Water is Life: Some Local Color

Cheryl Cwelich

5 February 2019

Water connects us to each other, to our natural surroundings, and to life. The beautiful Upper Gunnison river valley boasts numerous rivers, creeks, lakes and more that support this basin’s community and beyond. Here begins a series of stories on our local people, their connection to water and how we can be good stewards and protect it.

Water splashes playfully as it bounds down over timeless granite rocks and waterworn cobbles. Rough and ragged peaks soar high above, the sky taunting them to climb higher than they already are. These are some of the water-towers of the West, collecting precipitation as air masses collide with the Rocky Mountains and push the moist air up against the rocky heights to create clouds, bringing rain and snow. For the Gunnison River valley, most precipitation comes in the form of snow, about 45 inches of snow on average annually. Up in Crested Butte the snowfall is much greater, 217 inches on average annually, which is definitely part of the reason so many locals own snowmobiles. CB receives more than twice as much rainfall than Gunnison at 24 inches a year to Gunni’s 10 inches of annual average precipitation. No wonder Crested Butte is the wildflower capital of Colorado. While these  precipitation numbers aren’t that large, it’s the snowfall amount that makes the skiing so fun, the spring run-off so good for the pastures, and the lingering flow of water so preferable to the trout and Kokanee salmon. We live and play in a mountain waterpark. Have you ever caught that scent of spring in Crested Butte? That sweetness in the air? I have never smelled anything like it anywhere else in the West – it is unique, special… precious. It’s clean air, truly clean air, purified by that splashing water and burst of trees and flowers.   

The Gunnison river is born in Almont, at the convergence of dam-controlled Taylor River, and the free flowing East River out of Crested Butte. A stunning high-alpine creek, the Taylor River is full of fish for the fisherman and thrills for the boaters that comes out of the summit-lined bowl of Taylor Park and Taylor Reservoir. Meandering East River starts at Emerald lake and glistens down through Gothic and gathers Elk Mountain range rivers and creeks, then flows down into the development Crested Butte South, where it meets Cement Creek, and an important tributary, the Slate. The Slate River begins high in the Raggeds Wilderness before making its way through Pittburgh and Crested Butte. It has numerous exciting drops for kayakers, is crucial for wildlife habitat, including blue heron and elk, and brings along Coal Creek before making its way to meet up with the East. In Almont, the rivers meet to create the Gunnison. It shimmers and rambles its way on and picks up Ohio Creek flowing from the Anthracite range, which enriches numerous ranches and farms. The Gunnison River then flows through the town of Gunnison past the soaring Palisades of the West Elk Plateau and past the craggy recreation-lover’s paradise of Hartman Rocks. Just past Hartman’s, the ‘Sunny Gunni’ picks up Tomichi Creek, arguably the river’s largest watershed, and ironically one of the smallest volumes of water, which hosts the waters of the Quartz and Cochetope Creeks. Upon meeting Blue Mesa Reservoir, the Upper Gunnison River spills to its end. 

While the river technically, politically and legally ‘ends’ at Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest reservoir, the waters move on. Here the Blue Mesa takes on Cebolla Creek, as well as the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, a waterway important to ranching, fishing and boating. From the Kokanee salmon and trophy lake-trout filled Blue Mesa, the Gunnison River pours out into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. “The Black,” as it is affectionately called among rock climbers, is one of the steepest and narrowest canyons in North America, some canyon segments receiving only 33 minutes of sunlight a day. The canyon continues into the spectacular Gunnison Gorge, where the river provides days upon days of whitewater fun for rafters and kayakers alike. The Gunnison River makes its way into to the town of Montrose then winds through the sprawling Dominguez Canyon Wilderness of red walls and bulrushes. Fat with sediment and the milk of many streams, the Gunnison River comes into Grand Junction where the river meets the mighty Colorado, there at the confluence providing 40% of the Colorado Rivers volume. Here the Gunnison ‘ends’, but its story continues on in the Colorado and in the lives, habitats, and industries that use it. The river, water, is life.

