 10 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, while the Upper Basin states combined consumed 3.5 million acre-feet.
Better than expected monsoonal rains this summer have not led Gunnison County out of the region’s persistent drought — but the moisture has gone a long way to lessen its severity. Beverly Richards, water resource specialist for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, shared the message with the Gunnison County Commissioners on Tuesday. As of last week, over 96% of Gunnison County was listed in the National Integrated Drought Information System as falling in the category of “moderate drought,” one step above the least severe rating of “abnormally dry.” The 30-day outlook calls for continued improvement, as forecasts predict at least a 33% chance of above normal precipitation in the next month.
Richards said the wetter-than-forecasted summer has done little to improve the water storage outlook at Blue Mesa Reservoir, however. Current forecasts call for the lake to drop to 33% of capacity heading into winter, up only slightly from the 29% estimate in early summer. The water level in the reservoir peaked at 48% in July and sits at 44% of capacity.
Speaking before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on June 14, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton warned that water users along the Colorado River must slash their usage by as much as one-fourth by the end of next year to “help preserve and protect power pool” at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams — both of which produce hydropower for millions across the region. Touton said Reclamation has seen similar patterns across every major basin in the West — hydrologic variability, hotter temperatures, dry soil — leading to earlier snowmelt and low runoff. Coupled with the lowest reservoir levels on record, “there is so much to this that is unprecedented,” she said.
“But unprecedented is now the reality,” Touton said…
“It is in our authority to act unilaterally to protect the system, and we will protect the system,” she said.
When looking to reduce usage by 4 million acre-feet, John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, said the answer is obvious. The Upper Basin states, situated at the headwaters of the Colorado River, have continued to take involuntary shortages each year, dependent on ebb and flow of rain and snowmelt.
“We haven’t got anything to give,” he said. “They’ve had perfect control of their supply ever since Hoover Dam was built. Their system is a lot easier to operate, you just turn on the tap … We don’t have those resources in the Upper Basin.”
UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom said he believes both the Upper and Lower basins need to contribute to a solution.
“I think the Upper Basin has taken significant efforts and suffered significant pain,” Cullom said. “There is more that can be done. Most of the work going forward should come from the area where there’s significant water use. And that’s, again, downstream.”
Cullom said although he is optimistic water users, tribes and the federal government can negotiate a plan within the 60-day window, emergency releases in 2021 and Touton’s call for more water reflects that the existing rules have been exhausted.
“Now that we’ve depleted the storage, the only choice is to adapt,” he said.
The UGRWCD presents the 1st Annual UPPER GUNNISON RIVER BASIN WATER ROUNDUP! Join us at the I Bar Ranch Thursday, June 9, 2022 from Noon to 9 PM. Register today at: https://t.co/0khTkr6rjJ or call the District at (970)641-6065. Hope to see you there! pic.twitter.com/gYEB7yB71i
The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District continues to change, grow and adapt its public outreach efforts, directing the public to the main focus of their mission — managing the basin’s limited water supply.
Upper Gunnison is an active leader in all issues affecting the water resources of the Upper Gunnison River Basin. Their role in the valley has grown in importance as the basin continues to experience worsening drought conditions. In response, the district has continued to try and raise awareness of the community’s water use.
Upper Gunnison General Manager Sonja Chavez said that, after the drought year the basin experienced, it’s about getting a message out to the community.
“Water is a finite resource,” Chavez said. “I think most people don’t realize or understand that the whole Colorado River Basin is over allocated, we’re using more water than we actually have. As temperatures increase and stream flows decrease, it’s just going to become a greater challenge.”
The district’s education and outreach budget increased from $34,000 in 2021 to almost $42,000 for 2022. Although part of it is driven by the rising cost of promotional products and an increased sponsorship to the Gunnison River Festival, Chavez said overall, public outreach is “central and important” to the district’s mission…
Within their education action plan, staff began to break the public down into age groups, from elementary through high school as well as growing their relationship with Western Colorado University. The district’s goal was to try and be intentional about where they put the funding, who they reach out to and making sure it’s age appropriate.
Historically the Upper Gunnison helped fund the Water Workshop, which was renamed and reorganized into the Western Water Future Games. The Water Workshop, based at Western, has a 45-year history.
It was created to give more of a voice to the people of the Western Slope because at that time it was perceived that the Front Range was the dominant voice in water issues in the state, said Jeff Sellen, who oversees the program…
With a small staff of five, the Upper Gunnison has limited manpower. To make their outreach efforts more effective and far-reaching, their strategy has been “figuring out where they can add value” to existing events or programs, Chavez said.
