UGRWCD’s Sonja Chavez urges action now

UGRWCD’s General Manager Sonja Chavez and other water leaders urge for conservation action now to avoid future demands from down-river states.  The following article was published in The Colorado Sun and was written by Michael Booth.

New projections for low Colorado River flows speed need for dramatic conservation

Conservation groups say revised Bureau of Reclamation predictions are welcome realism showing Colorado needs to save water now.

After emergency releases, Blue Mesa Reservoir reaches historic lows.

A new federal system for projecting Colorado River water flows in the next two years confirms dire news about drought draining the West’s key reservoirs, and increases pressure on Colorado to conserve water immediately to avoid future demands from down-river states, conservation groups say.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s new system for projecting vital Colorado River flows in the next two years drops earlier, wetter years out of the historical reference, and gives more weight to two recent decades of drought. The regular October update this week shows water runoff into Lake Powell, the storage basin for four Upper Colorado Basin states, was only 32% of average for the 2021 water year, which runs from October to September.

The new projections for the next two years show that even with federal officials draining portions of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to get more water to Lake Powell’s hydroelectric generating station, a moderate winter would leave the Colorado River in the same crisis a year from now. And a low-water scenario this coming winter season would drop Lake Powell well below the minimum level required to generate electricity by November 2022.

In addition to federal officials trying to protect hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell, and at Lake Mead as the downstream water bank for the Lower Basin states, water compacts govern how much Colorado River water needs to go downstream for use by agriculture and cities.

Colorado and the other Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are required under interstate compacts to deliver 7.5 million acre feet of water a year into Lake Powell, in a 10-year rolling average. If enough bad water years ruin that average under the compact, Colorado must find water to send downriver to Nevada, Arizona and California — and 80% to 85% of Colorado’s available water is used for agriculture. The great majority of Upper Basin water originates from Colorado’s high country snowpack.

“We don’t have any more time to talk about it,” Matt Rice, co-chair of the Water for Colorado Coalition and Director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Programs, said after reviewing the latest Bureau of Reclamation update.

Starting with the October update, the bureau begins the historical average calculations in 1991, instead of the 1981 cutoff used until now. The 1980s were much wetter in the Colorado River Basin, Rice said.

“These projections are worse than they have been in the past, but they’re also more realistic,” Rice said. Many conservation groups find that a positive step despite the bad news, Rice added, because it increases pressure on state water officials, local water conservancy districts, agriculture interests, cities and environmentalists to work faster on solutions.

At the same time, Rice said, the updated numbers should drive home the reality that there is 20% less water available now in the Colorado River than as recently as 2000. “There’s no more flexibility in the system, right? We’re looking over the edge of the cliff.”

Water conservation experts in Colorado have worked for years to avoid their worst-case scenario, which is a “call” or a sudden demand from federal managers to deliver more water for hydropower or to satisfy the compacts with the Lower Basin. Without advance planning, a call would force the state water engineer and local conservancy districts to cut irrigators’ water rights based only on the seniority of their water-use rights.

While state and local officials have been working with nonprofits on conservation plans, there are legal tangles that could require new legislation, and seemingly endless ethical questions about which parts of the state would suffer the most water loss, said Sonja Chavez, director of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

Blue Mesa Reservoir in her region has been nearly drained by drought and by federal officials taking extra from Western reservoirs to solidify Lake Powell’s power pool. Blue Mesa is projected to soon be down to 27% full, Chavez said. Blue Mesa was 33% full in mid-September, according to Bureau of Reclamation records.

State and private officials have cooperated to experiment with “demand-management” programs, where instead of buying agriculture land and its accompanying water rights outright, they buy the right to rent the water for a few years out of a decade. That rented water can be sent downstream in dry years, and in theory the restoration of water in other years should preserve the farm or ranch land while providing income for the farmer.

But renting or buying of water rights on the scale to meet compact demands would require hundreds of millions of dollars, with no current pot of money to pull from, water experts say. Colorado officials have mentioned the possibility of using money from the infrastructure stimulus plan currently under debate by Congress, but it’s uncertain whether the bill will pass, and how much water-related money will be in it if it does.

