Last year, a raging Gunnison River played host to the Gunnison River Festival—3,910 cubic feet per second of water rushed between its banks, threatening to overwhelm the event. This summer, the river provided a very different stage, running at only 354 cfs.
“Last year, we were canceling events due to safety concerns,” remembers Frank Kugel, who helps with the event and is also the general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. This summer, the county funneled water to the lowest feature in the Whitewater Park and members of the Western State wrestling team hauled rocks into the river to narrow the channel. The event was still a success, but it illustrated how water levels are extremely low throughout Gunnison County. Inflows into Taylor Park Reservoir were 55 percent of normal in May, and down at Blue Mesa things were even drier. Inflows there were 33 percent of normal, and the reservoir is currently at 60 percent of capacity. With more dry weather in the forecast, the lack of water is posing some real challenges across the valley, including ranching, fire fighting and even road maintenance. As Kugel says, “Everyone is feeling the pinch.’ Water calls at play As of Monday, June 25, Water Commissioner Richard Rozman said there were three water calls in effect: private interests are claiming their senior, and therefore priority, water rights on the East River, all of Ohio Creek and Carbon Creek. In addition, the Slate River is also flowing at 30 cfs—just seven feet higher than the benchmark at which the Colorado Water Conservation Board can place a call on it. That, he said, is surprising. “To be within seven feet, normally it is way late in the season before that happens,” Rozman said. According to Kugel, the water call on Ohio Creek was the first one administered there in recent decades. He also noted that an earlier mid-June call on Quartz Creek near Pitkin and Ohio City curtailed some of the Pitkin Fish Hatchery’s water rights and shut down irrigation ditches in the town of Pitkin. While the hatchery can compensate with some additional water sources, shutting down ditches presents a definite risk when it comes to fighting potential fires. The valley is also being affected by demands from the Uncompahgre Valley, which relies on the Gunnison Tunnel for irrigation needs. The Upper Gunnison District is releasing what is known as the second fill, its storage right from the Taylor Reservoir, in anticipation of a call on the Gunnison Tunnel. “The natural flow in the Gunnison Tunnel is not sufficient to meet its demands and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association has the right to call out any junior users,” Kugel explained. Instead, the Upper Gunnison District hopes to boost flows and postpone or prevent that call. Down at Blue Mesa Reservoir, irrigation demands from the Uncompahgre have already taken their toll. Without a good spring runoff to boost storage, inflows into the reservoir haven’t kept up with releases. “Blue Mesa tanked, and it’s going to continue to tank as we respond to increased needs,” said Paul Davidson, hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation. The reservoir is at roughly 7,478 feet—that’s 41 feet below the spillway and a marked contrast to last year, when Blue Mesa was nearly brimming. Davidson said that current projections show the reservoir sinking to an elevation of 7,460 feet by the end of August and 7,448 feet by September. Releases will slow as the irrigation season ends, and the reservoir is likely to stay at that level through December, placing it about 40 feet below the target for that time of year. “It’s not very pretty,” Davidson said. Likewise, there’s not a lot of hope for turning the situation around in the short term. He explained, “Rain has such a small influence on the reservoir. It does have an inflow, so if it stays dry that will make a difference. [But rain] is not like a spring runoff.” Hay meadows drying out Once water calls go into effect, there’s little doubt that some of the first to feel the impacts are ranchers. Greg Peterson manages his ranch near Doyleville, and he was frank: with water conditions like these, hay meadows don’t get irrigated as well or at all. He’s looking at producing only 30 to 40 percent of his typical hay crop, and that means he can support fewer cattle. “Most people out that way have had to sell replacement heifers and there have been some pairs sold. That’s a cut into your herd and your genetics, and your ability to be profitable,” Peterson said. When a rancher sells a pair—a cow and its calf—the resulting reduction in the size of the heard compromises the economic stability of the entire operation. Peterson likened it to building a car factory that makes 1,000 cars a day and then being forced to produce only 500 per day. “You still have the same fixed costs,” Peterson explained. Ranchers are spending the same amount of money on operations, bringing in less revenue and face the slow and costly process of rebuilding the herd. And that’s not easy at high altitudes, where cattle have to be bred to survive the cold mountain climate. “Last time this happened was 2002 and it varied, but it took most people two to four years to rebuild. If stays like this, it could be worse than 2002,” Peterson said. He added that another summer like this one could put some ranchers out of business for good. “Hopefully, that won’t happen. There are always ups and downs in the valley, you can’t really complain about it. You just have to deal with it the best you can,” Peterson said.
A rough road ahead The truth is, however, that you don’t have to be a rancher to see the effects of low water. Even basic county functions like road maintenance have been affected by the lack of water. Public Works Director Marlene Crosby says work crews managed to get mag chloride down on the west side of Kebler Pass just before a water call was placed. But if they had to do touch-ups now, they would have to carry water with them. “We just can’t compete with agriculture for the little water that’s in the streams, and many of the ponds we’ve used historically did not activate this spring,” Crosby said. “We either don’t have water, or we’re hauling water a long ways and you don’t make much progress.” That slows projects down, and in some cases prevents them altogether. County blade operators typically get out on county roads this time of year to smooth them out, but Crosby has counseled staff to use caution. “I told the blade operators if the road is pretty solid and they can’t do a major amount of good, don’t blade it. Don’t create a dust bowl, because it’s dusty enough,” Crosby said. In the meantime, county staff are focusing on the jobs they can do, like replacing culverts. But the reality is that until the valley sees significant precipitation, many projects will be slowed. “Until we get some consecutive days of rain it’s not going to help,” Crosby said. “Of course if we get a heavy downpour it’s going to run off, but I have put my operators on notice that if we get enough consecutive days of rain that it saturates the beds we’ll spend whatever overtime dollars we have and work longs hours to get projects done.” That seems to be the message across the valley and the region—even though a little bit of water won’t be enough, hope the weather turns. As Davidson said, “Just pray for rain. It’d be nice to have it reset whatever pattern we got locked into this last winter. It would be nice to reset somewhere in the summertime.”