A season on the line
Outfitters seek relief from high releases into Black Canyon
The forecast of a big runoff, big as in compared to recent years but not big as compared to, say, 1983 when everything flooded, has raised some concern.
The Bureau of Reclamation is watching the snowpack in the Gunnison Basin and subsequent runoff into Blue Mesa Reservoir in preparation for releasing water down the Gunnison River.
The flows will fulfill water rights in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison as well as meet requirements for endangered native fish in the Colorado River as measured near Whitewater.
Fishing guides and outfitters also are watching those flows and awaiting the Bureau’s decisions, since how much water and when it flows will decidedly affect their livelihood.
As it is now, the graph determining releases from Blue Mesa Dam and the flow through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, which is based on the runoff forecast for Blue Mesa from April through July, says this is a “moderately wet” year on a six-point scale of “very dry” to “wet.”
In a year such as this, the Black Canyon water right is allotted a one-day peak flush flow of 6,420 cubic feet per second while the Colorado River near Whitewater will see a 40-day flow of 8,070 cfs, including a 10-day peak of 14,350 cfs.
With that much water racing through the Black Canyon, says Ben Olson of Black Canyon Anglers, his business for the entire month of June will be washed out.
“You can’t fish at those flows, period,” Olson said. “It will likely put most of the outfitters around here out of business.”
Flows higher than 2,500 cfs or so not only wash out the fishing, said Olson, but also are dangerous to float.
Olson said he has reservations for 60, three-day June trips through the Black Canyon but the high water threatens to cancel those.
“That’s about $210,000 I’m out,” he said. “June is about 50 percent of my (annual) business.”
Olson and others are asking the Bureau of Reclamation to re-examine its runoff forecast in hopes the releases will be lowered to manageable levels.
But the flows aren’t subjective — the levels are pre-set in the 2012 Record of Decision and Environmental Impact Statement governing operation of the Aspinall Unit dams, including Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal dams.
The determination of flows depends on runoff forecasts starting in April, with the last one coming May 15.
Runoff forecasts haven’t changed since early spring, when the current level of releases was first discussed, said Bureau hydrologist Erik Knight.
“The May 1 forecast came out the same for Blue Mesa as in recent months,” Knight said Friday, after announcing the forecasted flows at the quarterly Aspinall Operations meeting.
And with only the May 15 forecast yet to be seen, it’s late in the game to change the forecast, he said.
“A lot groups came together and spent a lot of time talking about this (Record of Decision) and what the impacts would be,” Knight said.
However, this is the first year since the ROD was adopted in 2012 that a “wet” year scenario is being implemented and no one, not the Bureau nor the fishing guides, can foresee the impacts of such consistently high flows.
“This is the first time we’ve had to meet this target on the lower Gunnison and there is some uncertainty how it will all play out,” Knight said.
A small adjustment downward would cut the high water by as much as half and the highest flows reduced from 10 days to two.
“If they were to re-do their projection with 3 percent less inflow than their plan calls for, that will divide the flow into June to 50 percent,” Olson said.
The Record of Decision addresses only the native fish, not the peak flow for the Black Canyon water right.
Olson has asked to meet with Bureau officials this week to discuss adjusting the flow regime, but his only hope may be when the May 15 runoff forecast comes out.
High temperatures may shrink the snowpack enough to reduce the anticipated flows into Blue Mesa and the subsequent releases through the Black Canyon.
“It’s the last option,” Knight said. “That’s the last opportunity for things to change.”
With high temperatures forecast throughout western Colorado this week, the runoff, and the high flows, might not wait for June.