“There are a lot of questions that really haven’t been resolved,” Chavez said. “Who are the cuts going to come from? How’s it going to be distributed equitably? Who’s going to shepherd that water?”

Gunnison officials have also spent much time and energy to protect the sage grouse, a threatened species, Chavez noted. If a statewide demand management program sought across-the-board cuts, and “if we got rid of 10% of our wet meadows, how does that impact the bird?” she asked.

The largest amounts of water to be conserved are in agriculture, by far, but Front Range residents must be part of the statewide discussion about finding more water for the downstream Colorado River, Rice and Chavez said.

“You’re not going to get as much out of a city compared to what is the amount of irrigation water diverted for agriculture,” Chavez said. “But there’s also agriculture on the Front Range that benefits from our transmountain diversions,” some of which are created and controlled by urban water departments. “That has to be part of the picture.”


Volunteers Are Restoring Vital Wetlands

Using rocks, wooden posts, willow branches, and other locally-sourced natural products, volunteers are successfully restoring wetland habitat near Gunnison. After decades of erosion, ecosystems are being revived for the benefit of plant and animal species that call these wetlands home.  KVNF Radio’s Laura Palmisano recently interviewed project volunteers.  LEARN MORE HERE

Fall Newsletter 2021

FAll Newsletter 2021

Sonja Chavez, General Manager

Putting Your Money to Work!

If you happened to hear any of our recent public updates, you’d know that we are very close to completing our 2021 Upper Gunnison River Restoration & Irrigation Infrastructure Improvement Project.  It is a pretty impressive sight and I’m happy to report that the project has proceeded without any hiccupsAs a reminder to all, this multi-beneficial water resource improvement project eliminated the gravel channel push-up dam in the Gunnison River associated with the John B. Outcalt No. 2 agricultural irrigation diversion and instead uses the upstream existing Gunnison Tomichi Valley Ditch wing inlet, modernizes individual and shared irrigation infrastructure, creates a river return structure when water is not needed, when river flows are high, or when the kokanee salmon run is occurring, supports important sage grouse habitat, improves the floodplain and fishery, and creates a more naturally functioning and appearing hydrologic system.


This project is but one example of the importance of our Upper Gunnison District Grant Program and outcomes from our stream and watershed management planning processes.  It also highlights the importance of partnerships with our water right holders and water users, non-governmental entities like Trout Unlimited, and governmental partners like the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado River District, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  As part of our mission, the Upper Gunnison District is continually analyzing and pursuing opportunities to partner with others and leverage your community taxpayer dollars to help protect and improve your Upper Gunnison Basin water resources.  Since 2009, the District has invested $1.6M dollars into water resource improvement projects through our Grant Program and leveraged these dollars 6:1 with $9.6M of outside funding!


This fall newsletter edition focuses on our Upper Gunnison District Grant Program. We want you to learn more about the application process, read all about the positive outcomes that have come from funded projects and reach out to us with your project ideas.  If you don’t have a project, well, we hope you feel as good as we do about what we’ve been able to accomplish. 


Finally, I’d like to remind our District constituents that we also have a simple Mini-Grant Program that provides up to $300 annually per applicant to support projects designed to expand awareness of water-related issues in the Upper Gunnison Valley.  This includes private citizens, school or university faculty, home schools, preschools, watershed groups, art centers, or other resource organizations that have a message to share about the value of our water. RE1J Watershed School District and Western Colorado University students may also apply. Be sure to read further or visit our grant program webpage at:


Grant programming is but one of the many ways the Upper Gunnison River District helps to improve and protect our watershed!  If you have a project idea(s) you’d like to discuss, please don’t hesitate to give us a call at (970)641-6065.  Happy Fall to all our Upper Gunnison Basin Water Heroes!

Lawrence and Sun Ditch - before

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It Takes A Community

  It started as a grant application to the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) from an area agricultural producer who wanted to improve

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Grant Program to Improve Our Water

McGowan Ditch Project – Photo Courtesy of Greg Peterson
Bucky Lehman Ditch Project – Photo Courtesy of Jesse Kruthaupt
Lawrence and Sun Ditch Project – Photo Courtesy of Bob Robbins




The UGRWCD’s Grant Program, which began in 2009 with a handful of applications, has now grown where the District annually receives 15-20 applications for a wide variety of water projects.  Since its inception in 2009, the District has awarded $1.6 million to individual and organizational applicants.  Last year, the District received 18 applications of which 13 were funded to the tune of just over $191,000.

