Winter’s unlikely weather may be new norm for water forecasters

Neversink 2017

Neversink was a popular fishing resort on the Gunnison River below Gunnison before Blue Mesa Dam backed up the river to nine miles west of Gunnison. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan.

This past spring year was particularly mettlesome for water managers seeking to balance water supplies and demand in the Upper Gunnison River Basin.

Although there currently are no shortages of water this year, the vagaries of last winter, from unseasonably warm to unseasonably cold, may hold some warning about future water forecasting for regional hydrologists, cautioned Greg Smith, Senior Hydrologist for NOAA’s Colorado River Basin Forecasting Center in Salt Lake.

The art of forecasting water supplies has as one of its main tools historical data and the rapidity of changes in the Earth’s climate recently has been handcuffing the best efforts of forecasters, said Smith during the last week’s Aspinall Unit Operations meeting in Grand Junction.

The quarterly meetings, sponsored by the Western Colorado Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation, offer a look at what hydrologists and weather forecasters portend for future water supplies in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

“2017 was challenging,” Smith said when addressing the year’s weather. “When we go from one (weather) extreme to the other, as we have seen this year, that makes our job even more difficult.”

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The Beartown SNOTEL site in Mineral County gets some summer maintenance from Zach Wilson. This winter, similar remote-sensing sites were buried by snow. Photo by Mike Ardison.

A pair of linked examples was the unusual warming in March, which caused some very early low-elevation melting and ensuing runoff, followed by an unseasonably cold May (“February-like temperatures,” Smith said) which drastically slowed that runoff and caused concern among water managers wondering when and if the runoff would begin anew.

All this was tied to the near-record snows of late December and January, which overwhelmed some of the region’s remote-sensing SNOTEL sites.

“Several sites quit reporting and we thought they had broken but in reality they had been completely buried by the snow,” Smith said. “In March, a lot of the sites (in the Upper Gunnison Basin) recorded their highest totals on record … some of which go back 39 years.”

Are the aberrant weather patterns of last winter just that or are they indications of a new normal that eventually will become part of the historical data?

Smith isn’t sure.

“Well, we try to use long-term records in making our (water-supply) forecasts, at least 20 years or more,” Smith said. “So even these recent weather patterns will take a while to become part of the permanent record.

“And we’re certainly aware of weather changes. Even a few degrees one way or the other affects snowmelt and eventually water supplies.”

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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.

 

 

Power plant shutdown puts end to peak flows on Gunnison River

East Portal spring 2017

The Gunnison River at the East Portal diversion for the Gunnison Tunnel in May of this year when flows were around 10,500 cfs. This year’s spring peak-flow releases to meet various downstream demands ended today. Photo/story by Dave Buchanan

The Western Colorado Area office of the Bureau of Reclamation announced today (Friday, June 16) that the spring peak-flow operations on the Gunnison River have ended. “Due to an issue with the power plant at Crystal Dam, the ramp down was forced to end prematurely,” the announcement said. A BuRec official said the power plan “tripped offline” and as of late Friday the plant still was awaiting an inspection.

Initially the BuRec had planned to continue ramping the peak flows through Monday but the loss of the power plant meant river flows dropped to their previously set post-peak level.

“As of today (June 16) releases are being made through the bypass gates at a rate of 2,150 cfs. This has put flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon around 1,150 cfs,” Friday’s announcement said. The Gunnison Tunnel, which carries water from the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre Valley, currently is taking about 1,000 cfs.

According to the Bureau, the releases will continue at this rate “for the foreseeable future,” with further adjustments possible depending on runoff into Blue Mesa Reservoir.

As of Thursday, Blue Mesa was at an elevation of 7,501.88 feet, which puts it at 81.6 percent of full pool and 18 feet below full pool (7,520 feet elevation).

Unless something unexpected happens to the current runoff forecast, Bureau officials it is expected the reservoir will fill this summer.

 

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

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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).

fleck-water

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.

High water? Time to change the game plan

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The confluence of the North Fork (top) and the mainstem Gunnison River (entering from right) shows the value of having a dam-controlled river to fish during runoff. The Pleasure Park is as far left of photo. Photo and article by Dave Buchanan

Nearly six months after putting away your fishing rods and waders, spring is luring you back to the river.

At first glance it seems a Fool’s Paradise because everywhere you look, the winter’s abundant snowpack has rivers and streams blown out with runoff, a situation that doesn’t seem likely to end soon.

Fishing, you glumly think, is out.

But not so fast. While fly fishing during runoff isn’t quite the pastoral setting otherwise portrayed in fishing magazines and TV ads, don’t count out your chances of catching fish even when rivers run the color and consistency of a cappuccino.

“You really do have a lot of opportunities, you just have to change your game plan a bit,” offered veteran angling guide Will Sands of Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt. “Sometimes (high water) enables us to change our thought processes about where we can fish. With some forethought and a bit of planning, you’ll be surprised at the quality of fishing you can find.”

Fishing guides know that their livelihood depends on having satisfied clients, even when runoff darkens the water on most streams, and here are some high-water fishing tips gleaned from experienced anglers who know better than to stay home when a river somewhere is calling their name.

Fish the tailwaters – Western Colorado has several excellent fisheries in the tailwaters immediately below dams where access is easy. While runoff may cause the flows to increase, the water comes out clear and cold.

“We’re really lucky here in the valley (because) the Fryingpan (River) for the most part is managed to the best interest of anglers,” Sands said. “Certain flow levels on the Fryingpan are more accommodating to anglers and water managers try to keep the river to those flows.”

In addition to the Fryingpan River, the list of tailwaters includes the Gunnison, Taylor, Yampa and San Juan rivers. Continue reading