Water releases from an already shallow Blue Mesa Reservoir will support Lake Powell

B.y Heather Sackett, Aspen journalism

BLUE MESA RESERVOIR – In an effort to support the water level on sinking Lake Powell, state water managers are negatively impacting recreation on Colorado’s largest man-made lake.

This is the message from Colorado water managers and marina operators at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County. On August 1, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, began the emergency clearance. By the time releases are completed in the first week of October, Blue Mesa is projected to drop to its second lowest level ever, just 215,000 acre-feet, or 22.8% of its 941,000 acre-foot capacity.

By September 1, the reservoir was 37% full, which is about 68 feet below a full reservoir, and a ring of muddy shoreline was growing. Parking lots and boat docks were empty, and Pappy’s Restaurant was closed for the season. The sinking water levels first affect Iola, the easternmost of Blue Mesa’s three basins. In Iola, the Gunnison River now cuts a mud field.

Eric Loken, who operates the reservoir’s two marinas (Elk Creek and Lake Fork), said he received just nine days notice to empty the Elk Creek Marina’s 180 berths. The anchors of the dock system, which are not built for low water, had to be moved deeper. He said about 25 people lost their jobs six weeks earlier than normal and the marinas lost about 25% of their earnings for the year.

“There are tons of people who want to go boating out here and they are very disappointed,” said Loken. “Usually you can hardly find a parking space on Labor Day weekend. So it was definitely a great success for us as a company. “

The Elk Creek Marina and restaurant are closed during the season, although the boat ramp is still open and is expected to be accessible by the end of the month. The Lake Fork Marina is open until Labor Day, but the boat ramp is closed for the season. The Iola boat ramp is reserved for small boats only and is slated to close after Labor Day.

“We’re just trying to get through the bank holiday weekend and then we’re going to close this marina too,” Loken said.

The Bureau announced on July 16 that it would begin emergency clearing of three reservoirs in the Upper Basin by early October: 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo on the San Juan River; 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge, on the Green River; and 36,000 acre feet of Blue Mesa, on the Gunnison River. The goal of the releases is to support the water table at Lake Powell in order to preserve the ability to generate hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam. The 181,000 acre-feet from the three upstream reservoirs are expected to raise the level at Powell by approximately 3 feet.

MORE: Can Colorado’s Unique Water Law System Survive Amid Drought, Changing Climate, And Population Growth?

The three reservoirs are part of the Colorado River Storage Project and their main purpose is to control the rivers of the Colorado River; Shallow water recreation has always been a minor matter. But the Blue Mesa publications illustrate the risks of building an outdoor recreational economy around a high-tech river system now teetering amid a drought fueled by climate change.

Timing concerns

Although the Secretary of the Interior can approve emergency clearances without coordination from the state or local authorities, Loken, along with some Colorado water managers, is not happy about the timing or the lack of notification from the bureau. For normal measures to respond to drought, the federal government would consult with state and local water managers prior to publication.

“We had very little time to make this decision, which neither of us has any power over,” said Loken.

The empty Elk Creek Marina on Blue Mesa Reservoir. (Aspen Journalism)

John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, said Colorado should make noise and complain about what he called the inept execution of the publications. McClow was also a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and assistant commissioner for the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“There’s no reason they couldn’t have waited a few more weeks or another month to release the water from Blue Mesa and bring it to Lake Powell,” said McClow. “It goes back to advice and timing. If they had asked at all, would it have been easy to say, ‘Hey, can you wait so you don’t kill our business?’ “

Last month at the Colorado Water Congress summer conference – a gathering of water managers, researchers, and lawmakers in Steamboat Springs – Rebecca Mitchell, executive director of CWCB and state representative for the UCRC, told the audience the ramifications of an early termination of the boating season at Blue Mesa seeps to all Coloradoans.

“That means dollars in Colorado. This is us in Colorado, ”she said. “It definitely has an impact on the local community when we talk about recreation. That is hard.”

Mitchell said water managers in the states of the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Utah) will carefully monitor the effects of the reservoir’s releases and figure out how to quantify those effects, which she described as devastating. The states will work with the office to develop a plan for how water can be directed to Lake Powell in the coming years, taking into account the timing, extent and duration of the releases, she said.

“Where can states and the bureau make the best decisions to reduce the impact?” She said.

The National Park Service operates the Curecanti National Recreation Area, including the campsites, picnic areas, visitor centers, and boat ramps that span the 32 km length of the reservoir. According to the figures provided by the valet service, Curecanti receives almost a million visitors annually. The reservoir is popular with anglers for its trout and Kokanee salmon fisheries. Blue Mesa is one of three reservoirs – along with the much smaller Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs – on the Gunnison River, collectively known as the Aspinall Unit.

Celeste Helminski, director of the Gunnison Country Chamber of Commerce, said her organization was planning an event later this month: the world’s largest snow dance. A big winter would help replenish Blue Mesa.

“The water definitely worries me about the future,” she said. “We see a lot of summer campers who spend the whole summer on several campsites. It will just take a lot to replace this water. It will take a while before we get back to the level for which relaxation seekers come. “

The receding shoreline of Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, Colorado shows signs of severe drought on July 16, 2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Bureau spokesman Justyn Liff was unable to provide insight into the timing of the releases, but pointed out that while recreation in the lake was affected, rafting and fishing in the canyon downstream by the roughly 300 cubic feet each . get a boost – second extra water that the releases deliver. The Gunnison River below the Gunnison Tunnel bypass, which receives a large portion of the river’s runoff from the Aspinall unit for delivery to downstream irrigation systems, ran at around 600 cfs in the first days of September, according to USGS readings. This is a critical data point for boaters navigating the Black Canyon or Gunnison Gorge stretches of the river, which are below the water level. At 600 cfs, the river flows 11% above the median for that time of year.

“If we had waited six weeks it would be six weeks less commercial rafting / guided fishing on the Gunnison River downstream from Aspinall,” said Liff.

Hydropower production

While the local impact on recovery is acute, if hydropower couldn’t be generated at Lake Powell, the impact would likely be much worse. The dams of the CRSP are referred to as “cash register” dams. The electricity produced will be used to pay for the cost of building the project, keep it running and power millions of people.

The Western Area Power Administration distributes Lake Powell’s power, including to some Colorado electric utilities. According to Water Education Colorado, electricity costs will rise as Glen Canyon Dam struggles to produce hydropower due to falling water levels.

The office’s target elevation for Lake Powell is 3,525 feet to provide a buffer that will protect hydropower generation; If the level falls below 3,490, all electricity production would cease. Lake Powell is currently about 31% full at 3,549 feet, which is the lowest surface level since the reservoir began to be filled in the 1960s and 1970s. Lake Powell has a 79 percent chance of falling below 3,525 in the next year, according to projections the office released in July. The emergency releases are intended to remedy this.

“Loss of power generation is quite a significant problem compared to months of cruising on Blue Mesa,” said McClow. “On site, yes, it hurts, but by and large I don’t know whether you can make a fair comparison.”

With the water level in Blue Mesa continuing to drop, Loken fears this may just be the beginning of an era of empty reservoirs.

“(The publications) don’t solve the long-term problem,” Loken said. “We’ll end up with just one empty Lake Powell and a series of empty reservoirs upstream. I think those in power really need to put pencil on paper and find that out. “

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