Drought drains Blue Mesa

The receding water at Blue Mesa Reservoir exposes the bottom of what had been a full reservoir, as seen at its eastern end. The reservoir is along U.S. Highway 50, just west of Gunnison.

Even an average snow year will leave Blue Mesa Reservoir well short of its water-holding capacity next year, and it could take years for levels to recover.

As is the case with many other measurements, the amount of water stored in Blue Mesa is tracking almost eerily with that of 2002, the most recent major drought year, according to Dan Crabtree of the Grand Junction office of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“These years, 1977, 2002, 2012, are extreme record-setting years,” Crabtree said.

This year began slightly more promisingly than 2002 did, with about the maximum amount of water in Blue Mesa that operators allow, about 574,000 acre-feet.

The reservoir, located along U.S. Highway 50 between Montrose and Gunnison, can hold more water, but 574,000 acre-feet is the maximum operators want in order to accommodate Blue Mesa’s wintertime ice load.

The water inflow to Blue Mesa is a near-perfect reflection of the inflow rate into the reservoir in 2002, Crabtree said.

As was the case in 2002, storage levels in the reservoir, Colorado’s largest, began to drop in 2012 from January on.

If the pattern holds, releases from the reservoir will exceed inflow and the water will drop precipitously in the July-to-October period.

“It could take two or three years” of average snowfall to push wintertime levels back to the target level, Crabtree said.

In October 2002, water levels rose slightly, but ended the calendar year below the 300,000-acre-foot mark, well short of the target of 574,000 acre-feet.

The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Aspinall Unit, of which Blue Mesa is the largest impoundment, for water storage, electricity generation and, to a lesser degree, irrigation.

Most of the burden of supplying water to irrigators, however, is borne by a series of smaller reservoirs, one of which, Taylor Park, feeds into Blue Mesa.

Others, notably Paonia and Ridgway, feed into the Gunnison River well below the Aspinall Unit.

Those reservoirs tend to empty more quickly because of the agricultural demands of the summer.

As of Friday, Ridgway was 90 percent full, Paonia 81 percent full and Taylor Park, 73 percent full.

The relatively low levels of water in the Gunnison Basin are offset to some degree by greater amounts of water in the Colorado River Basin above Grand Junction, said Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, noting that reservoirs that feed into the main stem of the Colorado did fill this year.

“It’s all relative,” Pokrandt said, noting that water is stored in Green Mountain, Williams Fork and Wolford Mountain reservoirs.

“The Gunnison is a whole different set of circumstances,” Pokrandt said.


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