WATER OUTLOOK STRONG FOR 2014, BLUE MESA EXPECTED TO FILL

Water spills from Crystal Dam in this Bureau of Reclamation photo.

Water spills from Crystal Dam in this Bureau of Reclamation photo.

REGIONAL—(April 1, 2014)  It’s the most controversial topic in Colorado, and perhaps the world. But this spring, for a rare, quiet moment, officials do NOT expect major fights to erupt over water in the Gunnison River Basin.

Jason Ullman, Assistant Division Engineer for Colorado Division of Water Resources Division Four, noted the rare lack of drought conditions this spring. The Colorado Division of Water Resources is among Colorado’s oldest state agencies, charged with administering the priority appropriations doctrine that was created at the time of the State’s constitution.

“We had so much rainfall last fall,” Ullman said. “We had a strong early-season snowpack, and we have not really had any big dust storms, so the snow is very clean. When the soil froze for the winter it was already fairly saturated, which makes a huge difference in the amount of runoff.”

Conditions have been so favorable that the Bureau of Reclamation expects Blue Mesa to fill completely in 2014, he said.

“They are predicting runoff that will pretty much fill Blue Mesa this year,” he said. “The (senior water right) Uncompahgre Valley Water Users (UVWUA ) started their water year (Nov. 1) with a full first-fill at Taylor Park Reservoir and they have 22,000 acre-feet of second fill, so there’s almost no chance they will need to make a (Gunnison) tunnel call this year,” he said, “and Ridgway Reservoir is much higher than usual, so there may not be any calls on the Uncompahgre.

“We could actually have a less contentious year.”

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Snotel data indicates that snowpack in the Upper Gunnison River Basin is presently at 167 percent of last year’s total.

Consumers should still treat water as the precious commodity it is, however, notes Adam Turner, Manager of the Project 7 Water Authority.

Project 7 is a cooperative effort between seven local entities (The City of Montrose, City of Delta, Town of Olathe, Tri-County Water Conservancy District, Menoken Water District, Chipeta Water District and Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association), created to bring potable highly drinking water to the people, plants and animals of the Uncompahgre River Valley.

“Our message is that we always need to conserve,” Turner said. “Our whole region could look like the area near Whitewater without the systems we have in place.”

And while Western Colorado is not suffering this spring, many other regions are parched, and eyeing the resources here.

“There are downstream users in California who want more,” he said. “And while we would love to help the Front Range, we just don’t have that luxury—we can’t drill another Tunnel.”

Pressure from other, thirsty communities will only increase in future, however, Turner said.

“Court findings are on our side here,” he said. “But the reality is if something does not change, there won’t be enough water to make hypro-power at Glen Canyon Dam in 2015.

“I am not as optimistic as some; we are blessed to have storage here, but if you don’t fill, you don’t have the water. And yes, the snowpack looks good, but dust is an issue, and until it is actually captured…we don’t really know. In 2011, they filled Blue Mesa to the brim, within 100ths of an inch,” he said. “But in the last few years we have all seen parts of that reservoir that haven’t been seen since it was built.

“Like the national debt, you can move things around, but someday somebody is going to have to pay those bills,” Turner said.

“It’s the same with water.”