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.




Sale of Steamboat ski area marks more change in state industry


Steamboat Ski Area has new owners and now is part of a 12-resort package, which includes Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley plus the heli-ski operation, Canadian Mountain Holidays. Photo – Marty Foubister, Creative Commons 

The announcement Monday of the sale of Steamboat Ski Area, one of this state’s iconic (can I say that? It’s terribly over-used but in this case actually means something) ) resorts brings yet another major player into the ski biz in Colorado.

It also contributes to the rapid extinction of locally owned ski areas in the state.

The sale to the joint venture of KSL Capital Partners and an affiliate of Henry Crown and Company, along with the completion by the joint venture of the purchase of Mammoth Resorts in California, combines 12 mountain resorts, among them Winter Park, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and the four Mammoth Mountain resorts plus other holdings, and an estimated 6 million annual skier visits. That’s a bunch o’ skiers, boarders and winter users.

Henry Crown and the Crown family, as you may or may not know, is the owner of Aspen Skiing Company, which includes Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. But don’t expect your Steamboat pass to get you onto Aspen slopes, at least not this winter. A report on the Steamboat website said the Aspen/Snowmass resorts and properties will remain separate from the latest dealings.

It’s not like the Steamboat or Mammoth sales were unexpected; many of the preliminary details of the pending purchases of Intrawest and Mammoth Resorts were made public in April. Nor was Steamboat sold because the resort is hurting financially or standing still in its quest to meet skiers’ wants. In fact, with an expansion planned for the Pioneer Ridge area and hopes for a new gondola into Bashor Bowl, Steamboat seems ripe for a new owner with deep pockets.

What remains are concerns as to how being owned by another aggressive investment company will affect Steamboat, meaning not only the resort but Steamboat Springs the city as well.  Intrawest Resorts Holdings, Inc., the former owner of Steamboat, wouldn’t have sold had it not thought the sale would bring a profit, which is how investment funds work.

Which means more changes at Steamboat should be expected.

Last May KSL joined with Crown in plans to acquire Intrawest Resorts Holdings, Inc., Steamboat’s now-former owner and the purchase of Mammoth Resorts, the owner of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, Snow Summit, Bear Mountain and June Mountain, all in California. Monday’s announcement finalized all the dealings.

All of which makes the whole ski world become that much more corporate.




CPW gets its poacher: Californian pinned with wildlife crimes

Here is something we can’t hear often enough: Colorado Parks and Wildlife stuck a California poacher with a pile of wildlife violations and now he faces not only big-time fines but also the potential loss of his hunting and fishing privileges.

Read the press release here.

According to CPW, Kyle Odle, 29, of Menifee, Calif., not only is an egregious repeat offender (many of the charges against him include the words “multiple counts”) but a Marine veteran who falsified his status as a vet to assist in committing wildlife crimes.

After reading the litany of charges against this clown, it’s hard to figure out if there is any  wildlife interest he didn’t offend. Properly licensed hunters, both resident and nonresident? Check. Vets? Check. Landowners? Check. Guides and outfits? Check. Biologists and mule deer conservation groups trying to restore Colorado’s mule deer? Check. License agents? Check. And so on.

Odle was sentenced to pay around $11,000 in fines (plus a $5,500 reimbursement to hunters he cheated by pretending to be a legal guide) and, pending a hearing, may lose his hunting and fishing privileges for life in this and 42 other states.

That he escaped jail time for potential felony charges is a pity since he deserves some time alone. Not that he would likely spend it thinking of where he went wrong, but sticking a felony charge (and its restrictions on owning firearms) on his record would insure he wouldn’t be able to hunt again.

The finding of the 14th Judicial District Court in Moffat County comes as good news because getting convictions on wildlife crimes has never been easy. Especially so in metropolitan areas where courts have backed-up dockets filled with horrific civil cases needing adjudication.

However, rural judges and attorneys have long had a better understanding of what wildlife means to the people of the state and have pursued convictions citing the crimes. I don’t know any over-worked wildlife officer eager to spend time testifying in court when that could be spent teaching the positive aspects of wildlife management, but here it was time well spent.

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.


Over-stressed Colorado River takes on another load; Blue Mesa reaches 87% full

pat Crystal falls 2011

A viewer (upper right) is dwarfed by this earlier spill from Crystal Dam on the Gunnison River. The reservoir was forecast to begin spilling this year on May 18. Dave Buchanan

Water news from the Front Range today is focused on the approval of the Record of Decision for the Windy Gap Firming Project, which features construction of the proposed Chimney Hollow Reservoir, a 90,000 acre-foot impoundment north of Denver that will be filled with water from the Colorado River.

The reservoir will provide water for cities within the Northern Colorado Metropolitan Water District.

blog post from Coyote Gulch gives the details plus links to various sources.

The most-recent Hutchins Water Center report was sent out today from the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.  Among the topics covered is the latest Blue Mesa runoff forecast from the Bureau of Reclamation reported earlier this week.

The May 15 forecast is for 825,000 acre feet of unregulated inflow into Blue Mesa, amounting to 122 percent of the 30-year average and down a bit from the forecast two weeks earlier.

As expected, the latest forecast is down considerably from the Feb. 15 forecast of 970,000 acre feet, which illustrates the difficulty of making long-range forecasts when dealing with something as variable as the weather.

As one hydrologist told me at the Water Center meeting earlier this week, “I’ve been doing this for 36 years and this year is the craziest I’ve seen.”

Blue Mesa currently is 87 percent of full and there still is a good chance it could fill this spring, especially if the current round of wet spring storms continues in the upper Gunnison Basin.