Where there is an access to water the Upper Gunnison tries to build upon that opportunity for education. The Upper Gunnison has its hands in the River Festival, the 4-H Program and the Taylor Challenge. It also has an established mini-grant program designed to support educational projects intended to expand the awareness of water-related issues.
Name recognition is another important aspect of increasing the visibility and effectiveness of the Upper Gunnison’s water messaging in the valley. The district has used a newsletter, radio advertisements, yard signs and promotional items to spread the word that “water doesn’t grow on trees.”
Chavez said she thinks “a lot of people within the community don’t know exactly who we are or what we do.” But this is something that even larger districts still struggle with…
Upper Gunnison has started taking a harder look at its education and outreach in terms of who it’s reaching, and how successful it’s been, Chavez said. When people have an issue or question about water “I would want them to first think of the Upper Gunnison District.”
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
George Sibley was appointed to the UGRWCD Board of Directors in June 2006 representing Division 8, the City of Gunnison, and most recently served as Secretary for the District. After nearly 13 years of service, George submitted his resignation to the UGRWCD earlier this year. George is well-known and well-respected on the Western slope and throughout the state for his commitment to and many years of valuable service on water issues and protecting water users in the Upper Gunnison Basin. Because of his knowledge, time and effort committed to all things water, George affectionately earned the honorary title of Gunnison’s own “Water Buffalo,” a role he portrayed in many of the annual Sonofagunn productions at the Gunnison Arts Center.
“George will be dearly missed within the water community for the knowledge he brings to the table and for spurring much needed conversations around the water resource challenges we face,” said UGRWCD General Manager Sonja Chavez. “We wish him the very best!”
Here’s to calm waters, George, as you embark on the next phase of life!
From the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District (Sonja Chavez) via The Gunnison Country Times:
Board loses esteemed water leader
After 14 years of service at the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, George Sibley stepped down from the district’s board earlier this month.
Sibley, 79, cited his health and age as the reasons for his decision. Upper Gunnison General Manager Sonja Chaves and Board President Michelle Piece received a letter from Sibley on Feb. 9 notifying them that his resignation was effective immediately.
“I’ve got some stress-related health issues, nothing very serious, but I’m also almost 80; it was just time to cut back on some of my involvements, and make sure I get some other personal things done I’m working on,” Sibley said Tuesday.
Chavez said Sibley and his persistence in asking difficult questions will be missed at the Upper Gunnison.
“George has so much historical and institutional knowledge of water issues on the Westerm Slope,” Chavez said. “I didn’t always agree with George, but I appreciate that he pushed those difficult conversations!’
Sibley was the Upper Gunnison’s board secretary and served on a handful of committees at the time of his resignation.
The Upper Gunnison’s Board of Directors formally thanked Sibley by passing a resolution acknowledging his service. The resolution notes Sibley’s decades of writing about water, including “Water Wranglers,” which was published in 2012 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Colorado River District, as well as his role in organizing the Colorado Water Workshop, one of the premiere meetings of water policymakers in the Western U.S.
“We will miss him dearly,” said Upper Gunnison board Vice President Stacy McPhail during the board’s meeting Tuesday.
Board member John Perusek fills Sibley’s role as secretary. The Upper Gunnison will advertise the vacancy for 45 days ahead of the Upper Gunnison’s June 28 annual meeting. Applicants will need to be residents of the City of Gunnison since Sibley represented the city’s district on the board. Applicant letters will be forwarded to Seventh Judicial District Judge Steven Patrick. In accordance with the Upper Gunnison’s founding statute, Patrick will make the appointment decision.
Click here to read Ian James’ fantastic article about the current state of the Colorado River from stem to stern that’s running up at AZCentral.com. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
The warming climate is intensifying drought, contributing to fires and drying out the river’s headwaters, sending consequences cascading downstream.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colorado — Beside a river that winds through a mountain valley, the charred trunks of pine trees lie toppled on the blackened ground, covered in a thin layer of fresh snow.
Weeks after flames ripped through this alpine forest, a smoky odor still lingers in the air.
The fire, called the East Troublesome, burned later into the fall than what once was normal. It cut across Rocky Mountain National Park, racing up and over the Continental Divide. It raged in the headwaters of the Colorado River, reducing thick forests to ashes and scorching the ground along the river’s banks.
The fires in Colorado spread ferociously through the summer and fall of 2020 after months of extreme heat that worsened the severe drought.
As smoke billowed over the headwaters, the wildfires raised warning signs of how profoundly climate change is altering the watershed, and how the symptoms of heat-driven drying are cascading down the heavily used river — with stark implications for the entire region, from Colorado’s ranchland pastures to the suburbs of Phoenix…
Over the past year, the relentless hot, dry months from the spring to the first snows left the soil parched. The amount of runoff into streams and the river dropped far below average. With reservoirs sinking toward new lows, the risks of shortages are growing.
