UGRWCD Programs and Partnerships

In the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District’s (UGRWCD) sixty-year history, we have been involved in many programs aimed at benefitting water users in the Upper Gunnison Basin.  In more recent years we have expanded our focus into several different areas.  We currently have representation on the Taylor Local User Group, Water Quality Monitoring Program, Upper Gunnison Basin Cloudseeding Program, Upper Gunnison Annual Grant Program, and the Upper Gunnison Water Augmentation Programs.  We also participate in discussions with the several different entities to address issues facing all water users in the basin in the face of increasing drought conditions and decreasing water availability. Below are descriptions of just some of the programs we work on to benefit water users in the Upper Gunnison River Basin.

Taylor Local Users Group

            The UGRWCD is one of four signatories to the Taylor Park Reservoir Operation and Storage Exchange Agreement that was executed in August 1975. The “75 Agreement” forms the basis under which the release patterns from Taylor Park Reservoir are determined each year. The other three parties to the agreement are the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. This group is referred to as the Four Parties. 

            Each spring, and as necessary throughout the summer, the UGRWCD seeks input and direction from local users of the Taylor River, Taylor Park Reservoir, and the main stem of the Gunnison River above Blue Mesa as to how the reservoir operations can best be optimized for stream fishery, reservoir fishery, irrigation, and rafting and boating purposes in the upper Gunnison basin.  This group is referred to as the Taylor Local Users Group (TLUG).

Each year, the Four Parties review and adopt recommendation from the TLUG at an annual meeting and jointly adopt a plan for reservoir releases for the upcoming year.

Upper Gunnison Basin Water Monitoring Program

            The UGRWCD has led the Upper Gunnison Basin Monitoring Program for over twenty years.  This program provides an understanding of water quantity and quality conditions, and how natural features and human activities affect these conditions.  This program is a cooperative agreement between the District and several other local entities including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Gunnison County, City of Gunnison, Town of Crested Butte, Hinsdale County, Mt. Crested Butte Water and Sanitation District, Skyland Metro District, Crested Butte South Metro District, Colorado River District, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. 

            This cooperative group meets annually to discuss monitoring needs which currently includes real-time streamflow at 11 sites throughout the basin, discrete water quality sampling at those 11 sites, and real-time water quality monitoring at 5 additional sites.  Recently, two historic streamflow gages have been reactivated at Texas and Willow Creeks above Taylor Reservoir to aid in annual inflow forecasting.

            Finally, UGRWCD is cooperating with the USGS Next Generation Water Observing System (NGWOS).  NGWOS is a national program focused on intensive 10 year surface-water and water quality monitoring that is beneficial to improving regional water prediction in snowmelt dominated systems.  The 2020 basins of choice are the Upper Colorado River Basin in Colorado and specifically the Upper Gunnison River watershed sub-basin.  UGRWCD anticipates that this program will begin in earnest fall of 2021.

Upper Gunnison Basin Cloudseeding Program

            The UGRWCD has been part of this cooperative program since the 2004-2005 snow season and took over fiscal responsibility from Gunnison County in 2015.  The Cloudseeding Program is carried out through an annual agreement with North American Weather Consultants.  Partners in the program include the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Gunnison County, City of Gunnison, Town of Mt. Crested Butte, Vail Resorts, East River Sanitation District, Mt. Crested Butte Water and Sanitation District, Antelope Hills Water, and Dos Rios Water System. 

            The Cloudseeding Program consists of 14-17 silver iodide generators throughout the basin and one remote generator located at Lake Irwin.  The target areas within the basin are those drainages above 9,000 feet that are tributary to the Upper Gunnison River.  The average annual generator hours budgeted for this program are 2,500 hours.  Actual seeding hours depends upon storm systems moving through the area.  In some cases, generation has had to be curtailed due to avalanche danger.

UGRWCD Grant Program

            Established by the UGRWCD to protect and conserve the waters within the District in order to accomplish the greatest possible use for irrigation, domestic, municipal, industrial, mining, and all other beneficial purposes. The

mission of the District is to encourage the in-basin beneficial use and maintenance of high quality standards for the water resources of the basin. The District has determined that an appropriate means to effect its purposes and accomplish its mission is to provide financial assistance to persons or entities advancing projects that enhance water supply and stream conditions within the District through a Grant Program.