Of all the water on the planet, only 3% is freshwater, and of that, less than 1% is in rivers and streams. The Gunnison River, the many rivers and creeks that create it, is precious. It is vital to numerous industries, ranching, farming, boating, fishing, even skiing. The Gunnison River provides water to many cities and communities, Crested Butte, Almont, Gunnison, Lake City, Sapinero, Montrose, Grand Junction, and on into the states of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and even into Mexico. In 1959 the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District was created as the agency to deal with the legal side of water projects. Today, the agency handles not only the legal side of water projects and issues, but the financial, political and engineering aspects as well. As a growing population and climate change increase demands on the river, it will be crucial for water managers to be forward-thinking, local-minded and big-picture minded for the decisions they make. It will be just as important that the people who use water, yes, that’s all of us, and you too, make good decisions about water too. Turn off the water when you brush your teeth. Take shorter showers. Use water-efficient appliances. Fix leaky pipes. Water your yard early or late in the day. Want to do more? Volunteer with the Upper Gunnison Wet Meadow Restoration Program and other opportunities to get and enjoy a day doing something good for the valley. Spread the word. Protect our water. 

Water is Life: Who’s Behind the Tap

Cheryl Cwelich

01 March 2018

Water connects us to each other, to our natural surroundings, and to life. The beautiful Upper Gunnison River Valley boasts numerous rivers, creeks, lakes and more that support this basin’s community and beyond. This piece on municipal water use continues a series of stories on our local people, their connection to water and how we can be good stewards to protect it.

Metal pipes and fittings emerge from the ground, bending here and there, a couple handwheels and levers show how the flow is directed. It reminds me of the old computer game, Pipe Mania, where one would lay pipe in the area provided before a water surge could overcome the fittings. But here in the real world, these angled arms and control valves are part of a City of Gunnison Wheelhouse where domestic water comes from one of the city’s nine wells. Water comes out of ground through a submersible pump, through tubes and filters, and goes directly into the city’s distribution system at approximately 260 gallons per minute.

Gunnison receives the majority of its water from ground water, an alluvial aquifer, but also supplements some water consumption through irrigation ditches from the Gunnison River. This irrigation water is not treated, so it isn’t potable water, and is used by homeowners for watering lawns, gardens and flowerbeds. These open water ditches, or as Western students might call them, “freshmen ditches,” are a unique system of water distribution that isn’t prevalent in other cities, and run throughout town, on most streets. The main city ditch runs 5 miles long, and at the community center, the ditch splits into a portion for use by the college, and the rest is diverted for residents. Anybody that has a ditch running through their property can get a pump to use the flowing water, though digging across the ditch is not allowed, and people would have to get a pipe. These city irrigation ditches are a way to “save” treated water from being used to water a lawn or garden, and help with conservation efforts by city managers.


It is a system that requires careful monitoring and management. One of the caretakers, who monitors the system and visits each wheelhouse almost everyday, is Water Operator Daren Glover. He works for the City of Gunnison’s Public Works Department, which is tasks with providing potable water to the community, among others duties. The Department is responsible for maintaining all domestic water distribution, water quality monitoring and metering, managing storm drainage, running the entire collections or sewage system, along with overseeing Gunnison’s 25 miles of irrigation ditches. There is one responsibility that stands out from the others, as Daren asserts that “Public Safety is the number one concern here.” The water that comes into the wheelhouse doesn’t need a lot of treatment. As Daren says, Gunnison is “blessed with high quality water.” The only element prevalent in Gunnison water is calcium, which is typical of ground water. While contamination isn’t a huge threat as in other states and areas, it is the goal of Public Works to not ever let that happen. “I enjoy the fact that our everyday actions affect the entirety of the town. All of our hard work is often time gone completely unnoticed when people turn on their tap. Being able to supply an extraordinary service without people having to worry about the quality.” Our ability to turn a faucet, and not worry about quality, is something we as a community all benefit from, and is a great privilege provided by people like Daren.

Having grown up in Gunnison, Daren has a deep love of the valley. Water is a way of life for him, and is more than just his position with Public Works; he is also an avid fisherman, kayaker and hockey player. While he spent ten years away from Gunnison working in the outdoor sporting goods industry, three years ago he committed to changing careers so he could come back. Daren heard about the open Meter Reader position from a friend, and was excited to learn the ins and outs. In the beginning, it took him two and a half weeks to read all the meters, now it takes him only three days. Gunnison has a unique metering system, with three different types of water meters: manual, Trace meters, and an Orion system. Manually reading a meter is as time intensive as it sounds, whereas the Trace meter uses radio waves to transmit data, and the Orion system offers additional analytics. Today, Daren’s job has transformed from just needing a CDL and reading the meters, to an array of responsibilities. One of Daren’s recent projects includes streamlining and upgrading the SCADA computer system used to run the well water system. This upgrade will give the Gunnison water managers more capabilities for controls and reporting. “With this upgrade I am building a reporting system I hope will place us as industry leaders in monitoring our water well health, well pump health, and historical data on our aquifer to justify future decisions for our distribution system.” Hard work, foresight and determination have made Daren a valuable asset to Public Works. He hopes that these kinds of upgrades and hard work between community members to understand different perspectives will inspire good decisions to protect the Gunnison watershed he works for and loves.

