Whoosh! Down it comes!

 

I spend a fair amount of time at the HCN office reading online news, and writing blogs like this one. It's easy, when surrounded by abstractions, to feel a little bit cut off from what makes things work around here in Paonia. One quick antidote to that feeling is to go down to the river on my lunch breaks and stand on the bridge overlooking the North Fork of the Gunnison. Over the last few months, I've watched the river transform from quiet, dark, and ice-glazed--a secret under snow--to a silty torrent, flattening the willows, wrapping debris around the cement bridge pillars, and making a holy racket. Watching these changes feels like keeping my fingers on the pulse of what makes this place, not just Paonia, but Western Colorado, tick. 

An equally good reality check is to attend a local water meeting. On Monday, Jun 1st, the smell of fried chicken wafted from the annual State of the Gunnison River meeting. The room at the Holiday Inn in Montrose was so packed with farmers, water district representatives and other community members that they had to bring in extra chairs. This year, said Bob Hurford, state engineer for the Gunnison Basin, early, fast runoff has made it "kinda tough for guys trying to manage dams and irrigate." The dust blowing in from Utah and Arizona made the snow melt fast and early, filling the reservoirs to, and beyond, capacity. The Bureau of Reclamation has had to let water out as fast as possible to avoid excessive spillover. Dan Crabtree described their efforts as similar to "driving a Ferarri and hoping we don't hit any sharp turns..." 

This is problematic for long-term management --  a slowmelting snowpack is itself an important natural reservoir which allows managers to save water and release it slowly as needed from dams. Said Hurford,"The only good thing I can think of is that dust came over from Utah and now we can send it back." 

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District and the star of Matt Jenkins' article "How Low Will it Go?" highlighted the importance of the Gunnison River Basin to the overall Colorado River system. The Colorado River Basin drains 250,000 square miles, which is about equal to the size Columbia River Basin; however, the actual drainage of the Colorado (between 15-16 million acre feet) is a tiny fraction of the Columbia (between 200-210 million acre feet).  Of the Colorado's 15-16 million acre-feet the Gunnison River basin supplies a lion's share. He emphasized careful management:"Let's not make the mistakes we've made in lots of other basins" by overallocating because, "if you go beyond your resources it's going to hurt to come back."

The meeting ended on a light note. Nolan Doesken, Colorado's tall, toothy, maniacally enthusiastic climatologist, challenged the roomful of stolid farm-types to a game of local climate trivia. His prize was a rain gauge and an exhortation to participate in his citizen science project, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network.  I've never seen anyone get as excited about weather as Mr. Doesken: "Every year we get to witness this amazing cyclical phenomenon! Every year, the snow accumulates! Then it melts! Then whooossh! DOWN IT COMES! "