Abundant water in Northwest Colorado rivers belies conditions in lakes Powell and Mead

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— Residents of the Yampa Valley, where the meadows are lush and snow still lingers on the peaks, easily could conclude that this is a year of water abundance. But in terms of the water produced by the entire Colorado River Basin, the summer of 2014 won’t be outstanding.

Eric Kuhn, of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told an audience of about 50 state legislators, water managers and educators at the Sheraton Steamboat Thursday the abundance of snowmelt in the upper Colorado, Yampa and Green rivers early this summer isn’t indicative of the entire Colorado Basin.

“We have wet years, we have dry years but the bottom line for Lake Powell this year is that it’s going to be right about average,” Kuhn said.

Lake Powell is the giant impoundment in southern Utah where Colorado River water is stored for the benefit of states like Arizona, Nevada and California.

“Currently, Lake Mead (below the Grand Canyon) and Lake Powell (just above the Grand Canyon) are 42 percent full,” Kuhn said. “Does that make us nervous? Yeah that makes us very nervous.”

All of the current water supply in the Colorado Basin is already being put to use, and the American West is in an era of deficit spending, according to Kuhn.

So, if the upper Colorado River and tributaries like the Yampa and the Green rivers are expecting above average flows this summer, why is Lake Powell expecting an average year?

Water storage in Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River just upstream from its Colorado stretch is expected to be 140 percent of average, and Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River is expected to be 126 percent of average, Kuhn told his audience. But 25-mile-long Navajo Reservoir, straddling the Colorado and New Mexico state line and capturing flows from the San Juan River, will be just about 67 percent of average. It’s the southernmost reaches of the upper basin that are below par.

Kuhn and his audience had gathered in Steamboat Springs Thursday to begin a tour of the Yampa River Basin sponsored by the nonprofit Colorado Foundation for Water Education.

CFWE program manager Kristin Maharg told the gathering that the purpose of the tour is to explore the compatibility of consumptive water uses (agriculture and power plants) and non-consumptive uses (recreation and habitat conservation) along the length of the Yampa in Routt and Moffat counties.

“The Yampa is no longer a valley too far, and we want to look at some of the demands this basin is facing,” Maharg said. “This is a very cooperative basin in terms of resource management and conservation.”

Thursday’s audience included more than a half dozen state legislators, members of their technical support staff, including an economist and an attorney who work on water bills, a Pitkin County commissioner and an Eagle County water district official, as well as college educators from Colorado State University, the University of Colorado Denver and Colorado Mesa University.

If there is some good news for the Colorado Basin and the people who depend on Lake Powell this summer, it’s that the abundance in the Green River basin will give the reservoir a boost this summer.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, about 30 miles upstream from the point where the Green makes a dog leg into Colorado on the way to its confluence with the Yampa, is currently releasing large amounts of water. That’s being done to mimic the spring floods that occurred before the dam was built in order to support the ecosystem that evolved around those floods.

When the river is restored to its baseline sumer flow, it will be at double the flows seen in the last few years, or about 1,600 cubic feet per second.

The net result of those additional flows should boost Lake Powell to 50 percent full by the end of July, Kuhn confirmed.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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