           The first grant awards were made in 2009 when the funding budgeted was $100,000.  Since 2009 we have awarded funding to 118 projects for at total of $1.642 million.  These projects have ranged in funding amounts from $1,000 to $50,000 and have included projects associated with agricultural, municipal, environmental, and recreational water uses.

Upper Gunnison Augmentation Water Programs

            As a result of the over appropriation of water within our basin, the UGRWCD developed plans for water augmentation.  The District is currently involved with three separate water augmentation programs. These include the Aspinall Augmentation Plan, the Meridian Lake Reservoir (also known as Long Lake) Augmentation Plan, and the Lake San Cristobal Augmentation Plan.  The augmentation plans all provide protection to junior water users from senior water right holders within the boundaries of the individual augmentation plans.  These augmentation plans involve individuals purchasing augmentation water which is leasing or buying the right to have water released to protect their uses. 

            Aspinall augmentation water is water stored and released from Blue Mesa Reservoir.  Blue Mesa Reservoir and the water stored there are owned by the US Bureau of Reclamation.  Water purchased under this plan protects junior water users from senior water rights holders below Blue Mesa Reservoir.  Meridian Lake Reservoir protects against senior water rights holders below that reservoir, and Lake San Cristobal protects against senior water rights holders below Lake San Cristobal to Blue Mesa Reservoir.

Bill Nesbitt UGRWCD Board Member Profile


Bill Nesbitt was appointed to the UGRWCD Board of Directors in June 2008 representing Division 8, the City of Gunnison. Bill currently serves as the Treasurer of the Board, a position he has held since 2014. His current term expires in 2024.

“Serving on the UGRWCD board for the past 13 years has been a challenging and rewarding effort.  The board meetings have never been boring because of the myriad of interests dealing with water quality/quantity issues and the diverse make-up of the board members” said Director Bill Nesbitt.   

During his tenure, he has seen the board change from managing irrigation water needs to leadership in the development of programs which benefit the community and the basin as a whole and becoming a multi-jurisdictional force on state-wide water issues.  Through board members’ and staff’ involvement in Colorado Water Congress, Gunnison Basin Roundtable, and the Colorado River District, the words “transmountain diversion”, although still talked about, do not create heated discussions as once was the case. “It has been fulfilling to see the Board’s continued interest in community education and outreach.  One of the great programs is the annual Grant Program.  In 2009, we funded two projects in the District totaling $45,000.  At the conclusion of the 2021 grant cycle, the board has now funded 118 projects in the basin to the tune of just over $1.64 million.  That is taxpayer money being returned to the taxpayers.”               

“I am really gratified to have been active in the growth of our financial position at the District,” said Nesbitt.  “I take the Board’s fiscal responsibility very seriously and am proud to note that while we have been able to successfully grow our reserves, the District has also increased its support of programming that has enhanced our water supply, improved our water quality or protected our water resources.”

 “In addition to the Grant Program, the District is also providing matching funds and other resources for other private and public entities in our District who are collaborating with us on assessments, engineering and water projects that will help us meet our mission,” said Bill. 

“The District Board deals with such a wide variety of subject matter that affects our leadership and decisions,” said Bill, “including everything from water rights to scientific research and data about our watershed, to climate change, to agricultural needs, to land development, to legislation, to mill levies, all of which we must do our best to understand in order to make the best decisions for the District.”

As Chair of the Outreach/Education and Finance Committees, Bill has been active in promoting the District’s mission in the community through the many other civic and governmental organizations he is involved in, as well as to school children in the valley.

“For many years now, I have enjoyed delivering copies of the book called Water, by Frank Asch to help educate the first graders in the Gunnison Watershed School District about the water cycle and the importance of conservation,” said Bill.

After graduating from Western State College (now Western Colorado University) in 1974, Bill started a construction and remodeling business with partner Bill Yanaki and in 1985 became a real estate broker. During his many years in Gunnison, Bill has been active in numerous city, county and state organizations. He served the City of Gunnison for 21 years on the City Council, Planning and Zoning Commission and was Gunnison’s Mayor from 1989 to 1991. He has also been active in Region 10 serving as its Chairman in 1989 and spending nearly 20 years as a member of its Revolving Loan Fund. Bill has also served on the Gunnison Valley’s Tourism Association and the Gunnison Area Chamber of Commerce. From 1990 to 2000, he was appointed by Governor Romer to the Small Business Council, one of 23 members statewide, lobbying and working with legislators to create legislation to assist small business in Colorado. He presently serves as a Governor appointee to the Gunnison Basin Roundtable. Bill is owner of Nesbitt & Company LLC, a property management and real estate brokerage firm serving the Gunnison Valley.