Daren is but only one of a few Meter Readers and Water Operators of our small mountain community. He has a wide variety of responsibilities including fixing water leaks, flushing fire hydrants, treating water, plowing snow, maintaining the ditches, and putting in new sewer systems. This diversity of work is something Daren deeply enjoys, calling himself, a “jack-of-all-trades.” He and his co-workers also do all of the well work, replacing or rehabbing the wells through influencing the aquifer to refresh the well, and put the new or old motor and pump back in. Looking towards the future and pondering the needs of the water system, Daren comments, “One thing that seems to stand out in my mind is two part; public education about water, water quality and water sources, and the recruitment within the water industry. There seems to be a very aged and dwindling labor source for this field.” It is surprising that, in a time of dynamic population growth and climate change, more people aren’t interested in water jobs. Further, water education seems imperative to any resident of an arid Western town such a Gunnison. Yet it does seem that when we turn on a water faucet, we don’t think about where that water comes from, how it got to our tap, and the people that made that possible.     

2019 Grant Recipient: Cottonwood Pass Vault Toilet

This project is a joint effort between Gunnison Angling Society, Trout Unlimited, U.S. Forest Service, Gunnison Valley OHV Alliance of Trailriders (GOATS), National Forest Foundation and High Country Conservation Advocates. The vault toilet would be installed near the Cottonwood Pass summit in the headwaters of the Taylor River basin. Cottonwood Pass Road is scheduled to be completed in 2019, resulting in a continuously paved road from Almont to Buena Vista. Traffic in this area is expected to increase dramatically, and without a toilet near the summit, increased E. coli levels from human waste would adversely affect water quality in the Taylor River watershed. Signage recognizing the UGRWCD contribution will be installed at the project site.

Food for the Future

Food for thought: Water is lifeWater connects us to each other, to our natural surroundings, and to life. The beautiful Upper Gunnison River Valley boasts numerous rivers, creeks, lakes and more that support this basin’s community and beyond. This piece on ranching continues a series of stories on our local people, their connection to water, and how we can be good stewards to protect it.

Swells and folds of sagebrush mounts stretch on mile after mile. Nearby Signal Peak rises to keep watch over the Gunnison River valley, looking out across to the ragged Anthracite range and solitary Carbon Peak that shimmer white in the northwestern distance. From the base of these shrubbed arid hills, rich, green fields of hay reach out towards the Gunnison River. Furry brown bodies, furry black ones, some solid, some their faces splotched with white, dot the land as they nibble down the hay. Here sits Cranor Ranch, home to Hannah Cranor, a third-generation rancher.

Hannah grew up here in Gunnison, helping her family on the ranch, falling in love with both the land and animals. She was a 4-H member for 11 years, showing chickens, steers and more. You can almost feel the warmth as Hannah glowingly talks about her work, “I love working with the animals. I also love that everyone is so willing to help each other. You can’t find people more willing to help than fellow ranchers!”

In 2016, Hannah was the Gunnison Cattlemen’s Days Queen, with hardworking spirit and love for the ranching community, it’s easy to see why. It is a strong tie between Hannah and the land she grew up on. After receiving a degree in Farm and Ranch Management from the University of Wyoming, Hannah returned to Gunnison to continue working on her family’s ranch, explaining “Staying in agriculture was a natural choice for me.” This is the case for many ranchers in the Upper Gunnison River Valley; they grew up here, their fathers and grandmothers bled and thrived here. They understand the land, they understand the forces that act upon it: rain, snow, erosion, drought and more. Ranchers, farmers are invested in the land, not just monetarily, but generationally and relationally.

