Save the Date for 2022 Gunnison River Festival


It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since Bob Jones and a class at Western State College (now Western Colorado University) created the first Gunnison Whitewater Festival, which would later morph into the Gunnison River Festival. That first festival included downriver raft floats and races, kayak demonstrations and clinics, biking and climbing events, live music, vendors and much more.

The 2022 Gunnison River Festival Board of Directors are just beginning to plan for the three-day 20th Anniversary of the Gunnison River Festival, and wanted to be sure folks are adding the dates to their calendars now. 

“With the cancellation in 2020 and a scaled back festival in 2021 both due to Covid, we are more than ready and excited to have a full-blown festival with three days of events to celebrate its 20th anniversary,” said Joellen Fonken, director of the Gunnison River Festival. 

Joellen said a full schedule of programming will be released in the Spring of 2022 but that she anticipates rafting, kayaking, a foot race and educational clinics throughout our watershed. Watch the  festival’s website at for updates.

The Title Sponsor of the festival continues to be the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

Anyone interested in volunteering for the festival can submit their contact information via email to the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District at or may call the District at (970)641-6065. 

Colorado River Compact

Can the Law of the Colorado River Adapt to an Increasingly Drier Hydrology?

A Two-Part Article by John McClow, UGRWCD Legal Counsel

The Gunnison River is a major tributary of the Colorado River. The Colorado River Basin has suffered from drought conditions throughout the 21st Century. The two major reservoirs in the Colorado River System – Lake Mead and Lake Powell – are at historic and dangerously low storage levels. Locally, Blue Mesa Reservoir is a stark illustration of the effects of the current dry conditions. Scientists are warning that “drought” is a term that no longer applies because it implies a temporary condition from which the Basin will recover. A more accurate term is “aridification” because the conditions we have experienced during the past 20 years will continue – or worsen – for the foreseeable future, as hotter and drier conditions make matters worse. Recently published projections indicate that river flows may decline 20 percent by midcentury and 35 percent by the end of this century. There is debate about the causes of the decline, but little disagreement that it will continue to happen. Can the Law of the Colorado River – numerous compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, contracts, and regulatory guidelines – founded on a 100-year-old Compact – adapt sufficiently to meet the challenge of aridification?

PART 1:  A Brief Summary of the Law of the Colorado River

The foundation of the Law of the River is the Colorado River Compact, signed by the seven Colorado River Basin States and the United States in 1922. The Compact is a contract among the signatories ratified by the seven states and Congress and became state and federal law. The Compact divides the Colorado River Basin into an Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico) and a Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona, California). It apportions to the Upper and Lower Basins the beneficial use of 7.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year. It requires that the states of the Upper Basin will not cause the flow of the river to be depleted below an aggregate of 75 million acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years – measured at Lee Ferry, the dividing point between the Basins. It also describes how the Basins will share water delivery to Mexico. The Compact contains no reference to “curtailment” or a “Compact call.”

In the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act, Congress authorized construction of Hoover Dam (Lake Mead) and directed that the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted to the Lower Basin under the 1922 Compact be apportioned: California, 4.4 million acre-feet; Arizona, 2.8 million acre-feet; Nevada, 300 thousand acre-feet.

The United States signed a treaty with Mexico in 1944 that guarantees an annual delivery of 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to Mexico. In 1948, the Upper Basin States signed the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, which apportions the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted under the 1922 Compact: Colorado, 51.75 percent: Utah, 23 percent; Wyoming, 14 percent; New Mexico, 11.25 percent. The 1948 Compact created the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), consisting of a Commissioner appointed by the Governor of each state and a federal Commissioner appointed by the President of the United States. It also provides that if curtailment of use in the Upper Basin is necessary to maintain the flow at Lee Ferry required by the 1922 Compact, the UCRC will determine each state’s extent and timing of curtailment. It is important to note that neither the 1922 Compact nor the 1948 Compact affect water right administration within the states. In Colorado, that authority remains vested in the State Engineer.

