Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer

Water worries abound as drought wears on
Blue Mesa Reservoir, shown in an aerial photo, is expected to hit only 50% of capacity this water year. (Courtesy photo)

Although it’s not as parched as other Western Slope reservoirs, the Montrose area’s biggest cup of water, Blue Mesa Reservoir, is still plenty thirsty.

Blue Mesa is at about 345,000 acre feet and sits at 42% full, based on May data, which predict the reservoir will only hit just above 50-percent full — “not very good,” as Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight put it.

“We’re lower than we were at any time in 2020. In 2018, we were below 250,000 acre feet by the end. We’re not projecting to go that low yet, but we’re heading in that direction, that’s for sure,” Knight said Friday.

“The reservoir is pretty low. Runoff hasn’t really kicked into gear, although I think that is starting now,” he added.

Although the Uncompahgre River is a bit bouncier and swelling with some snowmelt, Montrose County and the western side of the state remain locked in drought.

Conditions in the county range from extreme drought to exceptional — the two worst levels — according to US Drought Monitor data.

So far, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which serves about 3,500 shareholders, has been able to fill its contracts at 70%. The association’s storage “account” at Taylor Park Reservoir — which with Blue Mesa and other reservoirs is part of the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit — is full, UVWUA manager Steve Anderson said. (Taylor itself is not expected to fill at 100%, but UVWUA anticipates it will receive the full amount to which it is entitled from the reservoir.)

“I expect our account at Taylor to refill,” Anderson added. “We are storing second-fill water in Taylor right now and my expectation is for us to wind up the season with a full reservoir at Taylor. That means a lot to us, but that’s 100,000 acre feet and we need 600,000 acre feet to run the project. But that’s a good start.”

The storage account at Ridgway Reservoir is close to full, Anderson also said — of 21,000 acre feet of association water, a bit more than 300 acre feet have been used.

“We’re in good shape there. The creeks have finally started to run. The Uncompahgre at Ridgway is up too, so that’s good. We’re in pretty good shape, considering this is the second year of drought situation we’re in,” Anderson said.

But, he added, that’s not the case everywhere: “We don’t have to look very far to find people in worse shape.”

The water picture for the Grand Mesa and North Fork is worse than it is for Montrose, he said, and also pointed to the south, to the Dolores River.

McPhee Reservoir, which the river feeds, is well below average and, the Cortez Journal reported Wednesday, irrigators with contracts for its water have been told to expect between 5 and 10% of their ordinary fulfillments.

“The Dolores is just horrible,” Anderson said. Only one-sixth of the water would ordinarily be delivered from McPhee is coming to users, he said. “That’s pretty sad. We’re fortunate in that respect, that we’re not in those kind of dire straits.”

Region-wide, a state of heightened alert remains for the Upper Colorado River Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), whose storage pot is Lake Powell.

Lake Mead is the storage impoundment for the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the states in each basin have certain responsibilities and legal obligations to divvy up the river water.

Under a drought contingency plan approved in 2019, the Lower Basin states agreed to specific curtailments when Mead falls to a certain level. The Upper Basin agreed to an approach that, among other provisions, would draw water from Blue Mesa, Navajo and Flaming Gorge reservoirs as dictated by drought conditions.

Powell’s levels are within a whisker or two of being too low to sustain hydropower generation. If Powell drops below 3,490 feet elevation, that’s the danger zone, Anderson said in January. As of May 14, Powell was projected to end the water year at 3,543 feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, although the agency also noted “significant uncertainty” at the time.

“Lake Powell is of some concern. We’re getting down to that area where we’re not far to being where we can’t produce power,” Anderson said Friday.

Flaming Gorge has enough storage right now that it can bail out Powell in an absolute emergency, as it could release 2 million acre feet, Anderson said.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, we’ve got one last method of helping it out,” he said.

“Lake Powell is headed toward that magic number that worries us all,” said State Rep. Marc Catlin, who sits on the Colorado River District board. “It depends on how much water we let out. If we do what we’ve been agreeing to do, we will get short. It’s getting to the critical point.”

Under the compact, the Upper Basin has to release 75 million acre feet on a 10-year rolling average, equating to 7.5 million acre feet per year. The Upper Basin has been releasing about 9 million acre feet, Catlin said.

“We use that reservoir (Powell) as our insurance policy and it looks like it’s rapidly approaching that number where we’ll have a struggle. It won’t institute a call, but it will put into play all the precautions we put into place,” he said.

Back at home, the Aspinall Unit also has drought contingency plans that kick in as needed to maintain baseflows and satisfy the requirements of legal records of decision.

In dry years, flow targets are dropped and that helps keep Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs in the unit from running dry, Knight said.

“You would have to have another really dry year again next year, something even worse than this year, to come close to running into a problem,” he said. “It’s just going to be a low reservoir, that everyone will see.”

Downstream flows are also low, but there are still enough for at least some level of recreation and things are not expected to run completely dry, Knight also said.

That the Aspinall Unit’s reservoirs are holding on doesn’t mean there are no local worries and it does not mean the situation couldn’t change.

Anderson said a good season for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association depends on a good season in the Uncompahgre River drainage.

“We’re short in the Uncompahgre this year. It’s about three-quarters of the median,” he said.

Although there is a chance contract fulfillment might have to be cut down again, from 70%, Anderson expects the UVWUA will be able to hold at 70% — although there can be no guarantees.

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