In the late 1800s, gold mining and the resulting railroads in Gunnison gave rise to white settlements, which relied on European agricultural practices, but the short growing season and limited rainfall were bad for farming. The climate was (and is) cold as Gunnison sits in the mountains in just such a way that keeps the valley one of the coldest areas in Colorado. This leads to more snowfall than rainfall, about 90% of annual precipitation arrives in the form of snowfall. Cattle and haying became the crops of choice, and ranching in the Gunnison River Valley took hold. Ditches were dug to bring water from the snowmelt-rich Gunnison River to the surrounding hay fields to support the cattle crop.

Today, ranching remains one of the major forms of industry in the valley. As in the days of old, the Cranor Ranch raises cattle and hay. Hannah explains, “We raise cattle and hay, so to me, water is everything. We used it all summer to produce both our cattle and our hay. The water we have in this valley is what makes it amazing and helps us keep the wide-open views that attract so many visitors.” Ranchers have become a common-sense kind of people, they have to be with the way the land has taught them. They know the value of water, what it can do, and what the lack of it will also do.

Agriculture is a contentious topic in water policy and conservation, almost dangerous to bring up around one group or another. Of consumptive use, Upper Gunnison agriculture soaks up 92% of water resources, whereas agriculture statewide uses 85%. When it comes to talking about reducing water use, it is easy to see why farming and ranching might ‘have a target on their back.” Yet it is apparently easy to forget where our food comes from as well.

For a rancher like Hannah, it is clear to see what is truly important: “I think there needs to be a focus on truly considering the water use between municipalities and agriculture. It is important to consider how our water can best be used – especially in a drought situation. We need to bring our focus to what is truly important – do we focus on green lawns in a municipality or do we focus on producing food for our neighbors. It is hard to limit anyone’s water, but I think we need to fully look at the big picture in years with limited water, or even in areas with limited water.”

Municipal water use is not as demanding as agriculture, yet many municipal uses can be ascribed to aesthetic purposes such as green lawns. Lawns seem like folly during a period of prolonged drought. The key is getting different users together to understand each other better and make better long-term choices, something that Hannah deeply hopes for, “I believe all water users need to sit down and talk! It is so important to understand the other side of anything and to sit down and discuss the pros and cons. I think it would help all water users understand other users.”

In 2018, the Cranor family decided to protect their land through a conservation easement with the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy. A conservation easement preserves land, water and/or other resources to specified conservation objectives, such as maintaining water quality, improving wildlife habitat, ensuring the prospect for sustainable agriculture and more. Most often if prohibits land development for real estate or subdivision. Once designated, the easement remains with the land, regardless of change of title. It does not restrain current of future landowners from land-use, though practices must be kept within the conservation objectives. The Cranor Ranch is still a working ranch, their easement protects that work, while at the same time protecting for Gunnison Sage-grouse habitat.

The Cranor family is intimately aware of environmental issues on their ranch and challenges that face the watershed with prolonged drought and climate change. “My dad and I work together to ensure that our irrigating does the most good possible. Flood irrigating is so beneficial to the watershed, and ensuring we move sets and use that water as efficiently as possible is one of our biggest concerns.”

Hannah Cranor and her family know this land, have lived here many generations, and are concerned for its well-being. Whether environmentalist, farmer, recreationist, tourist, or rancher, we all want to see this landscape preserved into the future. All we have to do it talk, listen, and respect another’s point of view. Agriculture doesn’t have to be contentious, it is an opportunity to work together for a better future.


Cheryl Cwelich

Hands on in Tomichi Creek

By: Taylor Paulson, Intern

The best way to really understand a river is to wade right in.  It can be very calming to get away from the busy main streets of town and wander through the tall grass and growing aspen trees to Tomichi Creek.  Tomichi Creek is a tributary to the Gunnison River that flows by the town of Gunnison, Colorado, from the Continental Divide and Monarch Pass Area.

Jesse Kruthaupt with Trout Unlimited leads the way to Tomichi Creek.  We are conducting a river cross section with a staff gauge in order to begin the flow measurements.  We are going to be taking a cross section in order to measure the flow of the creek.  Jesse reads the staff gauge to get the reference point for the flow readings and sets up the tagline (a measuring tape that crosses the river to measure the river’s width) perpendicular to the river for an accurate cross section.  Once the flow meter is set up to the handheld computing device, each water column can be measured for an average flow which is measured in cubic feet per second.  Jesse assesses the cross section of river and determines that average flow measurements will be taken at two feet intervals.  This means that each water column is two feet wide and the depth is taken concurrently with the average flow for that given two feet wide section or water column of the creek.

