Last ‘ditch’ effort surfacing?
City considers delayed start to water season
Originally published 2013-03-07
With the likelihood that drought will continue in Colorado into another summer season, local water watchers are already preparing for parched conditions.
And in the City of Gunnison, much-coveted ditch water may provide a means of easing the impact for water users elsewhere in the basin.
City Councilman Bill Nesbitt floated the idea last week of possibly delaying flows through the city’s network of irrigation ditches — which provide water for residents’ lawns and gardens — this spring to cushion against a basin-wide “call.”
The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA) is already contemplating the need for such a call, despite numerous initiatives that entity is taking to avoid that outcome.
UVWUA diverts water through the Gunnison Tunnel. That diversion, from the Black Canyon, provides 60 percent of the irrigation needs for the Uncompahgre Valley.
“They are basically talking about putting a call on the river and we’re trying to figure out a way to forestall that call,” said Nesbitt, who’s also a board member on the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD).
Local impacts of a downstream call would be numerous — from ranchers dependent upon water for irrigation to storage in Blue Mesa and Taylor Park reservoirs (both of which are junior to the Gunnison Tunnel), said UGRWCD General Manager Frank Kugel.
As of Tuesday, the snowpack in the Gunnison Basin was 79 percent of average for this time of year. Statewide, the snowpack was just 73 percent of average March 1. And that is just 83 percent of the snowpack from this time one year ago, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Locally, Kugel said that it’s estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 acre-feet is needed to offset the call by UVWUA.
“We envision that starting in early- to mid-April that the Gunnison Tunnel will be short of its decreed amount of water and (UVWUA) will have the ability to call out any water junior to their 1913 water right,” he said.
But he estimates that by delaying the flow of water through city ditches by just 10 days, it could leave as much as 700 acre-feet in the Gunnison River. Typically, city officials begin diverting water for irrigation in early- to mid-May.
“That could help out significantly if it’s bundled with a package of other savings that our district is exploring to help offset the call on the Gunnison Tunnel in April and May,” Kugel offered in response to Nesbitt’s idea.
Last year, UVWUA discontinued diversions for irrigation from the Gunnison Tunnel two weeks earlier than typical in order to save storage in Taylor Park Reservoir.
But currently, Taylor Reservoir — built by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) for use in supplementing the Gunnison Tunnel flows — is only two-thirds full, said Kugel.
Even with a meager release of 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) all winter long, the inflows have been so low that no additional storage has been created through the winter.
As a result, this year, the UVWUA is planning to delay opening the tunnel for irrigators by two weeks in order to further conserve storage, said Kugel.
UVWUA is also declining to renew 276 separate contracts for water this year, he added.
“There’s a number of dramatic moves that they’re taking, so we’re hoping to respond in a similar fashion,” Kugel said.
UGRWCD is currently in discussions with downstream entities, the state engineer and the BOR about the possibility of purchasing water in Ridgway Reservoir for use by the UVWUA, said Kugel.
Nesbitt said the idea of having the city play a role in this water-saving equation “has some merit,” while recognizing that many city residents and business owners would still want irrigation water before memorial day.
“I think this makes sense in the greater good of the basin,” he said.
A basin-wide call, Nesbitt warned, could have drastic economic consequences.
“If there’s a call on the river, that’s a very negative press situation,” he said. “And then you throw a couple fires in, which could happen. Now you’ve got no reason to go to Gunnison because there’s no water. There’s no fishing. There’s no rafting.”
City Manager Ken Coleman noted that “ditch water is a sensitive topic to the members of our community.”
“We get calls all the time about there not being water in the ditch,” he said, adding that he suggests “getting some buy-in” from constituents.
Council agreed last week to at least consider the idea. It’s expected to be placed on the agenda of a future work session.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)