Colorado’s largest body of water may hit a historically low level this fall, prompting early closures of some of the area’s recreation opportunities.
The Blue Mesa Reservoir, which feeds into the Colorado River, is at 39 percent capacity, according to the Bureau of Land Reclamation. The last time the reservoir west of Gunnison was at a similar level was in 1987, said Sandra Snell-Dobert, a spokeswoman for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area.
Soon, water levels are expected to drop to the point where launching and operating boats at most ramps won’t be possible, Snell-Dobert said.
“This time of year, most of our visitors are local/regional anglers fishing for kokanee salmon and lake trout,” she said. “It does make it difficult for boaters to access the reservoir, but Elk Creek ramp is open and most will choose to use that ramp as long as it is open.”
Low water levels and rising temperatures also have allowed for blue-green algae blooms. Though no direct environmental impacts have not yet been observed, some species of this algae can produce toxins that are harmful to dogs.
The Gunnison River Basin varied between 50 percent and 80 percent of its average snowpack this winter, hitting a low of 51.6 percent Dec. 20 and a peak of 79.81 percent April 20.
Other Colorado River reservoirs are facing similar shortages.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead in Arizona dropped to dangerous levels this week due to what scientists are calling the effects of the Colorado River’s worsening “structural deficit,” the Associated Press reported.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead hit 48 percent and 38 percent capacity, respectively.
The Colorado River basin, which feeds lakes Mead and Powell, has been drying out over the last two decades, scientists said. With the demands from farms and cities exceeding the available water supply, the strains on the river and reservoirs are being compounded by growing population, drought and climate change.
The Colorado River and its tributaries support about 40 million people and nearly 5 million acres of farmland, according to AP.
“Continuing this operational pattern will further drain Lake Powell and erode the benefits associated with its water storage,” the researchers said in their report. “If storage in Lake Powell cannot rebound in an era where the Upper Basin consumes less than two-thirds of its legal apportionment, then the crisis is already real.”
Colorado Springs is not facing comparable shortages, though the city’s reservoirs are at below-average levels.
In mid-July, Colorado Springs Utilities shut down the boat ramp at Rampart Reservoir after reaching 65 percent capacity. The immediate cause of the shortage was the diversion of more than 3 billion gallons to other reservoirs in late January when a 100-foot section of pipeline broke, Utilities spokesman Steve Berry said.
Abby Ortega, Utilities’ water resource manager, told The Gazette in July that she is confident that the reservoirs were holding enough water to last more than three years.
By Thursday, Utilities’ system storage contained a little less than three years of demand, hitting about 79 percent of capacity, said spokeswoman Natalie Watts. At this time last year, total system capacity at 91 percent compared with the 1981 to 2010 average of 81 percent for the end of August.
August water use by Utilities’ customers was about 9 percent more than last year while year-to-date precipitation was about 93 precent of normal.
“We will continue to balance storage, demand and inflow to make the most efficient use of our water supplies,” Watts said in an email.
What We Believe
We are driven by our deep respect for our environment, and our passionate commitment to sustainable tourism and conservation. We believe in the right for everyone - from all backgrounds and cultures - to enjoy our natural world, and we believe that we must all do so responsibly. Learn More