The day water managers never hoped to see has arrived: Blue Mesa Reservoir will contribute water to keep the hydropower turbines at Lake Powell operational, as called for under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement.
“This is a drastic time. We’ve never seen this before,” State Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, said.
“This is one of the things we had agreed upon, that this would be the first action the Bureau (of Reclamation) took.”
Catlin, a lifelong water expert, also sits on the Colorado River District Board of Directors, representing Montrose County. The district was formed in the 1930s to protect the Colorado River and its main tributaries within Colorado.
Lake Powell is the main storage bucket of Colorado River water for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, which, with the Lower Basin States of California, Nevada and Arizona, are party to the 99-year-old Colorado River Compact. The Lower Basin states store their Colorado River water in Lake Mead, which is also achingly low as extreme drought continues across the West.
Under the Upper Basin’s drought agreement, water from Blue Mesa Reservoir, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico and Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah are to be sent to Lake Powell as drought conditions demand.
They are now demanding: The water surface level at Lake Powell will over the next few days take a record plunge to below 3,555 feet, per Bureau of Reclamation information. The BuRec’s provided material says the elevation is expected to continue dropping until spring runoff into the Colorado River hits.
The massive reservoir has lost 16 million acre feet of water since 1999, enough to service 64 million households a year, and sits at 33% capacity, per BuRec figures. (An acre foot is enough water to cover one football field in 1 foot of water.)
“That would mark a new low point for Lake Powell elevation,” BuRec hydrologist Erik Knight said Thursday.
The bureau will begin drawing down Blue Mesa in August and continue through the end of October, pulling the water levels to a projected 7,423-feet elevation — a 96-foot drop from full pool, which the reservoir did not reach this year.
“That is the water that’s been determined to be available from Blue Mesa,” Knight said. The drawdown and regular operations will take the reservoir to the projected elevation of 7,423 feet, then an upward bump of a few acre feet by the end of the calendar year is predicted.
As of Thursday, July 22, Blue Mesa stood at 44% full (357,000 acre feet) and an elevation of 7,458 feet, with an inflow of 700 cubic feet per second.
Releases from Crystal Dam were 1,675 cfs and diversions through the Gunnison Tunnel were 1,040 cfs, while Gunnison River flows measured at 660 cfs, and was expected to remain so through the end of the month.
The releases will be maintained at the current levels from August through October because of the Drought Response Operations Agreement provisions to send the water to Powell. Releases had otherwise been expected to decrease, which would have kept more water in the reservoir.
Blue Mesa, Navajo and Flaming Gorge are all Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs (CRSP).
“They were meant to operate somewhat in conjunction with each other. Obviously, what we are experiencing now was not anticipated even a few years ago,” Knight said.
The National Park Service, which manages Blue Mesa as part of Curecanti National Recreation Area, said the reservoir will remain open to shore-based recreation and hand-launched watercraft once boat ramps have to be closed.
The NPS’ advisory says to expect muddy and unstable shorelines and that driving near the mud-line is prohibited. “Extreme caution” is warranted when approaching the reservoir to hand launch watercraft or to fish from the shore.
The NPS will be providing updates at nps.gov/cure as more plans develop.
BuRec and the river district are cognizant that recreational uses will be affected, but reiterated the drawdown is called for under the agreement.
“It’s also one of the reasons that the CRSP systems exists, so we can send water from the upper units to the principal units (Powell) if and when needed,” Zane Kessler, Colorado River District director of Government Relations, said. “We do recognize we’re hearing more and more concerns about this issue.”
River district representatives met Wednesday with the Department of the Interior to discuss how drought response operations will proceed, Kessler said. “We will be doing everything we can do to ensure that the needs of Western Slope water users are protected.”
The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association could not be reached for comment about what effect the drawdown will have on its storage accounts, but said previously these were OK for the current season.
Catlin reiterated the drawdown is necessary under the agreement.
“What they’re trying to do is make enough water available above those power plants to make sure they keep making electricity,” he said. “I am concerned about how deep they are going to draw it down, because it did not have that much water to start with.”
Other reservoirs in CRSP are feeling the pinch, too, as they also enter drawdown, Catlin said, noting Flaming Gorge is set to shed 125,000 acre feet.
“It does worry me. Drawing (Blue Mesa) down that deep makes it really hard to fill up next year. Blue Mesa is the shock absorber for drought in the Gunnison Basin. We do a lot with that water,” he said.
Blue Mesa bailed out the Gunnison Basin in parched years like 2002, Catlin noted, but this is different: “We’ve never seen this kind of situation before.”
Catlin isn’t confident whether climate change is the issue, but said the soil moisture content of Upper Basin states is critically dry. When it rains, the ground soaks up the moisture immediately and little to none carries into the Colorado River.
“We’re not the only ones that are suffering this. It’s West-wide. It’s a big deal. I would expect, unless something happens that is great big this fall and winter, we’ll still be in some sort of drought next year,” Catlin said.
“Once it seems to get this in its system, it seems to be hard to get out of it.”
Add to the mix a predicted La Niña pattern for winter, and the southwestern part of the state will miss out on the bulk of whatever snow does come to call.
“It doesn’t look good for the home team,” Catlin said.
But Blue Mesa is serving its intended purposes, he added. “That reservoir functions exactly as it’s supposed to. It fills up; we let water out. It’s kind of the shock absorber for the Western Slope,” Catlin said, also acknowledging the worry over recreational values — and the economies those feed.
“But that’s what stored water is for, is to use it in time of need. I wish we had more water in the reservoir to start with, but it was only projected to fill half this year. We didn’t have much to begin with,” Catlin said.
The river district is working with the Department of the Interior and BuRec closely to make sure Western Slope needs and interests are represented, Kessler said.
“This is a one-time shot in the arm to try and protect the elevation at Powell so it can continue to produce hydropower and make sure we can meet our obligations under the (river) compact,” he said.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.