Much of the river’s flow begins as snow and rainfall in the territory of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which includes 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope. Andy Mueller, the district’s general manager, said the extreme conditions over the past year offer a preview of what the region should prepare for in the future.
“Climate change is drying out the headwaters,” Mueller said. “And everybody in the Colorado River Basin needs to be concerned.”
Mueller saw the effects while backpacking in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness in the summer with his 19-year-old daughter. Above the tree line, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, they expected to see mushy green tundra. Instead, they found the ground was bone dry…
People who focus on the river have widely acknowledged the need to adjust to a shrinking system with less water to go around.
Many suggest solutions can be achieved through collaborative efforts — often with money changing hands in exchange for water — while working within the existing rules. Others say solutions shouldn’t fall on the backs of farming communities by taking away water that fuels their economies. Some people argue the river seems headed for a crash and its rules need to be fundamentally reimagined…
The deals between the seven states are designed to temporarily lower the odds of Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropping to critical lows over the next five years. The states’ representatives have yet to wade into the details of negotiations on what shortage-sharing rules will look like after 2026, when the current agreements expire.
Still unresolved are difficult questions about how to deal with the shortfall over the long term.
What’s increasingly clear is that the status-quo methods of managing the river are on a collision course with worsening scarcity, and that eventually something will have to give…
Watershed ‘thirstier’ with heat
Last winter, after a dry year, the Rocky Mountains were blanketed with a snowpack that was slightly above average. Then came extremely hot and dry conditions, which shrank the amount of runoff and flows into tributaries and again baked the soils dry.
[Andy] Mueller said the change occurred abruptly at the end of the snow season in the spring…
With the heat, some of the snow didn’t melt but instead evaporated directly into the air, which scientists call sublimation — something that has been happening more over the past two decades. The flows in streams dropped over the next few months, and then August brought record heat, which dried out the headwaters and fueled the fires through the fall…
In a 2018 study, scientists found that about half the trend of decreasing runoff in the Upper Colorado River Basin since 2000 was the result of unprecedented warming. In other research, scientists estimated the river is so sensitive to warming that it could lose roughly one-fourth of its flow by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise…
“A warmer atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere, and we’re seeing less runoff bang for our precipitation buck,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher in Colorado. “We’ll still have wetter and drier years, but the baseline is very likely to be shifting downward, as it has in the last 20 years.”
And when extreme heat comes, it leaves less water running in tributaries and also translates into drier forests, leading to increased fire risk.
The soils were so dry over the past year that they soaked up moisture, contributing to below-average stream flows, said Megan Holcomb, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“You can think of it as like the dry sponge that you haven’t wetted in forever,” Holcomb said. “That kind of soil moisture deficit is not something that you rebound from immediately.”
After the hot spring came a dry summer. The lack of monsoon rains compounded the drought. And then came August, Holcomb said, when a map of record-hot temperatures hugged the Colorado River Basin like a “massive red handprint.”
In areas of western Colorado that drain into the river, it was the hottest and driest August on record, breaking the previous temperature record by 2 degrees F, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado’s state climatologist and director of the Colorado Climate Center.
The state usually gets its largest wildfires in June and July. But with the severe drought, the fires burned through August, and then exploded in October with unprecedented speed and intensity. The ultradry conditions, together with high winds, contributed to the three largest wildfires in Colorado history, which together devoured more than half a million acres.
In the future, rising temperatures will lead to more of these scorching summers.
Firefighters on the march: The Pine Gulch Fire, smoke of which shown here, was started by a lighting strike on July 31, 2020, approximately 18 miles north of Grand Junction, Colorado. According to InciWeb, as of August 27 2020, the Pine Gulch Fire became the largest wildfire in Colorado State history, surpassing Hayman Fire that burned near Colorado Springs in the summer of 2002. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Mangement-Colorado, via InciWeb and National Interagency Fire Center.
The Cameron Peak fire soon after it started on Aug. 13, 2020. By Sept. 11, the fire had grown to more than 102,000 acres (now >200,000 acres) and was not expected to be considered out until Oct. 31. Photo credit: InciWeb via The Colorado Sun
East Troublesome Fire October 21, 2020 via Wildfire Today.
Scenes of the CalWood Oct. 17, 2020 (Jivan West/CU Independent)
Abby Burk of the conservation group Audubon Rockies noticed how low the river was in the summer when she went paddling in her kayak. In parts where the river was full and muddy a year earlier, she found bars of gravel. Where there once were channels to paddle through, she encountered dead-end lagoons.
