GUNNISON — A solitary drift boat bucked down the Gunnison River on Sunday, dodging some of the rocks but still banging noisily through the meager current.
There isn’t much wiggle room when the river is down to bare bones, even if you’re the only person in the boat.
“Man, it’s skinny water,” called out the boatman to a watcher on the bank. “Probably won’t do this again.”
The curious thing was this particular inflatable was negotiating the Gunnison below the Lake City Bridge, a stretch of river uncovered by the receding waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir.
What has been a West-wide, summer-long tale of exposed beaches and distant water in reservoirs and lakes continues into the fall, a time when most water managers were hoping rain clouds would bring some relief to the drought.
While scattered rains have boosted some ground flows, there hasn’t been enough rain to alleviate concerns that the many reservoirs will go into the winter with little carry-over water.
The Gunnison River is running about 190 cubic feet per second after releases from Taylor Park Dam were seasonally adjusted down to 101 cfs over the past week.
The Taylor River is adding 143 cfs while the East River, which meets the Taylor at Almont to form the Gunnison, is contributing 46 cfs.
Blue Mesa hovers around 60 feet below full, leaving anglers plenty of “new” Gunnison River to explore in the half-mile or so between the Lake City bridge and the reservoir’s standing water.
The current “tea cup” diagram from the Bureau of Reclamation, which shows reservoir levels across the West, indicates Blue Mesa at 45 percent full.
The lowest level reached by the reservoir in 2002 was 7,443 feet elevation or 76 feet low, a mark that likely won’t be reached this year, thanks to a confluence of events.
“The reservoir will be a little higher than what we thought before,” said Erik Knight, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Reclamation in Grand Junction. “The rains in the basin have helped, and we have not had to release as much water to keep up the flows in the lower Gunnison.”
Also, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users are relying more on Ridgway Reservoir and less on water from the Gunnison River, which means less water needed from Blue Mesa.
Last month, for example, about 20,000 acre-feet of water stayed in the reservoir instead of being sent downstream.
This year, Knight said, the bureau is forecasting the reservoir may drop to a low of 71 feet down sometime between the end of October and December.
“Actually, we’ve done pretty well this year, when you consider how dry the summer began,” he said.