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Massive drawdown underway at Blue Mesa Reservoir

The water level at Colorado‘s largest lake is currently falling faster than it has ever fallen before.

It’s not because of evaporation or a lack of conservation here.

Instead, the federal government has decided that the water in Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County is needed downstream more than it's needed here.

Driving past the reservoir, it’s easy to see what’s happening there.

Every section of its 96 miles of shoreline is now heavily exposed to the sun and has a much lighter color than the terrain above it.

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Sadly, this is only the beginning.

The reason for this massive water release is hundreds of miles down the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers, at Lake Powell in southern Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada.

Call it "climate change" or call it a "mega drought", but the same persistent pattern of weather over the last 20 years that has contributed to catastrophic wildfires has also left both bodies of water at record lows.

Lake Powell in southern Utah

2021 is among the worst years since the drought began, and now the generators inside the dam at Lake Powell are in serious danger.

If they lose much more (water), they're not going to be able to produce electricity at that dam,” explains Sandy Snell-Dobert, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, “the problem with that is that millions of people rely on that power.”

Drought conditions on July 24, 2021

The National Park Service announced in late July that from now until at least the end of September, Blue Mesa Reservoir would fall another two feet per week.

The lake was already 61 feet below capacity at the end of July.

By the end of September, it will be 96 feet below capacity, a level not seen since it hit 93 feet in 1984.

Blue Mesa Reservoir Dam

“Probably by the end of September, we may very well have no boat ramps available for launching boats,” added Snell-Dobert.

It’s a troubling thought for Amy Riser, whose family has owned and operateed the Elk Creek Marina for most of the last 40 years.

It’s the largest of several marinas scattered around the reservoir, and offers the longest boat ramp of all of them.

But even the Elk Creek ramp won’t be able to operate longer than a few more weeks.

"We intend to stay fully open until we get to that point."

amy riser, elk creek marina llc.

“We intend to stay fully open until we get to that point,” she says.

July, August, and September are generally the busiest months at Blue Mesa, but this year the biggest crowds may have already come and gone.

“We operate from May to September.  So if you take any part of our season away, it has a negative impact on us,” says Riser.

However, the impact is larger than just her marina or souvenir shop.

According to the National Park Service, 922,000 people visited Blue Mesa Reservoir in 2020, spending more than 40 million dollars which directly supports 501 jobs in the region.

Many of the jobs are in Gunnison and Montrose, where restaurants and sporting good stores rely on summertime tourism.

There's no question the economic impact of this massive drawdown will be felt in 2021, but what many are asking right now is whether this will have to be an annual thing, and whether Blue Mesa Reservoir will ever be what it was.

"We probably won't see Blue Mesa full for a very long time, if ever again."

-National park service spokesperson

“We probably won't see Blue Mesa full for a very long time, if ever again,” says Snell-Dobert, “but I think that's reality, because we are in a climate-driven drought, and we're not seeing any trends that make it look like it's going to get any better any time soon.”

Gunnison County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Jonathan Houck believes the situation at Blue Mesa is indicative of a larger problem downstream.

“The challenges that we're facing in the long term are here to stay,” he says.

He believes although there are no easy solutions, conservation is key.

“Every person, even at the personal level, has the ability to have positive impacts on the water situation, not just in Colorado, but in the west.  And I always encourage Coloradans to realize that their individual actions have the ability to positively or negatively impact our water situation in this state.”

Riser, however, questions whether those farther downstream share the same need for conservation.

“When you have condo complexes in Arizona that require green lush grass, and so water is taken to places where they don't have water, to provide things like that, I'm not sure anyone understands the ramifications of the rest of us that are upstream from that.”

Paddleboarding at Blue Mesa Reservoir

It's important to note that neither the reservoir nor the Curecanti National Recreation Area that surrounds it aren’t closing.

Even after the shoreline is almost entirely exposed, visitors will still be able to drive down the water’s edge to fish or launch smaller boats or paddleboards.

However, those visitors will likely have to walk through a little more sand to reach the water than they already do.

KRDO Newschannel 13 contacted the offices of Congresswoman Lauren Boebert as well as US Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper.

A member of Boebert’s communication staff said Boebert takes water issues very seriously.

However, neither he nor anyone else from any of the offices responded to our requests for comment.

Local / News Headlines / Reporter Stories / Special Reports / State & Regional News / Talkers / Video / Weather Video

Bart Bedsole

Bart is the evening anchor for KRDO. Learn more about Bart here.

Comments

7 Comments

  1. “It’s important to note that neither the reservoir nor the Curecanti National Recreation Area that surrounds it aren’t closing.” Clear as mud.

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    1. Unfortunately, the water compacts that were drawn up and signed by the States nearly 100 years ago fail to take into account the possibilities of severe droughts. Upstream States like Colorado have little recourse when downstream States make a call on the river for their allotted amount. Just ask all the landowners in the Arkansas River watershed about their attempts to achieve relief from the onerous Kansas requirements. Every drop of rain, every snowflake that falls in Colorado is already spoken for due to all the interstate water compacts in addition to all the junior and senior water rights holders.
      For the record, the family farm that I grew up on in Northeast Colorado held the #2 (or maybe as low as #5) water rights on the South Platte River. These senior water rights became the lifeline for many of our neighbors back in the 60’s and early 70’s, allowing their family farms to survive a little longer in hard times. When the farm finally folded in the early 80’s (thanks to the poor economic foresight on my uncles’ part), the water rights were auctioned off seperately from the land, something that has become the norm. Luckily, another farming family (dynasty) purchased them to keep the land productive. The same cannot be said for many other water rights in the past few decades. More and more water speculators are snatching up these rights and then selling them off at a proffit, usually to cities or to other speculators, thus taking good farmland out of production.

  3. Glad we are letting releasing our “fair share” so Californian’s can still water their yard.

  4. This is really lame. Why do CO business owners get screwed? Forget downstream users, possession is 9/10ths of the law. I say tell the feds to stuff it.

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