In November, when Burk drove through the headwaters near the smoldering fires, she snapped photos of the hills and mountains, still golden-brown beneath a dusting of snow.
When the soil is so parched, it will always “take the first drink” before water reaches the streams, Burk said. “We need a lot more snow for many years to come to really replenish the soil moisture deficits that we’re seeing now.”
The fire scars will also bring challenges come spring, she said, when melting snow will send runoff carrying ash, debris and sediment into streams, potentially creating complications for water systems.
Burk said she’s hoping there will be a slow melt so the runoff comes gradually, without “bringing down the mountain into the river.”
A rancher looks to adapt
Paul Bruchez raises cattle on his family’s ranch in the headwaters near the town of Kremmling, where the Colorado River winds through pastures…
Bruchez has been involved in discussions about the river as a member of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. And while he’s heard many people voice alarm about the watershed lately, Bruchez said he and other neighboring ranchers have been talking about the need to adapt to a river with less water since 2002, when severe drought came.
The flows dropped so low then that even ranchers with the longest-standing water rights, known as senior rights, couldn’t get it to their fields.
“Within this river basin, we have seen a change over time of the quantity and volume of water that is available. And in that same time, we’ve seen a growth of population that relies on it,” Bruchez said. “We knew this in 2002 when we hit that drought, that if we didn’t change how we operated, we weren’t going to survive.”
Since then, Bruchez and other ranchers have been talking about ideas for adapting…
The closer the region gets to a scenario of curtailing water allotments, Bruchez said, the more investors and representatives of cities and towns are going to be contemplating ways of securing water from elsewhere.
For people in agriculture, he said, “we need to be at the table or we’re going to be on the menu.”
‘It affects everybody’
One of the main tributaries that feeds the Colorado is the Gunnison River, which like the mainstem has shrunk during the heat-amplified drought. Along the Gunnison, cattle ranchers got less water last year and their pastures produced less hay.
The river’s low flows also forced an early end to the river rafting season on Labor Day weekend. After that, releases from a dam had to be cut back and the Gunnison was left much shallower than usual, with rocks protruding in stretches where boats would normally be drifting until the end of September.
The river has dropped to some of its lowest levels in years, said Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.
The effects are visible at Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of the state’s largest, which has declined to less than half its full capacity.
Visiting the lake, Chavez walked on sandy ground that used to sit underwater.
Looking across the inlet where the river pours into the lake, she pointed to a gray line on the rock showing the high-water mark. During spring runoff, she said, the river in this channel can reach about 20 feet higher. But with the soil so parched, its level dropped.
“When we are dry in the Upper Gunnison Basin, it affects everybody downstream of us,” Chavez said. And the swings between high and low flows, she said, have made it difficult to plan how to operate the reservoirs…
Photo credit from report “A Preliminary Evaluation of Seasonal Water Levels Necessary to Sustain Mount Emmons Fen: Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests,” David J. Cooper, Ph.D, December 2003.
Gunnison River in Colorado. Source: Bureau of Reclamation via the Water Education Foundation
Upper Gunnison watershed May 2019. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs
In the Gunnison Valley, a local climate action group meets to talk about potential solutions. Some conversations have focused on how to manage forests that have grown thick with vegetation over the past century as federal agencies have focused mostly on putting out fires.
While the forests have grown thicker, warmer temperatures have enabled beetles to flourish, littering the mountains with dead trees.
Chavez and others want to prioritize efforts to make the forests healthier and more fire-resilient by thinning the trees through logging, mechanical treatments or controlled burns, which they say would make the whole watershed healthier. She said the federal government needs to be more involved and the region needs funding for these projects.
“Our big push this year is to do some watershed management planning and work with the Forest Service to identify zones of concern, or areas that we can treat,” Chavez said. “We’re worried if we had a big fire what would happen.”
Alongside those efforts, water managers are discussing ways of dialing down water usage…
Ranchers, farmers consider using less
One lifelong rancher who had a smaller-than-usual hay crop was Bill Trampe, who has worked on water issues for years as a board member of the Colorado River District.
His cattle graze on meadows near Gunnison where the grasses survive year after year. He was short of water to irrigate after mid-June, which left the pastures parched.
Over the past two decades, only a few years brought good snowpack, he said, and ranchers have repeatedly had to weather the financial hits of years when they must buy hay for their cattle…
‘We need to set the terms’
In other parts of the river basin, some representatives of agricultural water agencies are worried about the potential consequences of paying farmers to leave land dry.
One such voice is J.B. Hamby, a newly elected board member of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, who said he’s concerned that while cities and sprawling suburbs continue to grow rapidly, agricultural communities are increasingly at risk. He said people in cities need to realize there is a priority system that shouldn’t be changed…
Arizona gets nearly 40% of its water from the Colorado River. Much of it flows in the Central Arizona Project Canal, which cuts across the desert from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson.
