‘Everybody has Blue River envy’ — the state of the Colorado River
Summit County was one of a few spots in the entire Colorado River Basin, which encompasses parts of seven states, that didn’t receive alarmingly below-average snowpack this winter.
Summit’s Blue River Basin recorded snowpack near the 30-year average, and the six speakers at the 22nd annual State of the River meeting on Tuesday, May 5, stressed that local residents should feel fortunate that the headwaters community was spared the immediate water supply problems others are facing around the West.
“Everybody has Blue River envy,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District. “You’re the sweet spot this summer.”
However, the event’s speakers also emphasized the coming impacts of long-term drought and overconsumption on Summit and other communities that supply the majority of the West’s water.
Kuhn said major water players including Denver Water, which owns and operates Dillon Reservoir, are for the first time loudly prioritizing certainty of water supplies over development because they are worried about their future abilities to deliver water to their current customers.
Silverthorne Pavilion events manager Rob DeVerna estimated about 175 people — from water managers and government officials to interested community members — attended the event hosted by the Colorado River District and the Blue River Watershed Group.
The presenters gave updates on local water issues, and discussion revolved around drought impacts, restoration projects, snowpack, reservoirs and the state water plan.
County Open Space director Brian Lorch and Blue River Watershed Group board treasurer Jim Shaw said restoration projects on the Swan River northeast of Breckenridge and the Tenmile Creek east of Copper Mountain are moving forward with success.
Summit County water commissioner Troy Wineland said Summit’s snowpack didn’t quite reach average this winter, according to data from the Blue River Basin’s four SNOTEL measuring sites. Half of the snowpack arrived in November and December, and it was gone at lower and middle elevations by the end of March, which was unusually dry and warm.
Runoff started sooner this year, and Tenmile Creek flows in early April were five times greater than average, Wineland said. He predicted peak runoff will occur in early June depending on the weather.
On Monday, May 4, Wineland said Old Dillon Reservoir achieved its first complete fill of 303 acre feet. The reservoir is jointly operated by the county and the towns of Silverthorne and Dillon, and it was stocked with golden trout from California that Wineland said should mean good fishing in the next year or two.
Wineland stressed the role that Summit residents can play in shaping the state’s first-ever water plan, which will outline Colorado’s water policy priorities for the next 50 years and will be handed to the governor in December.
“The Colorado Water Plan really represents an acknowledgment or realization of the unsustainable trajectory that we’re currently on here as a state with respect to water use and water supply,” Wineland said. “I cannot stress to each and every one of you enough to please check out the water plan yourself.”
A couple Summit representatives, including County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier have given input on behalf of local residents, but residents can still comment on the plan through the summer, so Wineland encouraged people to explore the basin-level plans created by the Colorado River Basin and the South Platte Basin.
Wineland also invited community members to continue water conversations in-person during “Water over Coffee,” his drop in office hours. He holds them from 9:30-10:30 a.m. on the first Monday of the month at Red Buffalo Coffee in Silverthorne and the third Monday of the month at Abbey’s Coffee in Frisco.
READY THE RESERVOIRS
Bob Steger, water resources engineer with Denver Water, said his calculations of Summit snowpack included data from Fremont Pass, which is why he measured Summit’s snowpack as above average but “nowhere near the snowpack that we had last year.”
The Blue River Basin may be the only basin in the state that peaks above average, and Denver Water’s No. 1 priority of filling Dillon Reservoir “should be no problem,” he said. “We’re only two feet from full right now.”
It should be a great summer for boating as well as rafting and kayaking below the dam, Steger said. “The fishing will eventually be good, but if you don’t like high water you probably better stay out until sometime in July.”
He answered a question about Antero Reservoir in Park County, which Denver Water will empty this summer ahead of repairs to the 100-year-old dam. The phase that requires draining the reservoir should be done by the end of 2015 with refilling beginning next spring. Steger also said Denver Water is still working on a permit to enlarge Gross Reservoir in Boulder County.
Ron Thomasson, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who oversees Green Mountain Reservoir operations, said runoff flows won’t be high enough this year to allow coordinated reservoir operations that would protect endangered fish on the Colorado River.
Peak flows must be between 12,900 cfs and 23,000 cfs to do that, and the current forecast is for 9,600 cfs, he said.
CHANGE OR BE FORCED TO CHANGE
Kuhn presented last and detailed continued threats facing Lake Powell and Lake Mead operations.
“We’re going to have to cut back our uses,” he said, “after 100 years of develop more, develop more, develop more.”
Lake Mead could likely see its first shortage next year or in 2017, he said, and “bad things happen when Lake Mead and Lake Powell get drained.”
Allowing Lake Powell’s water level to fall below the amount needed to generate electricity would lead to dramatically higher utility bills costs, the elimination of funding for the important environmental programs funded by the hydropower revenue noted above that protect current and future water use in Colorado.
If Colorado and the other Upper Basin states violate the 1922 Colorado River Compact and fail to provide enough water to Lower Basin states, the West could be fighting over water in lengthy court battles and Colorado could be forced to prohibit some water uses.
Western states could lose control of water to the federal government, Kuhn said, and Colorado would likely lose power in management of the Colorado River and water in the state.
When asked about building an interstate water pipeline to solve some shortages, Kuhn said water managers have discussed pipelines of absurd lengths and he doesn’t think that method will work.
“To expect that we can export our problems to somebody else, I just don’t see that somebody else will willingly accept them,” he said.
After the meeting, Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson said the presentations were compelling verification of the serious effects of climate change and underlined the need for paradigm shifts and societal changes in water use over new water diversions.
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