A wet winter in 2018 and at the start of this year put Gunnison River Basin-area reservoirs in good shape, but water managers remain cautious in the face of drier conditions that have again returned the area to drought status.
“Blue Mesa (Reservoir) still has a lot of water in it. Everybody is doing pretty well for carryover storage,” Erik Knight, a hydrologist for the Bureau of Reclamation, said.
Taylor Park Reservoir and Ridgway Reservoir — both of which are storage pots for Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association members’ river water rights — are bearing up fairly well too, he said, and although Ridgway is a little lower, it is in “much better shape” than it was this time last year.
“Our accounts are full at both Ridgway and Taylor and we filled our first and second fill both at Taylor,” UVWUA manager Steve Anderson said. “This is only the second time ever that we’ve had a full second-fill account. So that’s all good news.”
This past summer, however, did not bring the type of monsoonal moisture that is usually anticipated.
Apart from one storm in October, the month was quite dry and November has so far been even drier, Knight said, although current storms were expected to help.
On Thursday, the Gunnison River Basin’s snow water equivalent was 1.5 inches; normally, it would be 3 inches for this time of year, Knight said. However, at this time of year, BuRec only would expect 15 percent of total snowpack to be present.
“At one point in time this year, Colorado was out of drought. That’s very unusual,” Anderson said.
“But since August and no monsoon, we climbed right back into the drought category. Most of the Western Slope and all of southern Colorado is in a drought now. the timing is not good, because we’ll use part of our snowpack to soak right in the ground where it’s going to land. That’s just the way it is.”
Colorado River Basin conditions
The Colorado River Water Conservation District guides the state’s adherence to the 1922 Colorado River Compact between six states and Mexico for use of that river’s water. Colorado, with New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, is part of the compact’s Upper Basin states, whose “storage account” is Lake Powell.
The Lower Basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona’s account is in Lake Mead. Both lower and upper basin states are both required to maintain certain levels in their respective storage reservoirs.
“Last year gave us a little bit of breathing room. the good water year we experienced last year gave us a small amount of temporary relief, but we know the next dry year is right around the corner,” said Zane Kessler, the river district’s director of government relations.
Lake Powell needs to have about 75 million acre-feet; it presently has about 92 million, Anderson said.
Powell, at about 53 percent, is faring better than Mead, at 39 percent, but hasn’t recovered above its 50-year average, according to information from Western Resource Advocates. For the first time, levels at Mead prompted mandatory cuts next year for the Lower Basin States, in accordance with the provisions of the recently approved Drought Contingency Plan.
Kessler said although things are better in the Upper Basin, the district still must plan and be prepared for drought.
“A call on the Colorado River is not imminent, but we know we are dealing with hotter, longer droughts more often and we have to ensure that as we plan for a hotter, drier future, we are keeping Western Slope water user interests in mind and fighting legally to protect those interests,” he said.
With respect to the Gunnison River Basin, it is not clear what the winter might bring, Anderson and Knight said.
“It’s pretty much a wide-open book at this point. We can only guess what will happen,” Knight said.
River district nabs $300K to protect Western Slope Water
The Colorado River Water Conservation District received more than $300,000 in federal funds for three key water-supply projects in Western Colorado.
The $315,721 WaterSMART grant will help the river district with its ongoing Colorado River Risk Study; an analysis of the economic impacts of a potential demand management program in the state, and a stakeholder process guiding conversation on such a potential.
“There’s a very Western Slope aim for these dollars, whether it be a risk study, demand management, or boots on the ground solicitation of input from the water users that we represent that would be impacted by a demand management program,” Colorado River Water Conservation District Director of Government Relations Zane Kessler said.
The risk study is a multi-year process, now in its third phase, which informs inter- and intra-state discussions on water development possibilities. It also helps quantify the risk of a call on Colorado River water under the Colorado River Compact.
The first phase of the study has helped amplify the Western Slope’s voice and how its needs compare to the Front Range’s need for transmountain diversions, Kessler said. These diversions are usually junior to the historic water rights on the Western Slope.
The district believes that, in order to protect Western Slope water users, it must have available the technical resources to analyze and question the need for a demand management program and explore alternatives fully, Kessler also said.
“Ultimately, that’s the core of our job, to protect Western Slope Water users and to keep Western Slope water on the Western Slope,” he said.
The river district, Southwestern Water Conservation District and four Western Slope basin roundtables view the risk study as a priority.
The river district and Colorado River Water Bank Work Group spearhead the secondary economic impacts study. The latter group was formed more than a decade ago to look at potential sources of saved, consumptive use to help support reservoir levels at Lake Powell, with the goal of avoiding a curtailment under the compact.
“If we are going to protect Western Slope water users, we have to understand what are some of the unforeseen impacts of ideas being circulated around demand management,” Kessler said.
“What does it mean for Main Street Montrose if we have agricultural producers that aren’t producing? We’ve seen in other areas of the state the ripple effects that can occur.”
These effects must be analyzed before Colorado can determine whether demand management would work, he added.
Demand management refers to use-reduction in order to ensure the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) maintain sufficient levels in Lake Powell to meet the requirements of the compact.
“We see that as potentially problematic. It is our job to question the need for such a program and to fully analyze all alternatives to such a program,” Kessler said.
“At the core of this is protecting Western Slope water users and ensuring they have a voice in the intra-state conversation on water and also have a voice in the inter-state conversation about the compact and drought contingency.”