In 2020, Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river under the drought agreement among Lower Basin states, and in 2021 they will again leave some of their water in Lake Mead. The latest projections show Mead could fall below a key threshold by summer, which would trigger a shortage declaration and larger cutbacks in 2022…
Now, with less water flowing to farms, the amount of runoff into the Salton Sea has shrunk, leaving growing stretches of exposed lakebed that spew dust into the air. The dust is contributing to some of the worst air pollution in the country, and many children suffer from asthma.
Hamby said the Imperial Valley would have been better off without the water transfer deal. Looking at the proposed approach in Colorado, Hamby said, it seems to replicate what occurred in Imperial.
“When you tie money to water, you get users who become addicted to the money and don’t actually in the end start to want to farm anymore,” Hamby said. “That is really corrosive to the long-term survival, much less thriving, of rural communities when people get more hooked on money rather than the way of life and putting the water on the land.”
He argued that such an approach would be “subverting the whole priority system” and enabling cities to avoid taking cuts themselves…
‘Are we doing enough?’
At his ranch by the river, Bruchez said he wants to be on “the preventative side,” getting ahead of the looming problems instead of reacting. And that includes studying and promoting conservation, he said, because the bottom line is “we just all have to figure out how to use less water.”
In early 2019, Bruchez began talking with Perry Cabot, a researcher from Colorado State University, about a project that would help provide data on crop water use, impacts of reduced irrigation and strategies for conserving water.
Cabot gave a presentation to the Colorado Basin Roundtable, and members supported the idea of a study. The project began in 2020 with about $900,000 in funding, including support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and groups including Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.
A group of nine ranchers participated and were paid for leaving some fields dry or partially dry, Bruchez said. More than 900 acres weren’t irrigated for the entire year, and about 200 acres were “deficit irrigated,” meaning they received less water.
Bruchez’s ranch totals about 6,000 acres. He participated on about 41 acres, where he stopped irrigating on June 15 and didn’t water the rest of the year.
“My end goal is to understand the impacts of water conservation for agriculture so that if and when there are programs to participate, agriculture is doing it based on science,” Bruchez said…
Paul Bruchez said he’s seen that when people talk about solutions, they often seem to draw boxes around different approaches like demand management, water conservation, climate change and forest management, but he thinks they’re all quite connected.
“It’s all the same conversation,” Bruchez said. “To me, the question just comes down to, are we doing enough, quick enough?”
“It’s that water that is provided by the Colorado River that ties us all together,” Mueller said. “And truly, when we recognize the importance of the Colorado River and how it ties us together, that’s when we succeed as a society.”
Ian James is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who focuses on water, climate change and the environment in the Southwest. Send him story tips, comments and questions at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @ByIanJames.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Chavez to Take the Lead at UGRWCD
Sonja Chavez has been selected to serve as the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. When asked about her new role, Ms. Chavez said, “I look forward to working with my local community and our Upper Gunnison Board of Directors and staff to continue to ensure that all water needs within the Upper Gunnison basin are being addressed, with other regional water users to speak with one voice on water resource issues affecting west slope communities, and with other state and federal entities to make informed decisions and have respectful dialogue around our current and future water use.”
As a native Coloradan, Sonja’s passion for water and agriculture is deeply rooted in her family’s ranching heritage. She grew up in a small community in southwestern Colorado along the banks of the Purgatoire River.
Ms. Chavez received a BA in Environmental Biology and an MA in Limnology (study of freshwater systems) from the University of Colorado. Her areas of expertise are in water quality, water resources management, funding acquisition, environmental and natural resource sciences, and policy and planning.
Early in her career Sonja worked in both the private and public sectors in Colorado (Water Quality Control Division, Department of Transportation and Summit County Government). In 2002, she moved to the Gunnison community and started her own consulting firm, assisting west slope water providers and water users planning and implementation of over $38 million dollars of water-quality and agricultural efficiency improvement and hydro-electric projects.
In 2015, she left the consulting world to join the Colorado River Water Conservation District as a Water Resource Specialist where her responsibilities included the management of off- and on-farm agricultural efficiency, system optimization and water-quality improvement projects, environmental compliance, funding acquisition, and grant management, and drought contingency planning and demand management including the evaluation of water banking.
A representative with a “recreational” background will replace the former manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD), who had been a board member for the last five years. Joellen Fonken will take the seat of Kathleen Curry as the Tomichi Drainage District representative.
Board members are appointed by the Gunnison District Court and judge Steven Patrick made four appointments to the board on June 20. In his order of appointment Patrick said all the applicants to the board were well qualified.