As part of its mission to “accomplish the greatest possible use for irrigation, domestic, municipal, industrial, mining and all other purposes,” the grant program was formalized in 2009 to serve as a means of providing financial assistance to persons or entities advancing projects that enhance water supply and stream conditions within the District.  Proposed projects must address one or more of the following criteria to be eligible for the grant program:  (1) Development of a new water supply;  (2) Improvement of an existing water supply; (3) Measures to improve instream water quality and water quantity; (4) Measures which promote water use efficiency or irrigation water management, (5) Implementation of watershed management actions, including restoration or protection of riparian habitat; or (6) Research or studies that further the understanding of critical water resource issues in the basin and support implementation of strategic goals of the District.

“While I am very pleased with the increasing number of grant applications we have received throughout the life of the program, I am hoping that more individuals and organization will reach out to the District when they are considering a water improvement project,” said Sonja Chavez, general manager of the District.  “We are here to assist folks with their applications and are willing to consider a wide variety of projects, provided they meet at least one of the above criteria.”  Sonja also noted that there have been a couple of changes regarding utilization of grant funding resources. “The District has begun providing engineering support on more complicated projects and we are more aggressively pursuing outside grant funding to help leverage District funds, she said.”

One project that received funding this past year was the McGowan Irrigating Ditch Diversion Structure Project as submitted by Greg Peterson, president of Peterson Ranch.  In Greg’s application, he noted that historically, logs had been set across Tomichi Creek to act as the diversion structure, which was not efficient and required a lot of labor.  With the funding provided by the District and the required matching funds, a heavy steel pipe was set as a diversion structure. (See photo.)  The design allows most trash/debris to go over the top of the structure and not get caught within the diversion.

“I sincerely appreciate the financial help provided by the Upper Gunnison with this diversion project,” said Greg.  “This allows better irrigation management and less labor to make flow adjustments.”

Grant applications for the 2022 fiscal year will be due in February or March of 2022, so it’s not too early to start planning for a project.  The District will again hold an informational meeting prior to applications being due to review the grant application process and answer questions, so be watching the area media and/or District’s website for further details later this year.  In the meantime, those considering submitting an application are encouraged to call the District now at (970)641-6065 to discuss your project idea.

John Perusek UGRWCD Board Member Profile

John Perusek was appointed to the UGRWCD Board of Directors in February 2018 representing Division 8, the City of Gunnison. John currently serves as the Secretary of the Board and serves on the Executive, Finance and Projects board committees. His current term expires in 2022.

As a local boy, John has been engaged in water issues his whole life.  John comes from three generations of area ranchers and learned early on the importance of water for irrigation purposes.  As a teenager, John started working in the summers at the Mt. Emmons mine near Crested Butte.  John said they “liked his skill set” and he was hired on full time in 1984. He continued to work at Mt. Emmons mine in the wastewater treatment plant for 23 years before being transferred to the Climax molybdenum mine near Leadville, where he served as the Maintenance Planner for industrial wastewater treatment for 10 more years. John also earned his earned his Bachelor of Arts degree while working as a contractor at the Mount Emmons prior to being hired full time by the project.  He earned his degree in science with a minor in geology from what was then Western State College in Gunnison.

“As a long-term resident of this District, I have seen a gradual shift in our local economy from being agricultural and mining based to more tourism and second-home development based,” said John.  “I believe agriculture will always be important for our economy, so I would like for our irrigation systems to be optimized so that those with water rights are able to maximize their beneficial use.” 

John credits the District’s grant programming and watershed management planning initiatives in helping optimize irrigation systems and improve water quality for the area.  “It takes a lot of planning and engineering to ensure that such projects are going to be successful and benefit the water users and this is where the District can provide funding and expertise,” said John.  He encourages individuals and organizations in the District to reach out to the staff and board when considering a water improvement project. 