In his rare spare time, Bill enjoys hunting, fishing and gardening and spending time with his family, including his wife, Betsy and his grown children, Billy, Matt and Catherine.

“I think that my 50+ year involvement in the valley as a business owner, parent, and elected and appointed official has been helpful tothe UGRWCD.  The board make-up has lots of diversity, and depth.  The Board as a whole has a continuing commitment to the legacy of ranching and management of the most precious resource in the basin, in my opinion, — WATER!” said Bill.

Summer Newsletter 2021

Summer Newsletter 2021

Sonja Chavez, General Manager


As the General Manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (District), it is not uncommon for me to be asked, “What does the Upper Gunnison District actually do?”  This question always gives me a moment of pause because I’m thinking, “Where do I begin and how do I keep this to a short conversational answer?”  The Board and staff of the District certainly wear many hats, and in this issue of our newsletter, we hope to provide a broader perspective of all of the waters we dip our collective toes into! 

To start, the District was established in 1959 by a vote of area taxpayers.  Our mission is to “be an active leader in all issues affecting the water resources of the Upper Gunnison River Basin.” As a special tax district with funding from property tax revenues, we take our fiscal and statutory responsibilities very seriously.  We are committed to managing and funding effective monitoring, protection and restoration programs in order to maintain high water quality standards as a necessary part of a healthy economy and environment. 

In this summer’s edition of our newsletter, you will learn more about the programs we lead, sponsor and participate in, including augmentation programs, water quantity and quality monitoring, Wet Meadows Restoration and Resiliency, District Grant Program, Gunnison River Festival, Growing Gunnison Water Smart, and the Gunnison Conservation District. 

These are but a sampling of many local programs we are involved in as we also work hard to participate in statewide and federal issues that affect water resources within our basin, on the Western Slope, and within our State.  We make sure that the Upper Gunnison District is a strong and consistent voice guarding against inequitable and unmitigated damage to our water interests.  For instance, my staff and/or I and our General Counsel (attorney) represent water interests and provide technical support on the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Work Group, Upper Colorado River Commission, Colorado Water Congress Federal and State Affairs and Water Quality Committees, Colorado Water Conservation Board Demand Management Technical Work Groups, Governor’s Water Equity Task Force, Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) Committee, and Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

As you can see, with all of the hats we wear, there is rarely a dull moment in the water world.  And while we all do our very best to address the water issues of the day, the one thing we can’t do is control Mother Nature.  So, until she decides to pull us out of this cycle of drought, let’s all do our very best to conserve where we can.  Enjoy your summer!

Lawrence and Sun Ditch - before

Summer Newsletter 2021

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Spring Newsletter 2021

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UG Basin Meadow and Riparian Restoration Project (Wet Meadows)

It begins with a faint sound, a chuckling burble, like a mountain stream running under a foot of new snow.  Except there is no snow or stream in this wide grassy space surrounded by sagebrush.  As the predawn light begins to climb in the eastern sky, an occasional flash of white blinks thorough the darkness.  The sound spreads, and as the light comes up, the display of the male Gunnison sage-grouse becomes visible.  A dozen dark chicken sized birds inflate and deflate air sacks in their chests, faster than the eye can see, while stroking the stiff white breast feathers covering their chests with their wing tips.  At the same time, they weave, bob, and duck their heads, flipping their filoplumes, a hipster like ponytail over their heads.  More mature birds, chase their younger rivals off of the dancing ground or lek, while the smaller more cryptically colored females move surreptitiously through the gyrating males, in one of the most highly selective breeding cycles in North America, where 10 percent of the males do 90 percent of the breeding.  After breeding on the same leks their mothers did, the females return to the deep sage, often within yards of the area where they were hatched to lay their eggs.  Laying up to a dozen eggs, the chicks hatch simultaneously, emerging from the egg with yolk reserve to survive for 18 hours, the hen must move the chicks from the dense sagebrush she nested in to a moist area, with abundant insect life.  For the first 21 days of their lives, Gunnison sage-grouse chicks rely on insects for their food, and after three weeks begin to forage on a mixed diet of insects and flowering plants.  These mesic sites are rare in the arid sagebrush system, comprising less than 1% of the landscape, and many have been impacted by roads and other man-made impacts. 