Patrick, along with 12th Judicial District judge Patti Swift, conferred and agreed on the appointments. The incumbents with no competing applicants were all reappointed and included Michelle Pierce, Rebie Hazard and Rosemary Carroll.
Curry is a rancher and was the incumbent in the Tomichi Drainage District, and was a previous manager of the UGRWCD, a former Colorado state representative and a local businesswoman.
Fonken is also a local businesswoman, as well as the director of the Gunnison River Festival and has served on several recreational boards including the Gunnison County Trails Commission.
Snowpack across the Gunnison River Basin is below normal, particularly in the East River Basin where the predicted streamflow for the April through July runoff season is 78 percent of normal.
Spring runoff for the East River is likely to peak within the next few days. “The long-term average peak occurs on June 11, so this year’s peak seems to be on track or a few days earlier than normal,” Kugel said.
Reservoir conditions look to be quite different from last year. Last June, both the Taylor Park and Blue Mesa Reservoirs came within inches of spilling over. This coming summer, Taylor Park Reservoir is projected to reach somewhere between 90 percent and 95 percent of full and Blue Mesa is projected to reach 83 percent of capacity.
Kugel attributes the difference to a slightly better snowpack in the Taylor Park area and a recent 10-day peak flow release from Blue Mesa in accordance with a record of decision for the Aspinall Environmental Impact Study. Water was released for the lower Gunnison River for endangered fish habitat.
“Blue Mesa should start filling again but dropped several thousand acre-feet during the release and is currently at 69 percent of capacity,” Kugel said.
The Taylor Park Reservoir is currently at 72 percent of capacity and is in the midst of its peak release of 450 cubic feet per second (cfs), which started Tuesday, May 31 and runs through Saturday, June 4.
“We do that both to satisfy privately held instream flow rights on the Taylor River and to help flush sediments from the streambed and improve the fishery on the Taylor River. Once the release is complete, it will be stepped back down to 300 cfs over the course of a few days and it should remain at that for the month of June,” Kugel said.
That will make for good flows for several June events featuring local waterways. This year’s Gunnison River Festival, which features the annual river float and fish fry as well as events at the Whitewater Park, will take place just after the 41st annual Colorado Water Workshop.
Originally started by local historian Duane Vandenbusche and Gunnison water lawyer Richard Bratton, this year’s workshop features several authors, including Western Slope writer Craig Childs.
The Colorado Foundation for Water Education will also host a two-day tour of the Gunnison River Basin, providing an in-depth look at everything from Blue Mesa Reservoir to local irrigation practices and infrastructure to an organic farm and the Gunnison Whitewater Park.
The tour runs June 21-22; the Colorado Water Workshop runs June 22-24; and the Gunnison River Festival runs June 24-26.
The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District has been busy developing a plan for future water use in the Gunnison Valley and, at the same time, watching other basins in the state to see where they expect their water to come from.
However, as the process of developing a statewide water plan starts to unfold, UGRWCD manager Frank Kugel said the conversation seems to be steering clear of the dreaded talk about trans-mountain diversion.
“Everyone acknowledged the 800-pound gorilla in the room—trans-mountain diversions,” Kugel said.
“For now everyone kind of decided to work around that.”
Basin representatives from around the state got together for a meeting hosted by the Colorado Water Congress in Denver on December 12. It was the first meeting of many to come related to the Colorado Water Plan and, more specifically, the Basin Implementation plans, which will be incorporated into the state plan over the next year.
“Once the plans are developed into a final draft form next July, we’ll present them to state water board for consideration,” Kugel said. “Then those plans will begin to be assimilated into a state plan, with an initial draft due by end of 2014.”
Kugel, who is also the chairman for the implementation planning committee for the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, says his goal for the process is to maintain water in our basin to be used, as it historically has been, for recreation, conservation and agriculture. And one of the best reasons to be close to the process, Kugel says, is to “make sure other plans do not put our plan at risk.”[…]
With a projected decrease in the amount of water that will fall in the state over the next 35 years and an increase in the state’s population, the plan is hastily being developed and battle lines are quietly being drawn, most noticeably along the Continental Divide…
“A key goal [of the plan] is to protect historic agricultural use and part of that is to minimize any future transfer of agricultural rights to municipal,” Kugel said. “So we’re very focused on keeping water on the land as it’s been done since 1875 in this basin.”
To help in developing its own Basin Implementation Plan (BIP), Kugel said, the UGRWCD hired Wilson Water Group as a consultant and has Greg Johnson helping them. He worked with the Colorado Water Conservation Board until July of this year.
