FROM THE DESK OF THE GENERAL MANAGER
Sonja Chavez, General Manager
2020 REFLECTIONS ON WATER
Our children are back at school, our local community got through our last big weekend of the 2020 summer tourist season, hunting season is underway…it feels like a good time to reflect on our water year.
Where do I start?… Ah yes, COVID-19. The number of people escaping the city and coming to our beautiful valley to relax and play in the outdoors – both in our forests and on and around our rivers and lakes – was jaw-dropping. In my 18 years in this valley, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many tourists. I think many of us are grateful as our community continues to recover economically.
This year (2020) was a tough year in terms of water availability. At the end of this spring, we were thankful to have an average snowpack materialize after having such a dry fall 2019 and winter of 2020 (especially January and February). Unfortunately, dry soil moisture conditions and unseasonably early warm temperatures meant that our water supply was literally disappearing before our very eyes. Peak flow occurred about two weeks early and quickly fell. Our summer monsoon season was short-lived and modeled inflow forecasts to our reservoirs continued to be revised downward.
Our challenge was to make the best use of what would be a diminishing water supply, while also helping our community get through tough economic and hydrologic times. We needed to sustain our natural environment, support recreation and agricultural, and preserve enough storage to protect our community against a potential second year of drought in 2021. Not an easy task when one considers that our recent hydrology has been marked by dramatic and erratic swings from highs to lows.
Our water community is no stranger to drought these past twenty years, so we got to work. Consider, for example, the role of the Taylor Local Users Group (TLUG). When it became evident that run-off was going to be early and inflow projections were dropping, the TLUG (comprised of the Upper Gunnison District and representatives from each water use community) made a difficult and early recommendation to the Bureau of Reclamation regarding Taylor
Reservoir operational releases. That decision was to forego “typical” fall releases in order to provide enough water in sufficient quantity and timing for water users – June through August. It allowed agricultural water users to finish their only hay crop of the season (i.e. they would forego any potential partial second cut and would not put fall water on their fields). Commercial rafters and anglers were able to make the most of a limited seasonal water supply while overcoming operational challenges due to COVID restrictions. Our fishery remained healthy as flows were maintained at a level that kept temperatures below the point at which fish start to experience stress during the hottest months of July and August. It required frequent communication among water users and water managers, but above all else, it required a willingness to compromise and sacrifice for the greater good of our entire community. We made it through Labor Day weekend, just barely, and the TLUG represented the community admirably during a very tough hydrologic year.
On another note, our augmentation water supply sources, Meridian Lake (a.k.a. Long Lake) and Lake San Cristobal (LSC) met their designated purposes. Meridian made its annual Instream Flow (ISF) releases in early September to provide supplemental water for the natural environment of the Slate River and LSC (located in Hinsdale County near Lake City) provided Instream Flow (ISF) releases to the Lake Fork of the Gunnison beginning the third week of August when Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed fishing restrictions on the Lake Fork. To learn more about LSC ISF releases, check out our newsletter article, Lake San Cristobal: An Important Drought Response Tool.
While all of the above could be the end of this story, mother nature wasn’t done with us yet! We saw a foot of wet snow September 8-9 after being in the 80’s only a couple of days prior. How’s that for a hydrologic ‘swing’? It certainly brought some needed moisture and helped clear the air of smoke drifting from wildfires on the west coast and in the Grand Junction area, but it also wreaked havoc on our community with downed power lines, damage to homes and personal property, loss of heat, etc. My children couldn’t believe they were getting a “snow day” from school. My best to everyone out there still trying to clean-up from the mess and my thanks to our utility workers, public works department, emergency services, etc.
These are just a couple of examples of how our water user representatives, Boards of Directors and our community have come together during both a pandemic, a severe drought, and a huge early snowstorm to support our community. Water is our life blood. It starts in the very heart of the Colorado River Basin, right here in the headwaters of the Upper Gunnison. It flows through the veins of this community, sometimes challenging us, but also nurturing and sustaining us, and all that we appreciate and love about our home.
Let’s continue to work together and plan for these challenging times. Let’s make smart decisions and take actions now that support the responsible use of our existing and future water supplies.
Until next time, please stay safe out there!
Welcome Sue Uerling!
The Upper Gunnison District would like to introduce you to our newest team member, Ms. Sue Uerling. Sue has assumed the District administrative assistant position previously held by Ms. Beverly “Bev” Richards for 14 years (Bev is now serving as the District’s Water Resource Specialist). The administrative assistant position is critical to our organization as it serves as our first line of communication with our public, provides critical support to our staff and Board, and most importantly, keeps the cogs of our organizational wheel turning efficiently and effectively.
Sue has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Marketing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has spent the last 30 plus years in a variety of administrative and managerial roles primarily for nonprofit organizations. Most recently, she worked for Elk Mountain Therapy Associates as the Office Manager.
Previously, she served as the Executive Director of Six Points Evaluation and Training and the Gunnison Arts Center. She is also a dedicated volunteer and community member servingon various boards and committees.
“I am very excited about this opportunity to learn all about our watershed and water issues,” said Uerling. “Water is so important to our valley and I’m honored to be part of an organization that supports the responsible care of our existing and future water supplies.”
Sue has lived in the Gunnison valley since 2006 with her husband, Colin, and daughter, Erica, and was recently blessed with her first grandchild. Congratulations!
