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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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