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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

Gunnison Basin Roundtable

By Jayla Poppleton


The Gunnison River is the fifth largest tributary to the Colorado River. It joins the Colorado at Grand Junction, nearly matching the mainstem in volume. During its 180-mile descent, it drops most sharply through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a gorge so narrow that sunlight barely kisses its shadowy walls.

The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is the first to have met with all eight other roundtables. On each visit, they shared a presentation to acquaint others with the reality of their water situation, a reality they've felt was misunderstood. ‘Our message is: We use it well, we use it often and we use it all,’ says John McClow, roundtable member and Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District general counsel.

Concerned that other basins have eyed the large pool of water at Blue Mesa Reservoir as a source for transbasin diversions or augmentation water, the Gunnison Roundtable showed pictures of the reservoir — the state's largest -- during the 2002 drought. The 940,000 acre-foot reservoir looked more like a thin ribbon of water. ‘Just because there's a reservoir there doesn't mean there's all this water,’ says McClow. ‘They should be looking elsewhere.’

According to its chair, Michelle Pierce, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable in particular believes there were holes in the Statewide Water Supply Initiative's gap analysis for its basin. The roundtable is seeking additional information on rural domestic supplies as well as water for snowmaking to complete its consumptive needs study.

The roundtable also believes SWSI inferred that agricultural needs were being met, when in fact, multiple areas within the basin experience ag water shortages every year. ‘SWSI looked at diversion records. It just tells you what was used, not what was needed. Many of the ag producers on the roundtable feel there is, in fact, a shortage that is not documented,’ explains McClow.

Preliminary work on the Colorado River Water Availability Study suggests the Gunnison's ag water shortages may exceed 100,000 acre feet. In order to document the shortage, the roundtable voted in September 2008 to fund an ag shortages study through the Water Supply Reserve Account.

Keith Catlin, the Colorado Water Conservation Board member representing the Gunnison, has farmed in the Uncompahgre Valley for 59 years. He moved there from the San Luis Valley because it was water short at the time. Now, his priority through this process is making sure the Gunnison Basin has a future supply of water.

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, of which Keith's son Marc Catlin is manager, provides water for 80,000 acres of crops like pinto beans, sweet corn and alfalfa. Every year, they end up rationing each farmer, making it challenging to finish crops and effectively shortening the growing season. Marc Catlin, who is also a representative to the Interbasin Compact Committee, says the association uses the water up to five times before it goes back in the river, so the effect of a shortage is compounded. ‘If you're 10 percent short, then you're also 10 percent short for reuse,’ he says.

Farther upriver, the North Fork of the Gunnison faces similar challenges. Most of the water there is used for growing hay and watering orchards. But the orchards are struggling, and farms are dwindling in size. ‘We think we're an agricultural community, but we're struggling’ says Dixie Luke, who raises hay and cattle and serves as an at-large representative to the roundtable.

Luke says more storage for banking water in wet years would help, but if projects come before the roundtable for WSRA money, the roundtable's screening committee has agreed they'll have to benefit multiple uses, such as fisheries, recreation, water for municipalities and agriculture.

The non-consumptive needs assessment is proving to be one of the biggest challenges the roundtable has faced. ‘Not everyone's on the same page. Some don't even think we should be looking at these uses, others are very passionate about them,’ explains Pierce, who is also town manager of Lake City.

Steve Glazer, the roundtable's environmental representative and High Country Citizens Alliance water program director, says a working draft of mapped attributes is complete, and he hopes the roundtable will approve it soon. They initially followed the Arkansas Basin's watershed mapping approach, but because it seemed to create too much confusion, they shifted gears and based the map on critical stream segments instead of watersheds, says Glazer.

The biggest controversy is over recreational attributes through private land. ‘People don't want a map published that identifies their ranch as a great place to raft,’ says Marc Catlin. ‘The major sticking point is public access. We've pretty well identified the attributes. But if we publish all of them, are we inviting trespass?’

If the map is approved, the next step will be quantifying stream flows. To do that, Glazer hopes to use an experimental flow evaluation tool currently being piloted in the Colorado and Arkansas Basins. ‘The big question for our roundtable will be: how are the non-consumptive needs, once assessed, going to be integrated into our consumptive needs without impairing one or the other?’ says Glazer. ‘We're in new territory.’

The roundtable has been closely monitoring two federal cases that arose from non-consumptive uses in the river. Both involve managing the reservoirs upstream of the Black Canyon to manufacture a spring flood event. The Gunnison is regulated almost entirely by the Wayne N. Aspinall Unit, which consists of three major reservoirs — the Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal. The Aspinall Unit was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to help provide for upper basin uses under the Colorado River Compact. By regulating the river, the unit also prevents spring floods and distributes water more evenly throughout the growing season.

Over several decades, the U.S. government has attempted to quantify a federal water right it reserved in 1933 when it preserved part of the Black Canyon as a national monument. The National Park Service wants to use the water right to replicate the river's natural hydrograph through the canyon, which ironically means restoring spring peak flows and low summer flows. The NPS reached a settlement on Dec. 22, 2008, appeasing around 400 Gunnison irrigators and other interests by agreeing to subordinate the federal water right to all rights senior to 1957, the year of USBR's Aspinall Unit rights.

At the same time, the USBR is developing a plan to re-operate the Aspinall Unit to benefit two endangered fish species in the lower Gunnison. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Gunnison's flows are currently inadequate. The FWS also wants a spring flood event. Fortunately for water users, the native fish flows and Black Canyon's requirements overlap.

‘The preferred alternative required us all to make some sacrifices, but not huge,’ says McClow, who was chair of the roundtable's recently dissolved Black Canyon subcommittee.

As much as the roundtable wants these two things to proceed as agreed, success may hinge on water quality. The re-operation would reduce flows following the spring peak, causing selenium concentrations to rise. The FWS believes selenium is already thwarting the fish's reproductive success. If the service does not issue a favorable programmatic biological opinion, the re-operation will be stalled.

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association is the biggest water user affected. The valley rests on the Mancos shale deposits of an ancient ocean, heavily laden with salt and selenium. The association began piping irrigation laterals to keep water off the ground in 1997 and has succeeded in reducing selenium from its return flows -- but not fast enough for the FWS. ‘The FWS is urging a selenium reduction process that is prohibitively expensive -- $200 million over 10 years,’ says McClow. ‘That's a lot of money for farmers.’

Many people don't agree with the way the FWS drew its conclusions about the levels at which selenium negatively impacts the fish. ‘It presents an insurmountable problem,’ says McClow.

The roundtable is also concerned about a recent letter from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources initiating dialogue with the USBR to contract 200,000 acre feet of water from Blue Mesa. The DNR letter states it would use the water for beneficial uses in Colorado, including but not limited to meeting compact obligations in the event of a Colorado River Compact shortage. The letter suggests the details of use would be determined through ensuing negotiations, but it leaves the Gunnison roundtable surmising the water would largely provide — either directly or indirectly -- for municipal demands on the Front Range. The roundtable is concerned because the water right, which USBR owns from 1957, could trump other in-basin rights in the event of a compact curtailment. In addition, any significant drawdown of Blue Mesa would affect the surrounding Curecanti National Recreation Area, which brings 1 million visitor days and $35 million to the area per year.

The way DNR approached it has ruffled some feathers. ‘They should have come to the roundtables first,’ says Glazer. ‘It makes us think we are a lip service for planning.’

As Blue Mesa's negotiations proceed in the background, the roundtable is most focused on getting the right numbers into the studies, says Marc Catlin. ‘We don't want the state thinking water's available when it's already being used under a water right.’




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