“I think Sonja (Chavez, general manager for the District) is doing an awesome job of partnering with individuals, organizations and other funders to get water optimization projects off the ground,” said John.  “The Upper Gunnison River Restoration & Irrigation Infrastructure Improvement Project featured in this edition is a perfect example of this.”

John also says, “We have to take steps to make sure what water we have will last and to ensure that it is of the best quality it can be.”

When not working on water issues, John enjoys golfing and fly fishing and is a big supporter of Western University’s sports program.  He particularly likes following the wrestling program and basketball program, as he started wrestling when he was just 8-years-old.  John and his wife of 38 years, Colette, are both Western alums so they often enjoy Western sports and activities together.  They are also parents to one grown daughter and enjoy spending time with their grandson. John has also been a member of the City of Gunnison’s Planning and Zoning Commission since 2017.

“With his 33 years of experience in water quality management, John brings significant expertise to the Board which is really beneficial,” said UGRWCD General Manager Sonja Chavez.  “I really appreciate the knowledge he has of our watershed and the understanding he has of the issues that affect all water users in the District.”

It Takes A Community


It started as a grant application to the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) from an area agricultural producer who wanted to improve his irrigation headgate.  He came to UGRWCD seeking funding assistance to help him offset the costs of his proposed project.  Through communication with the downstream irrigation divertor about irrigation water management challenges and interest in shared infrastructure and a chance meeting with the Watershed Management Planning Agricultural Coordinator, thus began the groundwork of the 2021 Upper Gunnison River Restoration & Irrigation Infrastructure Improvement Project.

By taking the approach of combining two parallel and redundant irrigation diversion structures 25 feet apart from each other on the Gunnison River into a single shared point of diversion with modernized irrigation infrastructure, this project resulted in the restoration of a severely impacted segment of the river.  For agricultural producers, the project helped protect their water rights and improve irrigation water management, efficiency, and productivity for over 1900 acres of irrigated land in the Gunnison Mainstem and Tomichi Creek sub-basins.  For recreational users, the project opened-up the narrowed river channel which was causing erosion and negatively impacted rafting and fishing.  Finally, the river improvements benefit the environment by supporting the aquatic community and fishery and bolstering critical wet meadow habitat for the threatened Gunnison Basin Sage Grouse.  The project is expected to be completed by November 2021.

In addition to grant funding and in-kind services contributed by the Upper Gunnison District, the project received financial and in-kind support from the John B. Outcalt No. 2 and Gunnison Tomichi Valley Ditch water right holders, Trout Unlimited, Colorado River Water Conservation District Community Funding Program, State of Colorado Stream Management Planning Program, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  


Easy Money Through Mini-Grants

At the UGRWCD, we believe that most residents of our District understand the importance of responsible water use and water conservation, but sometimes an educational program or creative communication can help remind us all or teach youngsters this important concept.  The District can help facilitate such programs and communications through its Mini-Grant Program.


“Perhaps a teacher needs some equipment for a water lab project or an artist needs some supplies for his art class to create artwork on water awareness,” said UGRWCD General Manager Sonja Chavez.  “The District is here to help through our simple Mini-Grant Program.”


Chavez noted that these grant funds are available for projects across a wide spectrum of curriculum and can be requested by private citizens, school or university faculty, home schools, preschools, watershed groups, art centers, or other resource organizations that have a message to share about water. RE1J Watershed School District and Western Colorado University students may apply as well. Examples of past projects that were funded include interpretive signs along the Mustang Pond at Gunnison Middle School, U.S. Forest Service request for supplies for the Water Education Trailer owned by the District and shared with partners, and water wader boots for Crested Butte Community School.


The Mini-Grant program can provide up to $300 annually per applicant to support projects designed to expand awareness of water-related issues in the District.  Applications can be filled out online and submitted via email or printed off and mailed back to the District. This includes private citizens, school or university faculty, home schools, preschools, watershed groups, art centers, or other resource organizations that have a message to share about the value of water. RE1J Watershed School District and Western Colorado University students may also apply.  You can access the application and guidelines directly here: