Experts present on local and regional water issues at the Summit State of the River |

Experts present on local and regional water issues at the Summit State of the River

A portion of the Blue River in Silverthorne is pictured on May 14.
Liz Copan /

DILLON — The Summit State of the River, an annual event meant to keep Summit County residents informed on local water issues was presented virtually on Thursday. Presenters gave updates and answered questions about the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs, effects of climate change, this year’s early runoff season and the safety of the Goose Pasture Tarn Dam. They also commented that there were more attendees who tuned into the webinar than in past years where the event was held in-person.

General Manager of the Colorado River District Andy Mueller gave an overview of water politics and issues facing the Western Slope. He noted that there are about 40 million people who depend on the water that resides in the Colorado River District. Mueller called the district the “lifeblood” of the southwestern United States.

He discussed the overuse of the lower basin in Arizona, California and Nevada, which he said is the biggest threat to the river. Mueller noted that these areas have historically used 1.1 million to 1.3 million acre-feet of water more than they were originally entitled to in the Colorado Compact. 

Mueller discussed the impacts of climate change on the river district as, based on a graph from the Washington Post, the Colorado River District being more impacted by climate change compared to other parts of the country due to variances in the rise of temperatures. Summit County, one of the lesser impacted counties according to the graph, has risen in average temperatures by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit from 1895-2018. 

A map created by the Washington Post shared in the Summit State of the River presentation shows variances in climate change effects across the U.S.
Courtesy NOAA and the Washington Post via Summit State of the River presentation

“Keep in mind, 2-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperatures is a significant difference in average temperature and it’s enough to cause serious impacts on stream flow, snow as it falls, precipitation falling as rain or snow,” Mueller said. “It’s enough to really impact our streams.”

Looking to the future, Mueller said the district will face the challenge of hotter temperatures coupled with a growing population and will have a “big job” providing a growing population with a dwindling resource. 

Troy Wineland, Summit County water commissioner at the Division of Water Resources, spoke on hydrology, detailing where Summit County’s snowpack and water reservoirs currently sit. Wineland said the higher elevations of Summit County fared well for snowpack this year while other parts of the basin did not. The snow-water equivalent in Summit County currently sits at 117% of average while above average temperatures are forecasted for the next 30 days, according to Wineland.

Wineland was asked if there was any concern about the town of Breckenridge postponing the restoration of the Goose Pasture Tarn Dam. He said that there was not concern as it was reviewed by two dam safety engineers, including the state engineer. He noted that the reservoir is currently under a storage restriction and that the town keeps the reservoir at or below the restriction, which keeps everything safe. 

Victor Lee, hydrological engineer at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, discussed Green Mountain Reservoir and the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which he said is the largest single transbasin diversion project in Colorado, delivering the approximate volume of Dillon Reservoir to the South Platte Basin for agricultural, municipal and industrial use. 

Lee explained that Green Mountain Reservoir provides storage and replacement water for both Western Slope beneficiaries and the Colorado River collection system. He said the reservoir creates water replacement for water that “would otherwise be curtailed because of senior water rights.” Lee expects the reservoir will fill by July 1 as it is currently over halfway full and filling earlier than usual.

Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply, shared the current water storage levels. According to Elder’s chart, Dillon Reservoir is currently 93% full, while Cheesman Reservoir is unusually low at 64% when the historical median is 91%. Elder said the overall system is 86% full — which is above average for this time of year — and he expects all the reservoirs to fill. 

Elder said with Dillon Reservoir being so full and Cheesman Reservoir being low, they expect to run a tunnel diversion sometime around June and through the summer. Kalsoum Abbasi, Colorado Springs Utilities water planning supervisor, said Colorado Springs Utilities estimated collection of over 13,000 acre-feet of water from the Blue River system. 

Erika Donaghy, executive director of Blue River Watershed Group, discussed a survey put out by the group that asked the community to rank their top priorities and concerns. The top three concerns that came out from the survey included climate change, water quality impacts from historic mining and abandoned mines and increasing land development and population growth in Summit County. Donaghy said the group will use this input in their current project, the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan. She explained that the plan is to evaluate the uses of the watershed and to evaluate current and future needs.

“We want to integrate all of those needs and uses for the maximum benefit of the health and sustainability of the watershed and, through all that, making sure that we are respecting and protecting existing water rights,” Donaghy said. 

The group is currently compiling existing studies and data to give a clear picture of the current condition of the watershed. 

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