Western Slope waterworld?

Water levels rising, according to Bureau of Reclamation

A lean-to of drfitwood stands on the rocky shores of Ridgway Reservoir, which is about 90 percent full at this time. Water managers last year were cautious about releasing water from the reservoir while a hydropower unit was installed on the dam outlet.

Skiers and riders aren’t the only ones enjoying the abundance of high-country snow.

Anglers, river runners and water managers across the Western Slope are hoping the current storm track continues to pump a summer’s worth of recreation and irrigation into the reservoirs of Western Colorado.

The biggest hint that water supplies are on the uptick comes from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages reservoir operation and river flow on both sides of the Continental Divide.

Kara Lamb, spokesperson for the Bureau’s Eastern Colorado Area Office in Loveland, said releases have been increased from Ruedi Reservoir, which currently is about 78 percent full.

“We adjusted releases from Ruedi Reservoir to the lower Fryingpan by about 25 cfs,” Lamb said. “The flow at the Ruedi Dam gauge should be reading approximately 143 cfs.”

The gauge just below Ruedi, which also includes other inflows such as Rocky Fork Creek, was at 168 cubic feet per second as of late Thursday.

Lamb said a February release above 160 cfs has occurred only five other times in the reservoir’s history, in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1996 and 2008.

The reservoir is almost 20 feet higher than one year ago and about 110 percent of the long-term February average, Lamb said.

“It’s normally not quite that high in February,” she said.

With the two snowiest months yet to come and reports saying the snowpack is above average for this time of the winter, the agency has decided to make room in the reservoir in the upper reaches of the Fryingpan River east of Basalt for what might be a bountiful spring runoff.

Since it’s still way early for any runoff to happen, the Bureau is “keeping an eye on the reservoir’s water level elevation, snow pack, and the fluctuating inflows,” she said.

Similarly, flows from Crystal Dam on the Gunnison River were raised to make room in the Aspinall Unit dams, briefly jumping about 150 cfs late this week before settling at 416 cfs as of late Thursday.

“The (runoff) forecasts are pretty high and have been going up since the start of the month,” said hydrologist Erik Knight with the Bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office in Grand Junction. “So we’re paying attention to that and trying to open some room in case the current situation continues.”

He said Blue Mesa Reservoir, its dusty brown shores and receding waterline a poster child for the West-wide drought in recent years, is “in pretty good shape.”

“It’s much better than it was last year,” said Knight, noting the reservoir, currently at an elevation of 7,464 feet, officially is 48 percent full. That’s 55 feet below full pool.

The reservoir, according to National Weather Service data, has been rising steadily since at least early December.

Knight said a wet fall has kept water hopes high.

Having good soil moisture going into the winter means more of the snowpack will run off into reservoirs the next spring.

“We had that wet fall and that got things heading in the right direction,” Knight said. “That helped get the base flows up so we didn’t lose a whole lot in the interim. And the those storms at the end of January got things cranking up in the snowpack.”

Of the seven Western Slope reservoirs monitored by the Western Colorado office, only Ridgway Reservoir, part of the Dallas Creek project, and Morrow Point Reservoir, the middle of the three Aspinall Unit reservoirs, are at or above 90 percent capacity.


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