Hope seen for Western water storage in infrastructure bill

The Gunnison River channel is exposed as it flows into Blue Mesa Reservoir in September. Drought, coupled with releases to bring up water levels in Lake Powell, has brought the reservoir low. (Katharhynn Heidelberg/Montrose Daily Press)

No amount of planning or legislation can make more water — but it can help the parched Western Slope make more use of the water it has.

The trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorizes, as part of an overall $55 billion for water infrastructure, $8.3 billion under its Western Water Infrastructure title for the Bureau of Reclamation between Fiscal Years 2020 — 2026.

On the laundry list of designated funds for Western Water Infrastructure are $3.2 billion for aging infrastructure, $1.5 billion for storage, $1 billion for the Drought Contingency Plan on the Colorado River and $400 million for WaterSMART and energy efficiency grants.

“All in all, it’s certainly the most meaningful investment in Western water resources that we’ve seen in my generation,” said Zane Kessler, director of Government Relations for the Colorado River District. The district sees an opportunity to fight for some of those dollars to flow into western Colorado, he said — and there are several meaningful investments that Colorado and the Western Slope are well-equipped to pursue.

“I think between the projects identified in the Colorado River water plan and the district’s understanding of needs in the Gunnison Basin, it’s our hope we will be able to bring some of those dollars to the Gunnison River Basin to help modernize the conveyance system,” Kessler said.

The act provides additional funding to the Aging Infrastructure Account created in 2020’s Consolidated Appropriations bill. This funding helps the Bureau of Reclamation provide direct loans to finance the non-federal share of major, nonrecurring maintenance of water infrastructure owned by the bureau, in water projects across the West that require major upgrades or replacement.

“As those facilities, most of which are more than 50 years old, continue to age, the issue of storing and delivering water effectively, efficiently and in a timely matter only increases,” a summary from The Ferguson Group states. The Ferguson Group represents the Family Farm Alliance, of which the Colorado River District is a member.

Of the $3.2 billion, $100 million is to be available for dam rehabilitation, reconstruction or replacement. Another $100 million is to be available for reserved or transferred works that have suffered a critical failure, per the summary.

Water storage, groundwater storage and conveyance projects receive a $1.05 billion boost and of that, $100 million is to fund grants to plan and build small-surface water and groundwater storage projects.

There is $1 billion available for water projects authorized by Congress before July 1 of this year in accordance with the Reclamation Rural Water Supply Act of 2006.

The river district is pleased overall with the package of options the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act opens up, Kessler said, and it will be working to bring some of those dollars here.

The infrastructure act’s passage comes at a time of dire drought in the Gunnison Basin and Colorado.

Earlier this year, Blue Mesa Reservoir was drawn down a total of 36,000 acre-feet between August and October and Flaming Gorge in Utah released 125,000 acre-feet. Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico is set to have released 20,000 by December — a trio of infusions mandated by the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement to keep hydropower operational at Lake Powell.

Powell stores Colorado River water for the Upper Basin States of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. These states split Colorado River water with California, Nevada and Arizona (Lower Basin) under the century-old Colorado River Compact. Lower Basin water is stored in Lake Mead.

The drought operations agreement called for releases from the Upper Basin reservoirs should Powell drop too far.

There has been no meaningful snow yet in the Gunnison Basin and reservoirs are low.

“It doesn’t look good for the home team,” said Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, who also sits on the Colorado River District board, reiterating his assessment when Blue Mesa began being drawn down late this summer.

Stakeholders are considering several strategies to avoid possible curtailments.

“Everything is up in the air. The drought is getting serious. Lake Mead suffered their first-year reduction of what they can divert. Powell is running about 30% full,” Catlin said.

“Lake Powell is our insurance policy. We can always let water out of it to meet our compact requirements. That’s getting to the point people are concerned.”

The earlier drawdown at Blue Mesa took 17,000 acre feet from the reservoir in August; 16,000 acre feet in September and 3,000 acre feet in October, according to BuRec numbers.

That provided the requisite 36,000 acre feet to Powell from Blue Mesa, but at the end of October, Powell was 156 feet from full pool, with an elevation of 3,544.25 acre feet. It had 7.18 million acre feet in storage — 30% of live capacity, as Catlin noted.

He and others eye the weather and potential snowpack. They wait. They hope.

Catlin said that as it is, the entire Gunnison Basin is drying so much, it’s hard to say what the overall impact might be — but more than agriculture would suffer.

“It’s going to impact everybody before it’s over,” he said.

Blue Mesa is coming up just a little now as it starts to recover some storage.

“It’s obviously still really low, but the reservoir is on a slow rise since releases are down,” BuRec hydrologist Erik Knight said. “We’re at minimum releases coming out of Crystal (Dam) and going down to Gunnison, and the Gunnison Tunnel diversions are off.”

Blue Mesa has about 218,000 acre feet in storage, he said. Taylor Park, another pot of water in the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit, sits “OK” at 59,000 acre feet in storage, Knight said. Ridgway Reservoir has 63,000 acre feet in storage, a bit low, but in light of how dry the year was, not as bad it could be, he also said.

Blue Mesa’s elevation sat at 7,431 this week — ideally, it would reach 7,490 by the end of December.

“We’ll be nowhere close to that,” Knight said.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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