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Blue River Watershed Group presents annual update and drought predictions

The Blue River is pictured on June 1, 2020 in Silverthorne. The Blue River Watershed Group hosted various experts to share updates on the river and surrounding water shortages earlier this month.
Jason Connolly / Summit Daily News archives

The Blue River Watershed Group held its annual update virtually this year, with various experts tuning in to share progress being made on community projects and forecasts of how much water will be in the rivers and reservoirs later this summer.

Experts from different organizations presented updates specific to their work, all focusing on water rights, drought outlooks and river basin updates.

Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, went through the recent history of the ongoing drought in the state. He said throughout the past few months, eastern Colorado has seen decent drought improvement, but western Colorado has remained about the same.



Schumacher presented a chart showing average temperatures and precipitation from April through September, which showed that 2020 was somewhat of an outlier.

“It was the driest April through September on record and one of the few hottest on record, and that is a recipe for a drought that develops quickly,” Schumacher said.



A few experts presented on the outlook of precipitation probability throughout the next few months, noting that Colorado as a whole has a high probability of being below average. On a similar scale for temperature, Colorado has a high probability of being above average — meaning it will continue to be warm and dry in the state.

Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, provided an overview of the goals and accomplishments from phase one of the Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan. The first objective of the plan, which Van Gytenbeek said the group has spent most of its time on, is to understand potential causes for declining fish populations between the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs and how the decline can be mitigated.

The second objective is what Van Gytenbeek called a “literature search,” which aims to compile information regarding physical and biological aspects of the Blue River Basin’s water resources. This would then formulate objectives and goals for future phases of the plan.

Van Gytenbeek said the phase one report is currently being finalized, and they intend to submit it to an advisory committee in the middle of June. He said he expects the report to be made public in July or early August.

Once the report is completed the second phase of the project will continue, with hopes of having the final phase two report ready for the public by March 2022. Van Gytenbeek said he thinks integrated water management plan organizations like the Blue River Watershed Group should get some support to keep the dialogue going past the life of phase two of the project.

Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer at the Colorado River District, talked about supply issues within the Colorado River Compact. Kanzer outlined the supply and demand from the Colorado River Basin, noting it physically goes through seven states and two countries, and the river is used by about 40 million people across 5.5 million irrigated acres.

“It is a balancing act, and right now we’re a little bit out of balance,” Kanzer said. “Our reservoirs are dropping because we’re not getting our historic planned inflows, and we’re using more water than is being replenished.”

Nathan Elder and Jason Finehout of Denver Water said there is a low likelihood of filling the Dillon Reservoir this year, predicting an inflow of about 50-60% of normal. Finehout went on to explain that many of Denver Water’s annual summer watering rules are the same as many jurisdictions’ stage one drought restrictions.

“We put forth these proactive restrictions in hopes of changing that whole mentality to conservation and efficiency,” Finehout said.

Finehout added that total customer water usage has gone down 17% over the past 20 years, despite an increase of 300,000 people in the Denver Water service area.

Brian Lorch, trails director of Summit County Open Space and Trails, provided an update on the Swan River Restoration Project, which aims to naturalize more than two miles of the Swan River Valley impacted by historical dredge mining.

Lorch said this summer, Reach B of the project will start to take shape, as contractors will create about another mile of stream channel.

“The goal here is to get a natural stream that does have relatively stable banks and vegetation over the stream to create fisheries habitat and then sequences of pools, ripples and glides all the way through the stream as it moves downstream,” Lorch said.


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