CURECANTI NATIONAL RECREATION AREA — It can feel a bit eerie standing on the bottom of Colorado’s largest body of water.
Particularly if you are Bob Robbins.
Robbins grew up here, although all that’s left of his hometown of Iola, a town west of Gunnison inundated by the waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir in the late 1960s, are twists of metal and outlines of concrete foundations.
These underpinnings were recently revealed when drought dropped the water in Blue Mesa to less than a third of its capacity.
Iola’s second-coming is a stark relic of a year in which the U.S. Drought Monitor map makes dryness look like a flame burning across Colorado’s Western Slope — the deep purple of “exceptional drought” in the far southwest corner giving way to the red of “extreme drought” near Gunnison.
This comes in a year when drought across the Southwest is entering its second decade. Many reservoirs are shrinking as the Colorado River system is overtaxed to try to keep up with drinking water and irrigation needs for around 40 million people who rely on the water system.
That means it’s not just the localized drought that has dropped Blue Mesa, the largest reservoir in the state by volume, to record-low levels. The Colorado River Storage Compact Act of 1956 that led to the building of Blue Mesa, as well as a system of other dams in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, was designed to provide water storage, flood control and, most importantly, the generation of hydroelectric power.
The increasingly difficult mission of water managers on that project is to keep enough water in Lake Powell — the system’s largest unit — to continue to generate power and also deliver water to downstream users. Lake Powell is currently at 43 percent of its capacity. To keep Lake Powell viable, the levels in the reservoirs that feed Powell, including Blue Mesa, are dropped under complex give-and-take formulas.
So, Robbins is setting foot back in Iola again for the first time since government contractors set a match to his family’s home, a house built around the log cabin his great-great-grandfather built when he homesteaded the place. The gates of the new Blue Mesa Dam were shut soon after and the water swallowed his hometown.
Robbins had a glimpse of his old homesite once before, in a low-water year around 2000. He drove to an overlook with his mother to peer at bits of Iola that had reappeared.
“She bawled like a baby, and I had to take her home,” he said.
This time Robbins, 69, tramps through snow to the old streets of Iola, where he remembers an idyllic childhood in a Gunnison River Basin known for some of the best fly fishing in the world.
How good was it? The Denver Post used to award a $50 gold piece for the biggest fish caught in Colorado in a season. Three times, the gold went to anglers in this area.
Now, it is a sea of cracked mud covered by fresh snow. Wires and pipes poke up here and there. Small piles of rusty junk dot the expanse near the dark squares of foundations.
Robbins squints and points this way and that. Over there was the Rippling River Resort, and beyond that five more resorts that catered to anglers. Here were two hotels, at least they called them hotels, but one was more of a storage building for old junk. The Little Big Store and its Standard Service Station were right over there.
The one-room schoolhouse where a dozen or so kids sang “We’re all in our places with sun-shining faces” to their teacher every morning, is now a foundation and a flagpole base.
Robbins has only to brush away some snow to find the initials of his father and grandfather scrawled in the concrete.
About a quarter of a mile away, across what used to be the Gunnison River, was the Robbins ranch house and the family’s Elkhorn Resort. A railroad rolled through it all on tracks straight as a string.
There was little controversy when the National Park Service and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation inked the agreements that would flood 20 miles of the Gunnison River and swallow up three river basins. The 50 to 60 families who lived in what would become a lake objected to losing their homes and livelihoods, of course, but there was no outside muscle to make it a real battle. The Sierra Club had its sights on a bigger battle then: keeping dams out of the Grand Canyon. Trout Unlimited was just a toddler of an organization.
The sad and angry voices of those who lived in the canyon were drowned out by those who wanted cheap electricity and a great big lake to bring boaters and other recreationists who would boost the economy of Gunnison and Montrose counties. The only concession on the part of the dam builders was to scale back the length of the lake so it stopped about 7 miles west of Gunnison. The initial proposal had reservoir waters lapping at the edges of town.
Construction of the Blue Mesa dam began in 1962. Clearing out the area that would become lake bottom took another eight years before the reservoir was filled with 830,000 acre-feet of water. Along with Iola, the towns of Cebolla and Sapinero were sacrificed. So were a string of fishing resorts and ranches that dotted the riverside.
Those who lived along the river remember that time as something akin to war. Dynamite charges boomed through the basins as rock faces above the river valley were blasted so the highway could be moved up and out of the coming inundation. Giant machines with shearing blades cracked through hundred-year-old cottonwoods and tore out the willows and alders.
Buildings that couldn’t be moved were torched, along with huge piles of downed trees.
Left-behind belongings, including the desks in the school house, were piled up into bonfires. The sky was dirty with blasting dust and smoke. There was no collective effort to preserve any history. The Gunnison Pioneer Museum didn’t exist yet. Photographs taken by the Bureau of Reclamation went into storage boxes.
