Colorado River water calls happening earlier than ever; supplemental water to be released in basin to protect endangered fish
June 27, 2018
Editor's note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times, Vail Daily and Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Learn more at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
ASPEN — Very low flows in the upper Colorado River system are now expected to trigger calls from senior water rights tied to the Shoshone hydropower plant and irrigators in the Grand Valley. And, starting Friday, June 29, more water was to be released from Ruedi Reservoir into the lower Fryingpan River to bolster downstream flows.
The Shoshone plant has two water rights: a very senior 1905 right for 1,250 cubic feet per second and a less-senior right for 158 cfs with a 1940 priority date. A call for the 1940 Shoshone right took effect Thursday, June 28, meaning those upstream from the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon who hold junior rights must stop diverting.
On Sunday, July 1, another, larger call is expected to happen downstream on the Colorado — the Cameo call. The Cameo call is made up of the water rights of agriculture diverters near Palisade, including the Grand Valley Water Users Association and the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District.
The Cameo call, which is the second-most senior water right on the Colorado River, calls about 2,200 cfs down through the river system, but the diversion structures tied to the call also have the potential to nearly dry up the Colorado River in a 15-mile reach between the Palisade area and the confluence of the Gunnison River in Grand Junction. This 15-mile reach is critical habitat for endangered fish, including the humpback chub.
To help offset the effects of the big diversion structures that send water to the Grand Valley and the effects of other diversions upstream on the river system, officials with the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program have set a low-flow target of 810 cfs this year.
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And after meeting with other regional water managers on Wednesday, June 27, the officials planned to release on Friday, June 29, 50 cfs of water that has been earmarked specifically for endangered fish from Ruedi Reservoir. Another 100 cfs will be added to the bolstered flows on Monday, July 2, bringing releases to about 260 cfs in the river below Ruedi Reservoir.
A Cameo call is not unusual but it generally happens in late summer, according to Don Meyer, senior water resources engineer with the Colorado River District.
"It's a brutal year," Meyer said. "I think it's going to be a dire situation for everybody, but especially the fish down there."
Meyer said he expects the senior Shoshone call to come soon, which could delay the Cameo call. But with the warm, dry weather forecast, he said the Cameo call will happen soon.
This year also is the second earliest that "fish water" has been released from Ruedi Reservoir since the endangered fish program was established in 1988. During the most recent drought years, 2002 and 2012, fish water was released June 24 and July 3, respectively.
Federal officials expect to be able to release 16,412.5 acre-feet of fish water from Ruedi Reservoir this year, including from a 5,000-acre-foot pool, a 5,412-acre-foot pool and 6,000 acre-feet of water owned by Ute Water Conservancy District in the reservoir, which is to be leased for the endangered-fish program.
In all, the fish program has a total of 28,000 acre-feet of water it can use from various reservoirs in the upper Colorado River system, including Ruedi, Granby and Wolford reservoirs.
The Cameo call also will put more water into the Roaring Fork River by "calling out" the transmountain diversion through the Twin Lakes tunnel under Independence Pass. The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. can move 625 cfs of water out of the Roaring Fork Basin to the Arkansas Basin, where it is used for East Slope municipal and irrigation purposes.
The tunnel is currently diverting around 50 cfs, but that will come to a halt when the Cameo call goes into effect.
"In one respect it's a windfall for the Roaring Fork," said Kevin Lusk, president of Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. "It's not good for our customers, but that's the law. It's just part of owning a water right on a river in Colorado. This is one of those dry years, so we are not surprised to see the Cameo call come on."