As I assist Jesse with the flow meter, we notice the trout in Tomichi Creek rising to feed on the flies buzzing along the surface.  It’s a cooler morning in June but the creek is still low for this early in the year.  I can’t help but think of the consequences the valley will face in this low water year.  The fish are particularly sensitive to rising temperatures.  High flows are great for the trout because the water stays colder and there is more area in the river for the fish to hole-up.  In lower flows the temperature fluctuates more easily and forces the fish to drop into the deepest part of the river.  This results in more fish in each hole fighting for food sources in a smaller area.

This year I choose to be optimistic and hold out hope that monsoon season treats the Gunnison Valley well while protecting the fish and well as the people living here.

Water in the West: Meridian Lake

By: Marissa Markus

Also on May 11th, Frank and I visit Meridian Lake Reservoir near Mount Crested Butte. Frank visits Meridian Lake Reservoir every month to inspect and report the storage amount, percent capacity, seepage, and any net changes in storage. He shares his most recent report from late March when he visited the lake with Water Commissioner, Tom Rozman, so that I have a sense of what I am getting myself into. As an intern, I had no choice but to roll up my pantlegs and cross the icy waters of Washington Gulch to access Meridian Lake Reservoir. Thankfully, Frank crosses first, and he throws me a life line by tossing his trekking poles back for me to use.  As you can see in the picture, after we wade the creek, there is still a little snow that we push through to conduct this month’s inspection. Making my way through the creek and snow, up a steep hill and to the water’s edge, I think back to my last visit to Meridian Lake Reservoir in the summer of 2008. At the time, I had had no idea that I was swimming in a dammed lake. Well, I’ll be damned if such a small structure is considered a dam! And although I enjoyed my first swim in the lake back in 2008, I am not eager to take a dip this trip. . . I am there to observe and learn.

Frank informs me that Meridian Lake Reservoir was formed naturally by beaver damming, and then some time in the 1950’s, the Rozman family constructed a little dam to maintain water storage. The lake became a focus for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District in 1998 because of nearby development and augmentation. Then the 2002/2003 drought exposed the vulnerability of basin water users to senior downstream water rights, and it was time to take action. In 2005, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District purchased the water rights from the Rozman family in response to the need for an augmentation plan. They rebuilt the dam to current standards, and Meridian Lake Reservoir now serves augmentation needs for junior uses on Washington Gulch, Slate River, and the Upper East River.  It was purchased for $750,000, and after 12 years, UGRWCD just achieved cost neutrality.  We are very fortunate that the UGRWCD voluntarily took this responsibility upon themselves. A lack of planning by public officials and developers could have left homeowners up a creek without a paddle…. While it continues to serve constituents with affordable water replacement for depletions, it also serves as a popular destination for the recreation and fishing communities. That’s why you’ll find me wading the stream crossing once again this summer.

Water in the West: 4th Grade Water Festival

By: Marissa Markus 

On May 26, 2017, I attended the 4th Grade Water Festival. The water festival is an annual event that has been occurring in Gunnison for over ten years. Throughout the course of the day, students participate in eight workshop stations. They eagerly learn and share their existing knowledge about water in the Gunnison watershed. I am surprised by students’ existing knowledge and their willingness to engage in conversation with station educators. The entire festival was a rewarding experience for students, educators, and observers. I am thankful for all the hard work that goes into organizing such an event and for the role the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District plays in the event.

The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District supplies a hands-on educational stream trailer for their station. Liz With and interns take turns leading the stream trailer curriculum. Liz asks Ashley Cook’s 4th Grade class to share what they know about sediment, erosion, aquifers, ground and surface water, watersheds, riparian areas, run-off, permeability, channelization, and meandering streams. After some discussion, it’s time for students to get their hands dirty and participate in a couple experiments. First, Liz turns the water on to show the differences between channelized and meandering stream systems. Students are entertained as cows, fences, structures, and sediments are pulled into the flow of the channelized system. Students also point out that the water moves more slowly through the meandering system. Then, students separate into groups and are challenged to restore the channelized system and to properly divert water to irrigate an alfalfa field without jeopardizing the meandering stream. Within a short time, the groups work together to create a plan and use the materials provided to achieve their tasks. A student, Maggie, explains how they add vegetation and rocks to help restore the channelized system. Another student explains the irrigation structure they built. While there are some successes and some mistakes, students leave the station with lessons learned and a smile.

