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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. 

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