What a difference a year can make.
Despite a collective moan among community members about more snow, late-season storms are credited with an optimistic outlook for the coming summer. That’s welcomed news to recreationists, ranchers and anyone who enjoys the benefits of full rivers and reservoirs.
Typically, water forecasters wait until two dates, April 1 and May 1, to make official predictions about snowmelt and runoff. However, following last year’s drought which dropped Blue Mesa Reservoir to its second lowest level on record, many are pointing to signs that this summer will be a different story.
Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District General Manager Frank Kugel predicts Taylor Park Reservoir will fill to 95 percent of capacity, while Blue Mesa looks to at least fill to 75 percent. By comparison, Taylor Park currently is at 58 percent of capacity and Blue Mesa is a mere 30 percent.
Kugel presented these predictions last Friday during a meeting of the Taylor Park Users Group. The March gathering could be considered a bellwether of summer forecasting, and forms a recommendation by the users to the Upper Gunnison board. The three “Snotel” sites which surround Taylor Park show 144 percent of average snow-water equivalent as of Sunday, March 10, while the five sites above the Blue Mesa are at 150 percent.
What is notable about recent storms is the amount of water the snow contains. Just this week, the water content of snowpack measured at Snotel sites throughout the basin exceeded the relatively big winter of 2016-17.
“If it keeps snowing, releases could be higher,” Kugel said, noting agricultural stakeholders have advocated for earlier releases from Taylor Reservoir. “With a full reservoir, we’ll do our best.”
Peak releases from Taylor Reservoir are proposed to occur for five days this coming June at 445 cubic feet per second (cfs), with several weeks of 400 cfs.
Following low water levels — about 324,000 acre-feet — in November 2012, downstream Blue Mesa finally filled to over 793,000 acre-feet in July 2016 — making it a four-year recovery. But, every flake adds to the optimism, with Kugel noting he’s seen the Blue Mesa Reservoir fill in one year.
In 1984, he said, Blue Mesa was drained in anticipation of a “monsterous” snow melt. If spring storms continue to add to the snowpack, he said it’s possible the reservoir could rebound from last summer’s deficit in just a year.
The early numbers are good news to Three Rivers Resort owner Mark Schumacher. Although the resort owner remained upbeat at the end of last summer — noting the Aspinall-Wilson storage system is designed to absorb one dry year — he too has kept a watchful eye on snowpack.
“It’s going to be a great water year,” said Schumacher, who credited the rebound to a combination of proper water planning and storage paired with weather conditions.
Flows in the Taylor River were reduced to around 55 cfs for the current winter.
“We didn’t lose any water,” Schumacher said. “The inflow was what the outflow was all winter.”
That’s why, he said, it takes back-to-back dry years to have a significant impact.
“If it happened again like last year, we’d be singing the blues right now,” said Schumacher. “Even with good water management, if the water isn’t there, it isn’t there.”
But perhaps the biggest impact on his business is tourists’ perception of drought. Last year, although minimum flows were maintained, he said there was enough water for rafting. However, when people think water is low, they will choose to do something else with their summer, he said.
“It’s more of what people hear than what is really on the river,” Schumacher said. “As soon as people say, ‘It’s a drought year. Oh, the rivers are so low,’ then people don’t go rafting.”