By Heather Sackett, Aspen Journalism
BLUE MESA RESERVOIR — In an effort to prop up water levels at the declining Lake Powell, federal water managers are negatively impacting recreation on Colorado’s biggest man-made lake.
That’s the message from Colorado water managers and marina operators at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County. On Aug. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, began emergency releases. By the time the releases are finished the first week of October, Blue Mesa is projected to fall to its second-lowest level ever, just 215,000 acre-feet, or 22.8% of its 941,000-acre-foot capacity.
As of Sept. 1, the reservoir was 37% full, which is about 68 feet down from a full reservoir, and a ring of muddy shoreline was growing. Parking lots and boat slips sat empty, and Pappy’s Restaurant was closed for the season. The dwindling water levels are first impacting Iola, the easternmost of Blue Mesa’s three basins. Iola is where the Gunnison River now cuts through a field of mud.
Eric Loken, who operates the reservoir’s two marinas (Elk Creek and Lake Fork), said he was given only nine days’ notice to empty Elk Creek Marina’s 180 slips. The dock system’s anchors, which are not built for low water, had to be moved deeper. He said about 25 people lost their jobs six weeks earlier than normal and the marinas lost about 25% of its revenue for the year.
“There are tons of people who would like to be out here boating and are very disappointed,” Loken said. “Normally on Labor Day weekend, you can barely find a place to park. So it’s definitely been a big hit to us as a business for sure.”
The Elk Creek Marina and restaurant are closed for the season, although the boat ramp is still open and is expected to be accessible through the end of the month. The Lake Fork Marina is open through Labor Day, but the boat ramp has closed for the season. The Iola boat ramp is restricted to small boats only and is scheduled to close after Labor Day.
“We are just trying to make it through the holiday weekend and then we will be shutting up this marina too,” Loken said.
The Bureau announced July 16 that it would begin emergency releases through early October from three Upper Basin reservoirs: 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo, on the San Juan River; 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge, on the Green River; and 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa, on the Gunnison River. The goal of the releases is to prop up water levels at Lake Powell to preserve the ability to make hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam. The 181,000 acre-feet from the three upstream reservoirs is expected to boost levels at Powell by about 3 feet.
The three reservoirs are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, and their primary purpose is to control the flows of the Colorado River; flatwater recreation has always been incidental. But the releases at Blue Mesa illustrate the risks of building an outdoor-recreation economy around a highly engineered river system that is now beginning to falter amid a climate change-fueled drought.
Although the secretary of the Interior can authorize emergency releases without coordination from the states or local entities, Loken, along with some Colorado water managers, is not happy about the timing or the lack of notice from the bureau. Under normal drought-response operations, the federal government would consult with state and local water managers before making releases.
“We had very little time to handle this decision that was made that none of us have any power over,” Loken said.
John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, said Colorado should make noise and complain about what he called a clumsy execution of the releases. McClow has also served on the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is an alternate commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
“There’s no reason they couldn’t have waited another couple weeks or another month to release that water from Blue Mesa to get it to Lake Powell,” McClow said. “It goes back to consultation and timing. Had they even asked, it would have been easy to say, ‘Hey, can you wait so you don’t kill our business?’”
Last month at Colorado Water Congress’ summer conference — a gathering of water managers, researchers and legislators in Steamboat Springs — Rebecca Mitchell, CWCB’s executive director and the state’s representative to the UCRC, told the audience that the impacts of ending the boating season early at Blue Mesa trickle down to all Coloradans.
“That means dollars in Colorado. That is who we are in Colorado,” she said. “It’s definitely had an impact in that local community when we talk about the recreation. That is heavy.”
Mitchell said water managers in the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Utah) will be carefully monitoring the impacts of the reservoir releases and figuring out how to quantify those impacts, which she called devastating. The states will work with the bureau to develop a plan for how to send water to Lake Powell in future years, taking into consideration the timing, magnitude and duration of the releases, she said.
“Where can the states and the bureau make the best decisions to lessen the impacts?” she said.
The National Park Service operates the Curecanti National Recreation area, including the campsites, picnic areas, visitors centers and boat ramps that run the 20-mile length of the reservoir. According to numbers provided by the Park Service, Curecanti gets nearly a million visitors a year. The reservoir is popular among anglers for its trout and Kokanee salmon fishing. Blue Mesa is one of three reservoirs — along with the much smaller Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs — on the Gunnison River, collectively known as the Aspinall Unit.
Gunnison Country Chamber of Commerce Director Celeste Helminski said her organization is planning an event later this month: the world’s largest snow dance. A big winter would help refill Blue Mesa.
“The water definitely has me concerned for the future,” she said. “We see a lot of summer recreationists who come and spend the whole summer at several of the campgrounds. It’s just going to take a lot to replace that water. It’s going to take awhile to get back to levels of what recreationists come for.”
Bureau spokesperson Justyn Liff could not provide any insight into how the timing decision for the releases was made, but pointed out that although lake recreation was impacted, downstream rafting and fishing in the canyon are getting a boost from the roughly 300 cubic-feet-per-second extra water that the releases provide. The Gunnison River below the Gunnison Tunnel diversion, which takes a large portion of the river’s outflow from the Aspinall Unit for delivery to downstream irrigators, was running around 600 cfs the first few days of September, according to USGS stream gauge data. This is a critical data point for boaters running the Black Canyon or Gunnison Gorge sections of the river, which are below the stream gauge. At 600 cfs, the river is flowing 11% above the median for this time of year.
“If we had waited six weeks, that would have been six weeks less of commercial rafting/guided fishing on the Gunnison River downstream from Aspinall,” Liff said.
Although the local impacts to recreation are acute, the impacts of not being able to make hydropower at Lake Powell would probably be much worse. The dams of the CRSP are known as “cash register” dams. The power they produce is used to repay the costs of building the project, maintain operations and provide power to millions of people.
The Western Area Power Administration distributes Lake Powell’s electricity, including to some power providers in Colorado. According to Water Education Colorado, electric costs will surge as Glen Canyon Dam struggles to produce hydropower because of declining water levels.
The bureau’s target elevation for Lake Powell is 3,525 feet, in order to provide a buffer that protects hydropower generation; if levels fall below 3,490, all power production would stop. Lake Powell is currently about 31% full, at 3,549 feet, which is the lowest surface level since the reservoir began filling in the 1960s and ‘70s. According to projections released by the bureau in July, Lake Powell has a 79% chance of falling below the 3,525 threshold in the next year. The emergency releases are intended to address this.
“A loss of power generation is a pretty significant issue compared to a few months of boating on Blue Mesa,” McClow said. “Locally, yes, it hurts, but in the big picture, I don’t know if you can make a fair comparison.”
As water levels at Blue Mesa continue to fall, Loken worries that this may be just the beginning of an era of empty reservoirs.
“(The releases) don’t solve the long-term problem,” Loken said. “We are just going to end up with an empty Lake Powell and a bunch of empty reservoirs upstream. I think the powers that be really need to put pencil to paper and figure this out.”