Students attend a presentation on agricultural water use and plant dynamics by Eric McPhail with the CSU extension. Eric, with obvious artistic ability, draws the roots, root hairs, trunk, branches, and leaves of a tree. He explains the process of transpiration and uses a plastic straw to help students understand the role of xylem in water transportation. Following a short but informative presentation, it is time for fun. Students split into groups of boys versus girls. Their objective is to mimic water transportation, to move water up through a straw without sucking or blowing directly in the straw. Students take a second straw and blow across the top of the straw placed in the colored water. This creates a difference in pressure that pulls the water up the straw. Then, one student climbs to the top of a ladder and pretends to be a tree. He is a couple feet above a cup of water. He sucks through an elongated straw in order to pull the water all the way up to his leaves. He raises his arms as he successfully takes a sip! A greater appreciation for the hard work of plants and plant systems is developed.

There is also a presentation on fisheries ecosystems by Dan Brauch with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The students act out the life cycle of a kokanee salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka). Students are selected to either act out the role of a kokanee salmon or the role of a limiting factor. The salmon (students with the assigned role) are released from the hatchery, where they have to travel to Blue Mesa Reservoir, survive for 2-5 years, and then travel upstream to spawn. With limiting factors restricting the number of kokanee salmon that make it back upstream, not many students make it to the end of the course. They frantically run around and most of them have been snatched up by lake trout, which grow to be just about the same size as a 4th grade student. Maybe a little exaggeration there, but it got the point across to the students. Then the number of kokanee salmon is increased, the number of limiting factors like lake trout are reduced, and the life cycle is reenacted. Students more successfully run through the course of the kokanee life cycle. Dan asks students to explain the limiting factors and students provide answers like predation, dams, and anglers. Students then expand on ways to address or manage for the limiting factors of kokanee salmon in our own Blue Mesa Reservoir.

Laura Tomcek with the National Park Service discusses the importance of water conservation at her station. First, she uses a gallon of water to represent all of the water on Earth. She uses a quarter cup to represent the fresh water. Two tablespoons make up the liquid freshwater, and eight drops from a dropper make up all of our rivers and lakes. Then students discuss ways humans use this limited resource. Our three biggest uses of water are leaky faucets, washing machines, and showers. Well informed, they are ready to run through a relay race. They split evenly into teams to race each other. Rolling dice at the leaky faucet station, each student hops on one foot the number they rolled with a full glass of water. They move to the washing machine station where they spin a number of times, and then they pour the water back and forth between two cups at the shower station. They race to the end, empty the remaining water into a bin, and race to hand off the cup to the next student. The group that conserves the most water joyously wins the race.

Dan Zadra and Brandon Diamond with Colorado Parks and Wildlife lead discussions about wildlife that utilize riparian habitat. Skulls and pelts line a log by the Gunnison River. This includes species like moose, badgers, coyotes, and prairie dogs. Dan uses the teeth, eye location, and nasal cavity of each skull to help identify 1) species 2) their food source and 3) how they depend on riparian habitat. He fills the presentation with helpful sayings like, “eyes on the side, born to hide, and eyes in the front, born to hunt.” A moose has teeth for grinding vegetation so they are herbivorous. They are heavily dependent on the vegetation that grows within a riparian area. Also, having eyes on the side, students know that they are prey, vulnerable to predators, and can benefit from having a greater range of vision while their head is lowered for grazing.

Jim Lovelace with the Bureau of Land Management demonstrates the significance of ethical camping. He informs students about where to camp, where to go to the bathroom, and where to dispose of waste in riparian areas. Students put a flag where they think they should go to the bathroom, and at the end of four presentations, students observe the sheer number of flags waving in the wind. Students also learn about the problems associated with camp fires. Fires sterilize soil and the number of fire rings can drastically increase like the number of pin flags used to show bathroom spots. Jim demonstrates solutions to reduce fire rings and shows students the appropriate size wood to burn.

Nicole Gibney with the National Park Service introduces students to macro-invertebrates. First, students break down the meaning of aquatic macroinvertebrates. They learn about life cycles and metamorphosis. Macroinvertebrates are in their juvenile state in the water, and this is when it is the most fun for students to catch and try their hand at identifying the aquatic critters. The water is flowing pretty quickly through the Gunnison River, so Nicole took the pleasure of collecting samples ahead of time and placing them in tubs with helpful identification keys. Students huddle around the tubs and spend a little time looking at different macroinvertebrates.