In 1956, Congress passed the Colorado River Storage Project Act. The Act authorized construction of the reservoirs, dams and power plants of the initial units of the Project:  Wayne N. Aspinall (originally the Curecanti Unit), Flaming Gorge, Navajo (reservoir and dam only), and Glen Canyon (Lake Powell), along with numerous participating projects, “making it possible for the States of the Upper Basin to utilize, consistently with the provisions of the Colorado River Compact, the apportionments made to and among them in the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, respectively.” The CRSP power plants are an important source of hydropower in the Western United States, and the revenue from the sale of that hydropower supports operation of the Project and important salinity control and endangered fish recovery programs.

The Colorado River Basin Project Act, passed by Congress in 1968, authorized construction of the Central Arizona Project, which can divert 1.5 million acre-feet from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona. Construction of the CAP allowed Arizona to develop its full apportionment of Colorado River water. The Act confirms California’s senior priority to 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, meaning that Arizona and Nevada must bear any shortage in the Lower Basin.

Next IssuePART 2:  Adapting the Law of the River for a Dry Hydrology


Cheryl Cwelich Joins UGRWCD Staff

Cheryl Cwelich joins the UGRWCD staff as the Watershed Program Coordinator, which involves leading all aspects of the collaborative Wet Meadow Restoration-Resilience Project, as well as providing technical and managerial assistance on a variety of environmental, recreational, agricultural, and municipal water projects for the District..


By Cheryl Cwelich

Bubbling. Trickling. Flowing. Water has been a draw on me since I was a wee thing. If I wasn’t creating waterfalls and ponds to my father’s chagrin in the backyard, then I was flustering my mother by splashing around and catching crawdads down at the “creek park.” Plus, there were the sunny (and rainy) days boating with my family on Lake Dillion and Cherry Creek Reservoir, falling out of a rafts on the Arkansas River, and being fascinated by ditches and pipes moving water around the local community farm. I was always playing with water.

During a stint as a seasonal park ranger at the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, I was introduced to water management, both on the job and during their 20-year management planning effort. I was hooked. Transmountain water diversions, recreational flows, in-stream flows, fish habitat, carrying capacity, buy-and-dry and more. It was a revelation and I wanted – I needed – to know more. After perusing various schools, I chose Western Colorado University as the best comprehensive education to help me finish a degree in Environment & Sustainability with a focus on Water Policy & Resilience and a minor in Recreation & Outdoor Education. It was a great choice. Small classrooms, engaging professors, a lively community, and water resource conflicts kept me happily on-the-go. Plus, I got to live in Gunnison, where long ago, I learned to fish with my grandfather at the town pond. 

While finishing school, I was intent on getting a water job to gain experience. My first summer, I worked as a reservationist with Scenic River Tours while healing from a knee injury.  That fall, I walked into the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and they let me work as an intern, which included assisting with the Wet Meadow Restoration and Resiliency Building Project and helping with NRCS snow surveys. The last three years, I worked at the Crested Butte Land Trust (CBLT) as a river steward, educating river users on boating etiquette, respecting wildlife and private property, and conducting annual river recreation use studies. I finished my time at the CBLT as a stewardship and operations specialist overseeing various stewardship projects, including updating infrastructure on the historic Rozich ditch, mitigating beaver conflicts and launching a community farm project with partners. Today, I put days in ski patrolling up at Monarch Mountain to keep my eye on water storage, and ski the fluffy stuff.

The Gunnison valley is so special to me. It is a place of nostalgia, adventure and perseverance.  I couldn’t be more ecstatic and honored to work for this community and her waters. The Wet Meadow Restoration and Resiliency Building Project is an incredible effort of numerous public and private stakeholders to protect her wildlife and “re-wet the sponge.” I am in humble awe of the hard work and planning that came before by numerous dedicated people in the BLM, USFS, CPW, CNHP, UGRWCD, and many, many more. It is a great joy to join the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District to serve and protect what I like to call the water towers of the west. Then I can keep playing in the water, skiing on frozen water, boating on whitewater, drinking clean water and protecting rural water.

Winter 2021-2022 Newsletter

A Year of Waning Water

Sonja Chavez, General Manager


Water Year 2021 (October 1, 2020 through September 30, 2021) started out on a low with much of the basin in “severe” or “exceptional” drought conditions.  Those conditions improved dramatically in the Gunnison Basin in late June and early July with some very welcome monsoon rains.  Streamflows within the basin were very low with the East River experiencing near record lows.  Overall, we ended the water year for Blue Mesa Reservoir at 27 percent of full due to Emergency Drought Response Operational releases implemented by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in an attempt to prop up storage in Lake Powell. Taylor Reservoir ended the year at 55 percent of full.