Since the early 1900’s, the available habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse has shrunk by an estimated 90 percent.  In 2014, the bird was listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act  by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Currently, 85 percent of breeding of the entire Gunnison sage-grouse population takes place in the Gunnison River Basin. In 2009, the Nature Conservancy convened a group of representatives from public and private organizations to form the Gunnison Climate Working Group with the goal of “working to build the resilience of species and ecosystems so that they continue to provide benefits to the people of the Gunnison Basin.”  More specifically, the group collaborated to gain understanding of the potential threats posed by climate change to the Gunnison sage grouse and other species; identify strategies to reduce adverse impacts from climate change and other threats; and, to promote coordinated implementation of these strategies. Initially, the Working Group included representatives from: Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Gunnison County, Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association, National Park Service, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, Western State College and Western Water Assessment, University of Colorado, Boulder.  Oversight and leadership were provided by The Nature Conservancy.  In December 2011, the Gunnison Basin Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment was published, which led to further development of specific rehabilitation and riparian projects to address declining habitat. 

Since 2012, the group evolved and now includes more than 35 organizations and private landowners.  In 2017, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) took over the leadership and oversight of the private/public working group. Tom Grant was hired in 2017 as the “Project Coordinator.”  Paul Jones succeeded Tom in this role in 2019.

Since 2012, 1,946 structures have been built under the project, restoring 180 acres of riparian wetland habitat and 1,260 acres of grouse habitat along almost 27 stream miles in the Gunnison Basin and satellite populations (San Miguel Basin, Pinon Mesa and Crawford). 

Project Coordinator Paul Jones notes that these “structures” are mostly hand built using stones, earth and other vegetation.  Some structures are also built with heavy equipment.  The structures are not designed to “store” water, but to slow it down, spread it out and rewet the “sponge” of which wetlands are comprised. 

Paul points out that these structures are beneficial in multiple ways.  “Not only have these hand-built structures allowed us to restore over 1200 acres of sage grouse habitat, but they have also improved forage availability on both public and private land for stock growers,” said Paul.    

Paul notes that the success of the project has been very rewarding as he has witnessed a 200 percent increase in wetland vegetation in the project areas the partnership has worked in.  “The project has been successful in securing well over $1 million in grants, which is critical for funding the project, yet also results in a significant amount of administrative time and expense to meet all of the grant requirements,” Paul said.  “In addition with population growth and continuing climate decline, it is a race against time to protect and repair as many acres of the wetland as quickly as we can.”

“We would love to see more private landowners getting involved in the project and find more local champions to promote our goals,” said Paul.  “The proactive conservation measures undertaken by this group and many local volunteers have already benefited the Gunnison sage-grouse.  Our goal is to recover wetlands to the point that this amazing species no longer needs federal protection.” 

The UGRWCD believes it is this type of collaborative project that can effectively prepare nature and people for an uncertain future and this is why it supports the “Wet Meadows Project.”   If you would like to become more involved or want more information about the project, please visit the wet meadow restoration website at or contact the District at (970)641-6065. 

Gunnison River Festival 2021

The 18th Annual Gunnison River Festival was held June 11-13, 2021 with three great days of “Celebrating the Rivers” of the Upper Gunnison Basin, including the favorite Taylor Downriver raft and kayak races, and new this year – educational seminars, dry land and in-flow clinics, virtual races and the inaugural “Run the Gunnison 5K” footrace at VanTuyl Trail.

“After a year off due to the pandemic, it was so great to get to celebrate again in person and take advantage of the great weather and good stream flow,” said Joellen Fonken, director of the Gunnison River Festival, a nonprofit organization who’s title sponsor is the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

Joellen noted that the festival would not be possible without funding assistance from these sponsors: Merrick & Company, Tava Real Estate, High Country Conservation Advocates, Lake Fork Valley Conservancy, High Mountain Liquors, Gunnison County, City of Gunnison, Gunnison BLM and American Whitewater.

The women prepare to dig in for the Women’s Division of the American Whitewater Taylor River Raft and Kayak Races. The women’s division was won by Kestrel Kunz.

Even a dog got in on the rafting! The overall winner of the American Whitewater Taylor River Raft Race was Jennifer Hodgkiss and team.

The competition in the Men’s Division of the American Whitewater Taylor Kayak Races was tight with Daniel Kreykes crowned the overall winner.