Lake San Cristobal: An Important Drought Response Tool
In 2011, the Lake San Cristobal Water Activity Enterprise, a partnership between the Town of Lake City, Hinsdale County, and Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, obtained a water right to store 950 acre-feet of water in Lake San Cristobal. (One acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, or enough water to cover one acre of land one foot deep.) The water is stored by means of an outlet structure that controls releases of water from the Lake into the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. Under the terms of the water right decree, releases are made to protect water rights that would otherwise be curtailed when a senior water right places a “call” on the Lake Fork. These are called augmentation releases. To obtain this protection, the water right owner must purchase an Augmentation Certificate from the Enterprise. When augmentation releases are not required, the outlet structure maintains the lake at a level which enhances the recreational uses, fishery, and wildlife habitat.
When the water right was decreed, the Enterprise dedicated 200 acre-feet of storage to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to be used to protect the natural environment under the CWCB’s senior water right for instream flows in the Lake Fork. This dedication is outlined in a contract between the Enterprise and the CWCB which provides that the CWCB may direct releases of the dedicated water at any rate it deems necessary to protect its instream flow water right.
At the end of August, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) determined that rising water temperatures caused by declining flows in the Lake Fork were having a dramatic effect on the fishery and asked anglers to curtail fishing activity during the hot afternoon. Noting this, Enterprise officials notified the CWCB that its instream flow right was not being met. After consultation with CPW, the CWCB requested that the Enterprise release the dedicated water at the rate of five cubic feet per second (cfs) to maintain the instream flow. The Enterprise complied immediately. As flows in the Lake Fork continued to decline later that week the CWCB requested an increase to eight cfs, and the Enterprise again complied. These releases maintained the instream flow at 35 cfs, the minimum amount necessary to protect the natural environment to a reasonable degree during the hottest and driest period of late August and early September. Under the release schedule, the dedicated water was estimated to last about 13 days.
Once the dedicated water is exhausted, the CWCB will be entitled to place a call on the Lake Fork to protect its senior instream flow water right. The call would require augmentation releases from Lake San Cristobal of approximately 0.3 cfs to protect holders of Augmentation Certificates and curtailment of all other water rights junior in priority to the instream flow right.
The Enterprise has storage in Lake San Cristobal in excess of the amount required to meet the augmentation requirements of Certificate holders. The Enterprise Board of Directors met on August 28, 2020 and determined it would serve the community to make voluntary releases to continue to protect the natural environment in the Lake Fork, if necessary. Based on discussions with the Enterprise Board, the voluntary release would be at 5 cfs.
Gunnison Tomichi Valley Ditch
The Gunnison and Tomichi Valley Association Ditch (GTVA) project was submitted to the District as part of the 2020 District Grant Program. This project is a collaborative effort between owners of the GTVA ditch, Trout Unlimited, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to replace the irrigation return/sluice gate at the point of diversion. The ditch delivers irrigation water from the Gunnison River to over 600 acres of grass hay meadow and pasture in both the Gunnison and Tomichi valleys.
The improvements to the GVTA ditch will help to promote the use of well-established Gunnison Valley water rights and will allow better management of irrigation water. This will provide many benefits to water users such as increased water use efficiency, improved water use management, and reduction of in-channel disturbance and ditch maintenance. Also, the project will contribute to the maintenance of important pre-compact water rights, provide measures to improve water use efficiency in times when water supplies may diminish, and will help to implement watershed management actions and practices.
Calder Farm and Water Efficiency
Calder Farm is a small family-owned organic vegetable operation that grows two acres of mixed vegetables on the southeast corner of the Van Tuyl Ranch through a lease agreement with the City of Gunnison.
Calder Farm requested funding for their water efficiency project via the District’s 2020 Grant Program process and was funded as a Watershed Management Planning (WMP) Demonstration Project. The project involved upgrading the farm’s drip irrigation system with the intent of expanding cultivated growing areas and improving water efficiency for row crop growing, which is not too common in the upper Gunnison River basin.
Their goal of improving irrigation water use efficiency and expanding their operations through innovative practices including the use of solar energy made this project an ideal candidate for Demonstration Project funding. The information gained through the process can be used to demonstrate how these methods may be used in other areas of the Upper Gunnison basin. In addition, Calder Farms provides educational information to local groups about sustainable farming practices for these types of operations.
UGRWCD Mini-Grant Program 2020
The Upper Gunnison Mini-Grant Program was developed by the District Education Committee and began in 2014. The grant provides up to $300 for projects that support educating our community about water in our valley. Over the course of the program, we have had many interesting projects. These include supporting continuing education and training for teachers in fields related to water, a “Water in the Valley” painting developed by the local elementary and middle school children, a fully functioning water wheel constructed by the industrial arts class at the high school, and the creation of rainstick musical instruments combined with discussion of the water cycle and uses of water.
For 2020, we have received several applications and again they range in diversity. Coldharbour Institute received funding for an agricultural solar skills workshop where local gardeners and producers were shown the benefits of solar power in their operations. Gunnison Middle School was awarded funding for supplies and the incorporation of shaded tarps to support learning in their outdoor lab near the Legacy Pond and Deck. The Crested Butte Community School was awarded funding to expand their ability to further inform students about stream ecology and make connections between ecosystems and the water they use to survive.
Such programs help ensure that the universal benefits of healthy water systems will be passed on to the next generation, maybe inspiring the next generation of water managers, engineers, hydrologists and chemists. These grants are available to anyone wanting to educate our community about water in the Gunnison Valley so that we can continue to support and maintain the health of our local water systems. If you have an interesting water education idea, contact Beverly Richards (email@example.com).