When it was all finished, what had been lush green river basins looked like a desert. Some of those who had lived there — whose families had homesteaded there — couldn’t stand to look.
“My mom and dad shielded me from it,” said Robbins, who was 15 when the family moved south to a new ranch site after a long period of scouring the area for a place to start over.
Scenes from Iola before it was inundated to build Blue Mesa Reservoir. (Provided by Bob Robbins)
“Pissed off.” That was 78-year-old Bill Sunderlin’s reaction to having his town wiped out. He had attended school in Iola through 8th grade. His initials, “WGS,” are among those carved into the wet concrete of the flagpole base.
“Pissed off,” is his reaction to this day. He did take a job with the reservoir builders driving trucks and clearing trees because money was scarce. He even water skied on the lake after it drowned his town.
“I have sort of learned to accept it, but I remember going down there once with a boat and they wanted 50 cents to put a boat on the lake. I blew a cork,” he recalls. “Someone said they should let me be because the lake had flooded my family out.”
Sunderlin still misses the days along a river helping out his grandparents at the Tex Lodge Ranch Resort. He would go out and scoop up gobs of hellgrammites — the ugly black and orange larvae that yielded willow flies. He sold them to anglers who came from all over the country to have a crack at the legendarily big trout in the Gunnison.
He remembers seeing two 10-pound rainbows and a 14-pound, 13-ounce German brown pulled from the river. That German brown is now on a wall plaque in his home — the building that used to be the Iola school house.
There were more than 100 buildings trundled out of the path of the water and into Gunnison and surrounding areas. It was like a parade of homes on U.S. 50. The buildings could be repurposed, but other things could not be salvaged — like the epic willow fly hatches every July.
When the hellgrammites hatched, the trees and rocks would be covered with their husks. And the flies would be so thick, it was not possible to drive to Gunnison without carrying a jug of water and stopping every so often to clean the bug muck from the windshield.
That annoyance had its upside. It drew anglers who boosted a meager ranch economy. Trout are known to gobble willow flies, including those on anglers’ hooks. KOA Radio in Denver would alert listeners when the hatch began at the western section of the river near Sapinero. The anglers would hightail it over the divide, and the most fanatic would spend weeks following the fly hatch east until it would dwindle up on the Taylor River above Almont.
It wasn’t just high time for visiting anglers. Robbins recalls going out fishing in a kind of Huck Finn idyll. He could ride his rattletrap bike or a horse as far down the river as he could go with his parents still able to spot him. He also made forays above the ranch where he found dozens of metal Ute arrow tips that now sit in a display case in his home.
Dave Primus, who has been collecting the history of Iola and doing presentations around Gunnison to a newly appreciative audience, said human habitation in what is now the lake bottom goes back 10,000 years.
“Oldtimers have told me there were Indian mounds and tepee rings and grave sites,” said Primus, who works at Western Colorado University’s School of Environment and Sustainability in Gunnison. “There were arrowheads galore and petroglyphs and stone tools.”
None of that remains. It is all buried deeply in the mud in the exposed areas or under water.
Other Western Slope reservoirs have fallen to eye-catching low levels this year, but none others have revealed once-flooded towns.
Jeffrey Sellen, an associate professor of Environment & Sustainability at Western Colorado University and director of the Colorado Water Workshop, said only Paonia Reservoir is in worse shape due to both drought and problems with the reservoir bed filling with sediment.
Sellen is anticipating more low years for Blue Mesa.
“When it comes to water, we are on a rollercoaster that is trending downward,” Sellen said.
It is bad enough that those who deal with water are discarding the term “drought” because it implies a seasonal phenomenon, he said. The new word to cover the new climate reality related to water is “aridification.”
Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, is not much more optimistic.
Seven states that rely on water from that system are currently negotiating a contingency plan to share the pain of a shrinking water supply. But that is still in the works. No new rules for management and operation of the Colorado River system are expected before 2026. One given, is that there will be water cutbacks.
“I would say we can anticipate more low levels in Blue Mesa,” Kugel said.
That means the appearance of the ghostly scar of Iola may become the norm. And that is a bit painful for some.
“It is just hard losing something that was your whole life,” Robbins said as he looked at the rusty remnants of Iola. “It is hard to see it.”
Robbins has a ranch up the road from Iola now. But it isn’t the same as the riverside ranch of his boyhood. He has traveled over the country trying to find fishing as good as he had along the Gunnison as a boy. He hasn’t found any.
He makes do with old photographs of the Iola he remembers — green meadows, grazing horses, laundry hanging on a line, towering cottonwoods and a little town clinging to a hillside. He is reminded of that Iola every day, even when it is under the water: Iola photos are the screensaver on his computer.
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