Late summer rains do little to fill reservoirs depleted by drought
Written by Seth Mensing   
Wednesday, 02 October 2013

Water managers prepare basin-wide water plan for future

After 100-year floods swept across the Front Range and unseasonably late rains pounded the Western Slope last month, you might not guess Colorado still has a water problem. But the state’s water problems lay on both ends of the spectrum.


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Even during rainfall events over the summer that would double the amount of water in the valley’s rivers and streams overnight, often the amount of water in the reservoirs remained largely unchanged.
According to Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District general manager Frank Kugel, that’s what happens after two years of below-average precipitation.
Kugel told the Gunnison County Planning Commission at a meeting on Friday, September 6 that there were several peaks in the amount of water in Blue Mesa Reservoir over the summer, with some dramatic drops in between. He also said the localized rainfall is less important to the overall water equation than a good winter snowpack.
“The entire Gunnison River basin got less than a quarter of its normal inflow but the good news is that much of that inflow, percentage-wise, came from the East River and Taylor. Those are the two biggest contributors as far as basin inflows, percentage-wise,” Kugel said. “As grim as it looked we were actually doing better than some of our other neighbors in other basins. In the end there was a significant volume above what we had last year. That’s the good news.”
The bad news is that after two consecutive years of below-average precipitation in the winter months, Blue Mesa isn’t going to recover anytime soon and, Kugel said, will probably drop lower than it was at the end of last year.
“We’re anticipating by late October it will hit a low point. Likely not as low as 2002, but close,” Kugel told the Planning Commissioners. “So it’s going to be a long look out from the Lake City Bridge to where the lake actually starts.”
Even the heavy rains and snow that have swept across the Western Slope throughout September have yielded only modest gains in stored water, with Blue Mesa holding steady at 350,000 acre-feet.
And while the Gunnison River, the East River and Ohio Creek have all shown tremendous, temporary spikes in streamflow this summer, even doubling in size over night, Kugel said the years of drought have drawn down aquifers to a point where they can easily absorb any amount of water dropped during a rainstorm.
“When you flush that down it starts filling an aquifer that’s already depleted, it pretty well attenuates by the time you get downstream to the reservoir,” he said.
Kugel attended the Planning Commission meeting to talk with the commissioners about the current state of water in the Gunnison basin as well as the history of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, which got its start in the 1950s with the earliest conceptions of Blue Mesa Reservoir and in recent decades has achieved major victories to secure water for the Gunnison Valley.
Perhaps more important, Kugel also talked about the organization’s place in the future, when more people will be vying for less available water.
That future seems to be close, with persistent drought punctuated by an occasional flood. Blue Mesa, which sits at the top of the Colorado River Complex of water storage, is sitting at 41 percent of capacity and as the system works its way toward the population centers of the west, in Nevada and California, major reservoirs like lakes Mead and Powell are in equally dire straights.
But through some litigation and inter-basin agreement, the UGRWCD has made great strides in securing the water already in use in the Gunnison Basin. Now it’s focused on providing the state with a clear plan for the basin’s water as part of the governor-initiated State Water Plan.
“Our number-one priority at this point is to protect existing uses within the basin, be it by overdevelopment from here or particularly to any export to other basin,” UGRWCD board member George Sibley told the commissioners. “We want to make sure we’re operating and managing our existing resources as effectively as we can and are prepared for other circumstances that may have dramatic impact on how much water is available.”
To accomplish that, the UGRWCD hired Lakewood-based Wilson Water Group—with a $200,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board—as a contractor to help develop a water-use plan for the entire Gunnison Basin that will be submitted to the state for consideration as part of a statewide water plan to be drafted over the course of 2014.
At the same time, the UGRWCD is trying to keep information about the valley’s water supply flowing, through manual snowpack observations that are under threat of being defunded by the National Resources Conservation Service.
“It’s been funded for many years and has a great long-term period of record and we’re in danger of losing that continuity of data,” Kugel said. “They’re planning to do away with that program and we’re quite concerned about it.”
Kugel was planning to appeal to the NRCS at a meeting on Thursday, October 3 in Durango, prior to the government shutdown, to keep the program’s funding in place. “As water managers dealing with the predicted impacts of climate change and moving forward with the statewide water plan, we need that continuous long-term data to make decisions,” he said. With the Federal government closed for an undetermined amount of time, the future of the program is now less certain than ever.