What the new forecast does is moves the water-year classification for the runoff from “Moderately Wet” to “Average Wet,” in turn reducing flow targets to benefit endangered fish in the 19-mile reach of the Gunnison River downstream of Palisade.

Also changed are the peak flows to meet the Black Canyon Water Right and the flushing flows needed to keep the river channel clear through the canyon. Crystal Dam was expected to start spilling May 18 and peak sometime on the 23rd or 24th, with estimated peak flows through the Black Canyon reaching the 10,800 to 12,000 cfs range.

You can find a schedule of flows below the Gunnison Tunnel here.


Snowpack and runoff forecasts grow as winter nears its end


Lake fog hangs over Blue Mesa Reservoir on a minus 7-degree morning earlier this winter. The reservoir is expected to fill this summer thanks to abundant snowpack.

Despite the welcome but unnerving warm spell western Colorado mostly enjoyed in early and mid-February we’re back into winter. This week, anyway, with temperatures around 20 degrees today (Feb. 23) and forecast to say around seasonal though the weekend.

I say “mostly enjoyed” because fruit growers, who work often on hope as much as science, saw some of their apricot trees inch ever-closer to an early bud, a certain precursor of disaster should a late fruit-killing frost hit the Grand Valley. But buds are rather pretty hearty, as some growers and viticulturists have noted, as they’re protected by several layers of outer growth. Young leaves, though, are another story: once the bud “breaks” and inflorescence begins, the degree of susceptibility increases dramatically.

The cold weather, after a February that the National Weather Service says has been the warmest February on record since 1907, brought more snow to an already abundant snowpack and another bump in runoff forecasts for the Upper Colorado River Basin. As of Feb. 15, the Western Colorado office of the Bureau of Reclamation said the snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin was 166 recent of average, and translated to a predicted April – July runoff inflow into Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River to be around 970,000 acre feet. That amounts to 144 percent of the 30-year average.

Which, if things remain stable (always a gamble when dealing with weather-related conditions), means Blue Mesa, now at 69 percent full, undoubtedly will fill this summer.As will Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs immediately downstream, and it’s a sure that much water would send flows over the top of Crystal.

The Gunnison flows will join the rest of the Colorado River Basin in giving a much-needed to water levels in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Powell’s inflow are predicted to be around 9.6 million acre feet, 134 percent of average. This could lead to some extra water headed toward Lake Mead in addition to the 8.23 man demanded by the Colorado River Compact. Neither reservoir is expected to fill, of course, since both are so far down.

Even the Dolores River and southwest Colorado are flush this year after at least five years of low snowpack, and a recent announcement from Dolores Water Conservancy District Chief Engineer Ken Curtis confirmed an early summer spill of McPhee Reservoir. “There’s enough snow on the ground that we are comfortable planning a spill,” Curtis told radio station KSJD.

He said the snowpack in the Dolores Basin hit 100-percent of average by February 1, something that normally doesn’t happen until April 1. “The real numbers game is that McPhee Reservoir is 90,000 acre feet down from full and the minim of two (runoff) forecasts is 300,000 acre feet of inflow and most-probable is up closer to 400,000,” Curtis said. “So even that minimum inflow is going to fill up McPhee and make for some excess.”

Don’t start packing for that river trip quite yet. Curtis said “managed releases” won’t begun until at least mid-April and then the levels will be determined by how much water actually materializes. It’s not just boaters who will benefit, Curtis said.

“This excess water provides a lot of scoring flows and other benefits to the fishery” as well as being of ecological importance, Curtis said.

When asked about duration of the spill, Curtis emphasized it’s still early in the forecast.

“I think we’re looking at between 30 and 70 days of spill. That’s a big target and that’s why we don’t want to get too specific now,” he said. “But we will keep running the (runoff) models and give better indications as we get closer to April.”

You can follow the Dolores flows here.

– Photo/story by Dave Buchanan



Extra snowpack boosts runoff forecasts

Despite the mild weather seen across much of the Intermountain West during the early part of February, runoff forecasts across the Upper Colorado River Basin remain well above average.

“Snowpack in several areas now exceeds the annual seasonal peak that typically occurs later in the spring months of April or May,” said the Colorado River Forecast Center.

The CBRFC February runoff forecast


SNOTEL chart courtesy UCRBFC

using SNOTEL data (see accompanying chart) from the Natural Resources and Conservation Service calls for above-average flows across the Upper Colorado River Basin and points out the Gunnison and Dolores river basins, where runoffs may range from 125-150 percent of average. By comparison, the rest of the Colorado River headwaters forecasts generally range between 110 and 120 percent of average, says the CBRFC.

So much snow has to come down this spring that the Bureau of Reclamation announced recently a doubling of releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River, from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 1,200 cfs.

“This increase is in response to the high runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir this spring,” wrote Erik Knight, hydrologist with the BuRec in Grand Junction. “The latest runoff forecast predicts 925,000 acre feet of runoff to Blue Mesa Reservoir between April and July, which is 137 percent of average.”

Knight said Blue Mesa currently is 71 percent full with 586,00 acre feet.

Lake Powell could see 9.60 million acre feet (MAF) (134 percent of average), Fontenelle Reservoir 1.20 MAF (166 percent of average), Flaming Gorge 1.65 MAF (168 percent of average), Blue Mesa Reservoir 925,000 AF (137 percent of average), McPhee Reservoir 440,000 AF (149 percent of average), and Navajo Reservoir 880,000 AF (120 percent of average).

All this means that should these forecasts hold (remember the tenuous nature of such long-term forecasts), the April-July unregulated inflow forecasts for some of the major reservoirs are impressive, to say the least.

Which means good news for the folks watching water levels in Lake Mead.

– Dave Buchanan