Last, but certainly not least, Ashley Hom with the US Forest Service guides students through the process of calculating stream flows and the significance of understanding stream hydrology. She even helps me to better visualize and guess the quantity of water flowing through the Gunnison River.  Ashley starts out by introducing students to United States Forest Service and their role in our public lands. She informs students about good stewardship practices by inserting fun sayings like, “don’t leave your TP from your pee-pee.”  She then brings some real science into the mix, and students measure how quickly a stick floats 100 feet in 10 seconds. Students compare their estimated flow rate of cubic feet per second (cfs) against their calculated cfs flow rate.

At the end of the day, everyone has learned a lot, including myself. This is a fantastic event, and I am grateful for having attended and even participated. I would personally like to thank the presenters who took the time to plan and organize such fun and educational stations. The community benefits significantly from a deep understanding of our watershed. They also walked away with the tools they need to be environmental stewards and best practices for water resources.

Water in the West: Lake San Cristabol

By: Marissa Markus 

On May 11th, Frank and I made the scenic road trip from Gunnison to Lake City to tour the natural and picturesque Lake San Cristobal.  We looked for the Slumgullion slide that formed Lake San Cristobal about a thousand years ago after the slide blocked off the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. We drove partially up Slumgullion Pass and stopped at an overlook still splotched with snow. Below us was a breathtaking view of Lake San Cristobal. It seemed peaceful and quiet compared to the hustle and bustle of the summer season. Right now, the reservoir fills from spring runoff. This is crucial to fulfill Lake City’s plan for augmentation.

Lake City has 1999 junior water rights for two municipal wells, but the 2002 drought brought to light the realistic threats a changing climate has on accessing water. The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District participated in a partnership to install a spillway gate at the historic outlet of the lake. This project was a partnership with Hinsdale County and the town of Lake City. The purpose of the spillway is to control the top three feet of lake storage that can then be used to help augment existing and future wells in Lake Fork Basin. This helps protect users against downstream calls. In addition, it maintains lake levels for uses like recreation and fishing.

Frank and I drove down the pass to take a closer look at the Obermeyer spillway gate. The gate was installed in 2012 and uses an air-filled bladder to raise, lower, and reposition the gate. The appealing thing about this gate is that it doesn’t take away from the aesthetic beauty of the natural lake, which brings recreational tourists and locals alike to explore the lake’s potential. Monte Hanna, with Hinsdale County Road and Bridge Department, helps as we measure the lake height on the staff gage and make minor adjustments to the Obermeyer controls. Frank literally lays on his stomach across a boulder below the spillway gate to get an accurate read on the gage. He’s dedicated. Fortunately, with such dedicative efforts from UGRWCD, Hinsdale County, and the Town of Lake City, this project successfully protects instream flow and minimum lake levels determined by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and augments water for the city, all while maintaining the aesthetic beauty of the lake.


Water in the West: Balancing Water Users’ Needs

By: Marissa Markus

On May 10, 2017, I attended the Taylor Local User Group (TLUG) meeting as a guest. TLUG meetings are held at the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) office for users of Taylor Park Reservoir and Taylor River. UGRWCD hosts a diversity of meetings pertaining to constituents and their water management needs, but the purpose of this meeting was to incorporate users’ flow requests into the Taylor Park Reservoir operations plan proposal. Earlier this year, the group met and discussed how much water they wanted and when. In general, the plan incorporates hydrologic conditions, ramping rate stipulations, peak flow targets, end of year flow and storage targets, and release requests by users and requests discussed at the Four Parties meeting. The plan utilized the May 15 forecast data of 107,000 acre feet (AF) of April-July runoff into Taylor Park Reservoir. The plan was then updated and included actual data through May 18th. Even since then, Frank Kugel, the General Manager at UGRWCD suggests that since inflows to the reservoir have been higher than previous projections, there may be a need to increase releases beyond what is presented in the current plan. Adjustments could be made to prevent Taylor Park Reservoir from spilling. This means that Frank will have to continue to make changes to his fun and fancy excel spreadsheets that compiles data and helps forecast flows.