“We feel very confident they bring a lot of expertise to this project,” Kugel said, adding the
Wilson Water Group is also the consultant for the North Platte Basin Roundtable. “At the same time they recognize the basin wants a bottom-up approach that is developed by our basin roundtable with help from all of the stakeholders.”
Having a plan that is written with an awareness of what other basins are doing could also help keep lines of communication open between the UGWRCD and other basins throughout the development of the Colorado Water Plan.
“[The state will] need to meld the basin implementation plans together to provide a basis for the state water plan and we will need to have clear conversations about how trans-mountain diversion might play into that plan,” Kugel said, making it clear that the UGRWCD would “strongly oppose” any attempts to divert water from the Western Slope. “Diversions from other basins could put ours in jeopardy … It could put us at risk of exceeding our compact allotment. So we have to be vigilant about how that process goes.”
Basin Implementation Plans will be presented to the Colorado Water Conservation Board on July 14.
The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission voted September 11 to impose the stricter standards despite an argument from U.S. Energy that nearby domestic wells were pumping water from the Slate River instead of Coal Creek. “Frankly, I don’t even recognize my town in the diagrams presented to you from U.S. Energy,” said High Country Citizen’s Alliance (HCCA) water director Jennifer Bock in reference to the claim that the wells were pumping water from the Slate River. The portion of the creek affected by the decision starts at just below the town’s water supply intake to the confluence with the Slate River. By voting to put stricter regulations on that portion of Coal Creek, the commission voted in agreement with positions advocated by HCCA, Gunnison County, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers.
The segment of Coal Creek is out of compliance with state water quality standards, and has been since temporary modifications were first put in place in the early 1990s. Bock explained that temporary modifications are put in place when a discharger releasing pollutants into a water body cannot meet quality standards and needs more time to assess the situation. “The legal word in the regulations is uncertainty, so if there’s uncertainty about why there’s a pollution problem, it does give the discharger time to resolve it,” Bock said. In this case, U.S. Energy Corp. was requesting an extension of the temporary modifications and more lenient standards on cadmium, zinc and copper.
Initially, U.S. Energy proposed loosening the temporary modifications in addition to extending them. Yet the current temporary standards are already significantly above state standards: of 2.3 micrograms per liter for cadmium as opposed to the more typical range of .15 to 1.2 depending on water hardness, and 667 micrograms per liter for zinc. State standards for zinc are typically between 34 and 428 micrograms per liter, again depending on the hardness of the water. After some back and forth, U.S. Energy instead proposed a slight tightening of the temporary modifications to 2.1 micrograms per liter for cadmium and 440 for zinc. In HCCA’s eyes, that amounts to the status quo, but that’s acceptable for the time being if steps are taken to understand where that pollution is coming from.
In addition to standards for drinking water, the commission granted U.S. Energy’s request for temporary modifications on standards for copper, cadmium and zinc. As part of the decision the Water Quality Control Commission is asking U.S. Energy to develop a comprehensive study on metal loading from Mt. Emmons, which will be the subject of another hearing on December 10 in Denver.
Here’s a profile of Rancher and water wonk, Bill Trampe, written by Jennifer Bock running in the Grand Junction Free Press. From the article:
Although water is probably more essential to his livelihood than many of us in the Gunnison Basin, Trampe admits that his philosophy on keeping water in the Gunnison Basin has changed over the years.
When Arapahoe County proposed the Union Park project, Trampe recalls that the local sentiment was “not one drop” and no one dared stray from that strict line in the sand.
Today, Trampe thinks that Western Slope interests are “better off at the table than on the menu” when it comes to talking to the Front Range and others about West Slope water. Trampe’s philosophy is tied to real life experience: He has spent the last seven years negotiating with the Front Range to develop the Colorado River Water Cooperative Agreement.
Perhaps characteristic of a rancher’s outlook, Trampe is both hopeful and frustrated when it comes to resolving Colorado’s water disputes.
He believes, as many do, that big, transmountain water projects simply won’t be able to provide enough firm yield to satisfy Front Range interests. In statewide water planning discussions, Trampe has been a proponent of addressing this problem through risk management — the idea that the state must have a comprehensive way to evaluate and guard against the potential consequences of failing to meet water delivery obligations to downstream states as it considers new diversions out of the Colorado River Basin.
Here’s the latest installment of the Valley Courier’s Colorado Water 2012 series. Frank Kugel details water operations and facilities in the Gunnison Basin. Here’s an excerpt:
The Gunnison Basin is home to the largest body of water entirely within the state of Colorado, Blue Mesa Reservoir, which has a capacity of 940,000 acre-feet (830,000 acre-feet active capacity). It is the primary storage component of the three reservoirs comprising the Aspinall Unit. Morrow Point Dam is the middle structure and its primary purpose is production of hydropower. Crystal Dam creates a stabilizing reservoir for the variable flows produced by Morrow Point Dam releases. Below Crystal lies the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River National Park…
The Bureau of Reclamation has a number of other storage projects in the basin, in addition to the Aspinall Unit reservoirs, including Taylor Park on the Taylor River, Ridgway on the Uncompahgre River, Silver Jack on the Cimarron River, Crawford on the Smith Fork of the Gunnison, fruit growers on Current Creek and Paonia on Muddy Creek, tributary to the North Fork of the Gunnison River.
