OUT:  Sunday Column February 01, 2009

Signs point to ample water for lake storage

The mid-December snowfall that blanketed Grand Junction also gave an immense lift to water storage plans across the Western Slope.

It didn’t really take the Bureau of Reclamation to remind us that early season snowfall was a bit meager. Ski resorts across the state postponed opening dates and a lot of already struggling ski-town economies continued to struggle until the snow arrived.

But when it did, the snowfall rivalled last year’s epic storms, at least for a couple of weeks.

The amount and frequency of storms have tapered off in the past month or so, but still there’s enough snow in the high country to start making some preliminary plans for water storage and downriver flows this coming summer.

At last week’s January operations meeting for the Aspinall Units on the Gunnison River, lead hydrologist Dan Crabtree in the Bureau’s Grand Junction office told the audience that early numbers indicate Blue Mesa will fill but that there won’t be enough for a peak release.

Late December and early January storms increased the snow pack significantly, wrote Crabtree in a post-meeting memo. He estimated the January inflow into Blue Mesa at 104 percent of average and said Blue Mesa is expected to fill this spring. 

But the promising forecast is just that, a forecast, and Crabtree reminded the audience that things can and probably will change between now and May, when final summer operations decisions are made.

“This forecast is encouraging,” Crabtree wrote in a post-meeting e-mail. “However, history has shown that the forecast can change significantly between January and the end of the runoff season because January is still early in the snow accumulation period.”

Anyone hoping for a peak release, what’s commonly called a “flush flow” to move around sediment and clean the river, will have to wait until what hits the high country during the late-winter and spring snowstorms.

The Bureau lowers their chances of requiring bypass flows (those that go through the bypass tubes instead of through the power generators) by increasing winter releases and with Blue Mesa expected to fill this spring, the Bureau said it will begin releasing water from Crystal Dam.

On Friday the Gunnison below Crystal Dam was running at 870 cubic feet per second and Crabtree said preliminary numbers indicate flows through the Gorge at around 1,100 cfs through the summer.

A look at capacity numbers for area reservoirs indicate there’s already a lot of water behind grey walls. Morrow Point leads the pack at 94 percent full with Ridgway (80 percent), Crystal (73 percent) and Taylor Park (68 percent) following. Blue Mesa is at 69 percent capacity, a number that’s sure to change by May 1. At least a lot of water users are hoping it changes by May 1.

Forecasting spring runoff and summer reservoir elevations five months in advance is a dance with the devil. You think you know enough to lead the dance, but the steps keep changing and the music’s never the same.

It’s a fascinating dance, however, which is why so many of us keep cutting in each winter.

The next runoff forecast will appear April 23 at the next operations meeting. The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Bureau’s Grand Junction office,  2764 Compass Drive.

Another meeting of interest happens this week when the Colorado Wildlife Commission ponders some changes in the preference point system.

The commission meets at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Division of Wildlife headquarters, 6060 Broadway in Denver.

There’s no official action expected to happen, this merely is another step in the preliminary work for the 2010-2014 big-game season structure.

But there will be discussion in what likely will prove to one of the more-contentious items to be decided later this summer when hunting regulations are established.

The current system has a lot of supporters and en equal number of detractors, most of the latter being disaffected by the perceived inequities of the draw process as it is now.

You can listen to the presentations on the commission’s live audio stream at wildlife.state.co.us; click on Wildlife Commission.

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