GUEST COMMENTARY | Deep Pockets Downriver?

I just finished reading the headline article – Blue Mesa Reservoir unlikely to fill this summer.  In this article it discusses the flows set for protection of endangered fish (which to the best of several folks research was last evaluated in 1993). I am all for the preservation of these native fish to the best of our ability in a severely altered system.  However, there were a few facts that were missed in what is actually happening with our flows and water storage.  This years plan does indeed call for 10 days of flow at 14,350 cfs and an additional 40 days at 8072 cfs.  But the glaring omission was that this is to be at the Whitewater Gauging Station near Grand Junction.  So the contributors to these flows are the Uncompahgre River, the North Fork of the Gunnison, and the Gunnison River. The reason this is important is because the peak flows are the cumulative total of these three drainages and the BOR missed the peak flows of the North Fork and the Uncompahgre River, which typically peak in May.  Had they had scheduled releases from the Gunnison (Blue Mesa) earlier to align with the other peak flows, the maximum discharge needed to maintain the flows at Whitewater would not be as high from the Aspinall Unit.  These would also match the more historic peak flows that would be better for the fish and river users.  The 2012 EIS statement, which took eight years to determine, was to include the best way to manage the water flows through the Black Canyon taking into consideration: the endangered species act, the agricultural water users, the hydro electric dams, and the recreational use both above and below the dams.  By federal law the Bureau of Reclamation is required to attempt to meet these flows as stated by the Record of Decision, however there are no consequences for not meeting them.

The result of this is:

1. Wasted water storage – They missed the peak runoff from the North Fork and the Uncompahgre that should have been used to contribute to their minimum flow requirements. They were forced to waste water stored in Blue Mesa by sending it downstream due to these missed flows rather than conserving it. Their estimated inflow to Blue Mesa due to snowpack this year would have filled the reservoir – 1/2 times its capacity, due to mismanagement or miscalculation it is not expected to fill this year.

2. Wasted electricity generation – Every drop of water that runs over the dam rather than through the turbine is wasted electricity. The maximum amount of water that can run through the turbine at Crystal Reservoir is 4,350 cfs, 1,000 of which is redirected to Montrose through the Gunnison tunnel for agriculture and is not used to contribute to the Record of Decision minimum flow requirements. Their new plan is to run a peak flow in the canyon of 9,600 cfs for 11 days which is equivalent to 136,125 acre feet of water (around 12 percent of Blue Mesa’s capacity). A flush is needed and some wasted water is inevitable but with 126 percent snowpack we should be able to fill Blue Mesa reservoir.

3. Fishing at these flows are nonexistent – The Gunnison River is world renowned for its stonefly hatch that happens in June each year. The month of June makes up more than 50 percent of the outfitters’ annual revenue and creates more recreational use than any other time of the year. June is the peak of recreational use by both private and commercial users in the Black Canyon. Commercial fishing trips alone generate more than $1.2 million to the local economy in June alone. The Record of Decision states that one of the significant issues addressed was the potential adverse effects on recreation and sport fisheries. The conclusion was that there would be minor impacts, obviously this is incorrect. The timing of the flows this year is a major detriment to the recreational use of the Gunnison River which in turn is a detriment to the local economy.  Black Canyon Anglers were forced to cancel all of their June reservations accounting for a loss of more than 60 percent of their annual business.

4. The Endangered species act – There is no data showing that the timing of the peak flows is either a benefit or a detriment to the endangered fish. However the US Fish and Wildlife Service only approved the timing of the flushing flows within the ROD during May 10 and June 1 to match the peak flow of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Therefore it seems unnecessary to run flushing flows during the month of June especially taking into consideration that historic peak flows on the North Fork typically happen between May 10 and June 1 as stated in the ROD. In order to imitate a naturally flowing river, the peak flows would need to be preceded by a gradual steady increase followed by a gradual steady decrease. The decision to run the Gunnison River flows at 500 cfs for the remainder of the summer has an unknown impact on the endangered species (most likely leaving those juvenile fish mentioned in the CB News washed into soft waters high and dry) but we do know that a higher water level would mitigate conditions threatening all aquatic life such as water temperature, PH, salinity, toxins, and sediment accumulation. Higher flows would decrease water temperatures and dilute selenium levels which are the main concern of studies done on the Colorado River Basin directly affected by the Gunnison river flows.

5. In regards to the agricultural needs – The ROD and EIS minimize the harmful impacts of agriculture on the health of the endangered species and aquatic life. The proposed base flow starting at the end of July will be around 500 cfs, once again drought year equivalent flows. Therefore, such low base flows will not dilute harmful by products of farming (primarily flood irrigation) and may have more negative impacts on the endangered species than flushing flows benefit endangered species.  Drought flow levels of 500 cfs will have interesting results when water is needed for agriculture later in the dry summer months.

According to attendees, resource concerns were voiced by setting up a meeting on May 9 at the BOR headquarters in Grand Junction. Environmental concerns, economic concerns, and proposals to create a harmonious solution to significant, negative impacts to local industry were not taken into consideration by the BOR as stated in the EIS. This isn’t an issue of low water or endangered fish.  It’s due to poor management practices.  We have the historical data and water content levels of snowpack are predicted with surprising accuracy, but none of this was considered. Please let the BOR know your concerns.  If the Gunnison was “mostly omitted,” according to Crocket, then why are we the ones sacrificed for the water flows?  Deep pockets downriver?

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Category: Guest Commentary

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