As you may have noticed, predicting and managing flows for a diversity of stakeholders can be complicated and requires frequent adjustments. As Frank likes to say, “If everyone leaves equally mad, then I have done my job.” I didn’t find that to be the case, though. Remembering that this year is forecasted to operate as a wet year, I felt a good sense of community at the meeting. Frank successfully coordinated with Bureau of Reclamation, the angler representative, the agriculture representative, the private land representative, the Uncompahgre user representative, the marina representative, and the fisheries representative to adopt an operating plan for Taylor Park Reservoir. Managing flow releases from the reservoir is no easy task, but I would like believe that if there is a water challenge, UGRWCD likes to take a stab at a solution. Better yet, in this case, they created a useable solution and reasonable plan.




Water in the West: Intern Introduction

By: Marissa Markus

I would like to introduce myself so that I may explain how I became so interested in watershed management. I moved to Gunnison, Colorado in August of 2008 from Kingwood, New Jersey. Gunnison appealed to me for several reasons, one being that it was so similar and yet so different from where I had grown up. Gunnison and Kingwood are both small, rural towns filled with charismatic and hardworking individuals, making Gunnison instantly feel like home. I’ll admit it though, it did take me a while to not miss the thick, green forests of Kingwood and appreciate the dry, patchy sage-steppe of Gunnison. A while being about two years. I vividly remember the moment I did start to appreciate it. I had just spent a little time traveling, and I was driving home (to Gunnison) from Denver. Afternoon storms had just finished blowing over and everything was happily wet. I rolled down my window and was surprised by the prominent smell of sagebrush. I used to like the way the rain smelled in New Jersey too, but this time I had missed the smell of sage. That was when I realized that every place, every habitat had something unique and wonderful at least hidden within. I would spend the following seven years developing an intimate relationship with this place, my home, and our community of Gunnison, Colorado.

I graduated from Western State Colorado University (WSCU) in 2012 with a double major in Environmental Studies and Ecology. Upon graduating, I began digging my roots deep in the ground because, well, that’s where the water is. I became a wildlife research technician, and I worked with the Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly and white-tailed ptarmigan in the alpine, Gunnison sage-grouse and Gunnison prairie dogs in the sage-steppe, and burrowing owls and black-footed ferrets in the grasslands. You name the species, I probably lovingly harassed it. Having said that, the summer of 2013 was the most time I had ever spent wandering around the sagebrush. Simply put, it was humbling, and I was honored to do the work I was doing. Being in love with this place, I could not help but begin to question whether my work was a reasonable contribution to the land and its constituents.

I was always drawn to the water. The wetlands were literally in my backyard in New Jersey and the Gunnison River has been out my front door here. It is beautiful, powerful, ebbing and flowing, stubborn yet flexible, hot or cold with little in-between, a trickle or a rush, and a life breathing force. I could go on … but basically I can relate because it’s a lot like me. Or one could at least dream big, right? On a serious note, it is a great and powerful resource that needs to be delicately balanced or life cannot sustain. If we do not use it wisely at the headwaters, then the consequences are ten-fold. Drawing from this passion for water that has always been deep inside me and with this yearning to make a positive influence in our community, I enrolled in the Master’s in Environmental Land Management Program (MEM) at WSCU.

With my history of wildlife research and writing dry, scientific papers, I hoped to easily transition from biology to hydrology. I figured I could at-least get my feet wet, so to speak, and start to network within the water community. I recently accepted an internship position with UGRWCD as an opportunity to learn 1) how water is managed in the Gunnison River Basin and 2) what the UGRWCD’s role is in that management. I never thought that I would find myself here, blogging for UGRWCD, because I love how reclusive wildlife research can be and how impersonal scientific literature is. I quickly surrendered to the fact that water is a social issue, and I’ll have to be both personable and passionate to address the issues surrounding water. It is an issue that directly influences my home and my community. Thus, I started volunteering on the Wet Meadows Project which works to restore critical riparian habitat, I attended water conferences, and I started attending UGRWCD board meetings. At this point, I am still enthralled with this organization, and I am thrilled to tour water projects in the basin and attend meetings and workshops.

Cottonwood Seeds

Good ideas are like cottonwood seeds .
Floating by gently in the breeze,
Swirling in the air currents with ease.

Dearly beloved trees,
Why do you choose to hold on to your leaves?
And why do you choose to let go of your seeds?
Maybe it is so they take root.
Like an idea in our minds,
That grows with passing time.

It takes work to nurture these things
Dearly beloved mind,
Please let now be the time.
Let these ideas take root!
And from that my roots shoot!

If this idea can’t
Tomorrow is another chance
To watch the cottonwood seeds dance

By: Carlo Demma