One of the first projects developed by the Bureau of Reclamation was the Uncompahgre Project, which provides irrigation water for a variety of crops in the Uncompahgre Valley between Colona and Delta. A key component of the project is the Gunnison Tunnel, a 5.7 mile long tunnel that diverts water from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and discharges it into a series of canals in the Uncompahgre Valley. The tunnel has a 1913 water right for 1300 cfs and supplies some 60% of the irrigation water for the 76,000 acres under the project.
Taylor Park Dam was constructed in 1937 to provide supplemental irrigation for the Uncompahgre Valley. Taylor Park Reservoir has a capacity of 106,230 acre feet. The 1975 Taylor Park Exchange Agreement allows for transfer of storage downstream to Blue Mesa Reservoir to provide the Gunnison Tunnel with a more readily available source of irrigation water. An additional benefit of this exchange was the flexibility to make releases in time and amount that would benefit recreational and agricultural users in the Upper Gunnison basin.
In spite of early concerns that funding for cloud seeding might dry up, Gunnison County entered into an operational agreement with North American Weather Consultants for the 2011-2012 winter season on November 15. With the total bill projected at $95,000, a 3.26 percent increase over last year, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District came through with a $26,500 contribution. The county will contribute $10,000 and Mt. Crested Butte budgeted $3,000. The Colorado Water Conservation Board will cover $47,500 in matching funds, and the remaining moneys will be collected from a variety of local contributors.
As the runoff continues to subside, Reclamation believes it is necessary to further reduce flows in the Gunnison River below the Aspinall Unit. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center is showing inflow to Blue Mesa continuing to drop from the current level of around 5,000 cfs to 2,100 cfs by mid July. The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users, who had reduced diversions through the Gunnison Tunnel a week ago because the Uncompahgre River was filling their needs, are now in need of filling the Tunnel. To facilitate the filling of Blue Mesa Reservoir, Reclamation will not be matching their increased diversions, which will take place starting on Thursday, June 30th, with increased releases from the Aspinall Unit. This will result in a flow reduction in the Gunnison River of approximately 200 cfs bringing flows in the Canyon and Gorge to around 1,100 cfs as measured at the gage below the Gunnison Tunnel. We know this is inconsistent with information previously provided, but hydrologic conditions are constantly changing and we must react to current circumstances and forecasts.
In his ruling, Patrick said the court had received numerous letters of recommendation to reappoint Steckel. It was pointed out that he had served as a “mentor” to many new board members and this was a positive attribute he brought to the board. Patrick said Sibley too brought knowledge, familiarity and experience to the board. Patrick lauded Spencer as being qualified to sit on the UGRWCD but chose to go with tenure. He has also reappointed directors Brett Redden and Steve Schechter to the board.
Here’s a retrospective looking back on the 50th anniversary of the creation of the UGRWCD, from Evan Dawson writing for The Crested Butte News. From the article:
The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) was created in June 1959 to work along with the federal government in creating a series of water storage projects throughout Gunnison County.
The Upper Gunnison Storage Project, as it came to be known, was never entirely feasible or cost effective. The idea was finally abandoned altogether in 2008…
Gunnison area resident Richard Bratton served as the District’s attorney from 1959 to 1999. Bratton says he was in the office when the district was first created in 1959. Note, however, the “office” at that time consisted of Bratton and board members like Bill Trampe and Lee Spann, talking on the phone at 7 a.m. Bratton says the true beginning of the district happened in 1956 when the Colorado River Storage Project was authorized by Congress and construction began on a number of large reservoirs across the southwest, such as the Navajo, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa reservoirs. Alongside the big reservoirs, the government agreed to provide financing for “participating” water storage projects, Bratton says. The state water court formed the UGRWCD in 1959 to act as a liaison between the local participating project and the federal government. “Gunnison had a project called the Upper Gunnison Project. They had reservoirs and ditches all across the basin,” Bratton says. But in order to get the funding, there had to be an equal cost benefit ratio on each project—the cost of constructing the water storage project had to be equal to the benefits water users would receive. “We searched for years to find a project that met that demand. We did engineering and feasibility studies. We scaled it way down. To make a long story short, we never could find a project,” Bratton says.