As I write this letter, we are all currently rejoicing about the amazing snowfall we’ve seen in some areas of the Upper Gunnison Basin during the month of December, especially the East and Taylor River Basins.  Looking at the Colorado Snotel Snow/Precipitation Update Report for January 4th, it looks like the Butte Snotel Site has a Snow Water Equivalent or SWE (amount of water in the snowpack) of 8.8 inches (157 percent of median), Park Cone in the Taylor Basin near Taylor Reservoir is 7.2 inches (171 percent of median), Upper Taylor Basin is 9.6 inches (166 percent of median) and Schofield Pass 23.6 inches (182 percent of median). Unfortunately, the Tomichi and Lake Fork basins have not been as fortunate with Cochetopa Pass at 1.2 inches (55 percent of median), Sargents Mesa at 3.3 inches (77 percent of median), and Lake Fork (Slumgullion) at 5.4 inches (83 percent of median).

We still have a long winter/spring ahead of us and we are crossing our fingers for more snow.  NOAA is predicting that the southwestern US will likely receive below normal precipitation and above normal temperatures for at least the next 60 days.  With their La Nina predictions, the Upper Gunnison Basin in Colorado always seems to be in that unpredictable gray area in the State and we can go either way.  Personally, I choose to remain optimistic and am thankful for the snowfall we’ve seen so far. 

Speaking of being thankful.  I am especially thankful for our District staff who work with tireless dedication each and every day and are passionate about water.  They are the reason for our organizational success. Other great news related to staff.  Cheryl Cwelich, former Upper Gunnison District Intern Extraordinaire will be joining us as staff and serving as our Watershed Program Coordinator! To learn more about Cheryl, see this month’s news article. Welcome aboard Cheryl!

In 2021, we made a ton of progress on a number of projects!  We were particularly busy this summer conducting basin wide irrigation system optimization reviews and consulting on 20 different irrigation projects.  In terms of completed projects, we have officially completed the 2021 Upper Gunnison River Restoration & Irrigation Infrastructure Improvement Project and it is already benefitting water users. The District also closed out 13 of our 15 grant projects in a single year.  Did you also know that since the inception of the Grant Program in 2009 our program has leveraged every dollar from our community with $9 of outside funding and in-kind value services?  We hope to greatly increase funding coming into our community for water projects from outside grant dollars, including funding from the Infrastructure Bill. We continue to implement our Watershed Management Planning project and have focused in 2021 on bringing together water, forest and land health experts to conduct forest health, wildfire hazard, and geofluvial assessments. Oh and we’ve also implemented a sixth cloudseeding site near Black Mesa Lodge just off Highway 92, Black Canyon of the Gunnison. 

With regard to municipal water needs, the District is collaborating more closely with the City of Gunnison to address the City’s aging water infrastructure and town ditch system and with Gunnison County around planning and implementation of proposed improvements to the Gunnison Whitewater Park.

In 2021, the Upper Gunnison District was also successful in convincing the Colorado Division of Water Resources (CDWR) after many years, to take a serious look at the futility of a Gunnison Tunnel call on the river and to evaluate the fact that if there is excess water flowing over the Gunnison Tunnel Diversion Dam beyond what the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users could physically take, that there is water available to downstream water users and therefore no shortage on the river.  The decision by CDWR in support of our position, brings some level of annual certainty to Upper Gunnison Basin water users.

Finally, our hearts go out to the families and community of Boulder/Superior who were impacted by the Marshall Creek fire.  Please remember to always exercise caution any time you have a fire outdoors. Winds can quickly cause a fire to spread out of control.

Best wishes for a safe and Happy New Year in 2022!

Lawrence and Sun Ditch - before

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Blue Mesa Low Water

Colorado River Compact

Can the Law of the Colorado River Adapt to an Increasingly Drier Hydrology? A Two-Part Article by John McClow, UGRWCD Legal Counsel The Gunnison River

Read More »

Cheryl Cwelich Joins UGRWCD Staff

Cheryl Cwelich joins the UGRWCD staff as the Watershed Program Coordinator, which involves leading all aspects of the collaborative Wet Meadow Restoration-Resilience Project, as well

Read More »