With drought looming, local rivers drop, but call unlikely
Written by Seth Mensing   
Wednesday, 03 July 2013
“We’re cautiously optimistic”

Locally, river flows hung on in the early summer, thanks to some late-winter storms and chilly temperatures. But the last two weeks have seen the water levels dropping like a stone, from the shallow Slate River to the Gunnison.


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This year, water managers entered the spring season on edge, after one of the lowest snow years in recent memory, rivaling drought years of 1972 and 2002. Since then, warm, sunny days and a few spring showers have done little to improve the situation.
The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA) made it known this spring that they could make a call on water from the Gunnison Tunnel and curtail water use by those holding junior water rights, including many for irrigation. To avoid that possibility, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) bought 4,500 acre-feet of water to supplement the water already headed to the Uncompahgre Valley, and that water is already on its way.
“The flows really dropped off in the last week and the week before last,” UGRWCD general manager Frank Kugel says. “We expected it to drop off, but the combination of a dust on snow event earlier this year, warm weather and strong winds and low snow has really shut down runoff.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that we can get into August before the storage accounts have been depleted,” he added. “Hopefully there won’t be a call.”
Taylor Park and Blue Mesa Reservoirs never had a chance this year, especially after low levels of precipitation have persisted through the last two years.
At peak flow, Blue Mesa Reservoir, flagship of the Aspinall Unit, struggled to surpass 50 percent of capacity, while Taylor Park Reservoir fared better, topping out at 83 percent of full.
In just the last week, the East River below Cement Creek has dropped nearly 200 cubic feet per second (CFS) and the Taylor River, home to a majority of the valley’s whitewater rafting tours, is hovering around 350 CFS, which is less than half of average, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
At the same time, the trees and other vegetation are starting to suffer (see story on pg. 12). According to National Drought Mitigation Center data compiled for southwest Colorado, Gunnison County is mostly within the precipitation range considered to be pre-drought, with patches of moderate to severe drought.
Just south of Gunnison County, however, in Hinsdale and Mineral counties the moisture conditions are at their most severe and, according to the Vegetation Drought Response Index, the vegetation is considered to be in moderate to extreme drought condition.
That area has already spawned the West Fork fire complex, which has caused evacuations from the affected areas around Creede and South Fork to Gunnison. As of Monday, that fire was only 4 percent contained.
According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, “Areas of moderate drought are expanding in central and southeastern Wyoming, and the Colorado Rockies are moving from pre-drought to moderate drought conditions.”