Water managers face unusual dilemma: Too much water

Blue Mesa full 2017

A summer storm over Blue Mesa Reservoir west of Gunnison. At this writing, the reservoir was more than 98 percent full. Story and photo by Dave Buchanan.

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. It’s better to be rich.” – Gertrude Stein, American novelist.

Farmers, ranchers and domestic water managers all agree with Ms. Stein when it comes to matters of water. Rich is much better than poor.

And water-rich is what the Upper Gunnison Basin finds itself this year.

So much so, the Bureau of Reclamation faces some timing decisions later this summer and fall in emptying swollen reservoirs along the Gunnison River.

“It’s going to take a lot of work” to reach the winter operating level at Blue Mesa Reservoir, said Erik Knight, lead hydrologist for the Bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office in Grand Junction.

Speaking at Thursday’s quarterly Aspinall Unit Operations meeting, Knight said the reservoir, which Saturday was 98.5 percent full with 817,000 acre feet of water, needs to reach 7,490 elevation by the end of December to avoid icing problems upstream.

The current elevation is 7,518 feet elevation.

“We’re going to be running a lot of water (through Blue Mesa) to meet the Dec. 31 deadline,” Knight said. “But right now our lower reservoirs also are full and Crystal (Dam) is at full power plant release.”

The reason anglers, recreationists and Chamber of Commerce folks have a bank-to-bank Blue Mesa is the result of the late-season storms that blanketed the Upper Gunnison Basin and a cooler-than-normal spring that delayed the runoff.

At last count, inflows into Blue Mesa this year are around 136 percent of normal, and recent rains have continued the inflows.

Also brimming are Crystal Reservoir (88 percent) and Morrow Point Reservoir (98 percent).

Knight said releases out of Crystal are around 1,900 cfs, which is the most possible without spilling the reservoir.

“We have no plans to spill Crystal,” he said.

One beneficiary of all that water is Lake Powell, which currently is 67 feet down or 62 percent full. That level is 17 feet higher than the same time last year but don’t expect Powell to fill much more this year.

Most of the water released by Upper Basin states will be passing through to Lake Mead and then downstream to the Lower Basin and Mexico.

Around 9 million acre-feet of water is expected to be released this summer, more than the 8.25-million acre feet required by the Colorado River Compact and enough to delay concerns about water shortages in Lake Mead.




Author says collaboration, not conflict, is key to West’s water concerns


You don’t have to live west of the 100th Meridian to know water matters.

However, it’s here, in the Colorado River Basin, where we find the riddle of water management as vital as it is uneven.

Whether it’s keeping a small garden green in the desert-like reaches of the Four Corners or lazing about on a Lake Powell houseboat, conflict and crisis seem to be daily norm.

That conflict has spawned a bookshelf worth of literature, ranging from Wallace Stegner’s prose to that of Edward Abbey, Marc Reisner, Ann Zwinger and countless others. And what about Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America,” and Normal McLean and Gary LaFontaine?

The latest addition to your library should be John Fleck’s provocative “Water is for Fighting Over,” with the apt subtitle “and Other Myths about Water in the West” (Island Press, 2016, 246 pp).


The option to winner-take-all is a collaborative approach to water management, says author John Fleck.

We’ve all heard the quote attributed (incorrectly) to Mark Twain about, “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’ over.”

But as Fleck points out in this well-conceived, thoughtful and surprisingly optimistic book, fighting hasn’t been and still isn’t the answer, since the West continues to grow despite near-constant laments about the lack of water.

What Fleck sees as key to the flourishing of the Southwest is not winner-take-all but collaboration and cooperation, with more of us realizing growth is possible even when facing increased demands on a limited water supply.

The book’s message, Fleck told the Huffington Post, is that when people have less water, they use less.

This coming together didn’t happen overnight.

Fleck, now the director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, rightly argues that the changes date from the appearance in 1986 of Reisner’s eye-opening “Cadillac Desert,” which spawned a gradual awareness in the importance of collaborating.

This was never more evident than in the last two major Colorado River agreements—the 2001 surplus allocation agreement and the 2007 shortage sharing agreement.

“The states came together and said, ‘We need to figure out how to ratchet down use,’” said Fleck in an interview with Wired magazine.

While the realization that success comes only when everyone makes some sacrifices doesn’t preclude conflicts between users, it can make those users more open to sharing the load.

In his 30-year career as an environmental journalist, Fleck discovered that stories of “people running out of water were the exception and not the rule,” said Fleck.

“It took a long time to make that pivot to the realization that there was a story here about what people are doing successfully,” he said.