By Rebecca Briesmoore
Editor’s Note: This is a cross-posted blog entry from first year Master’s of Environmental Management (MEM) student Rebecca Briesmoore, originally published on her website on Feb. 15, 2022. You can find more of her work at Briesmoore.com
Rebecca’s Note: This is the first of a new blog series I am hoping to publish, detailing the combination of my personal experience in the west and the complex environmental challenges it is facing. They will be longer pieces, but it’s important for me to include both the data and facts of the challenges and my own personal connections with the land I am living on. As always, thanks for reading, and enjoy!
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. The tread of my shoes grinds into the sandy-gravel path of the Van Tuyl trail as I walk quickly alongside my brother, the many layers of my clothing fighting the sub-zero temperature cold from seeping into my bones. The sun sinks slowly at my left, descending behind the tall, lofty cliffs that line the Gunnison Valley on the west and my body, feeling night setting in, urges my feet to quicken their pace. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
Less than a month ago I crunched my way along this same trail, but then the crunching was caused by my hiking boots grinding on snow instead of gravel, a much more satisfying sound. Now, three weeks later, the snow on the path and the surrounding areas has largely melted, which is normal for sunny Gunnison, where we are fortunate enough to have 270 sunny days a year. What’s not normal is that the snow hasn’t been replaced.
Here in Gunnison County it’s almost impossible to have a conversation without bringing up the dry conditions. And lately, it’s all about snowpack. “Do a snow-dance, will ya?” a fellow skier begged me on the chair lift recently. The same day a lift operator asked me, “How are the ski runs?” and I responded honestly, “A bit sketchy in places,” echoing the line every skier and snowboarder in the county is repeating: “We need snow.”
It hasn’t been the worst year for snowpack. Despite a rocky start at the beginning of December (literally rocky if you were one of the brave souls attempting the slopes with minimal snow), Colorado got hammered during the holiday season with repeated storms, building the snowpack in Gunnison County up to 145% of the norm by mid-January.
But after a couple storms in the first week of the year, the snow stopped coming. In our mountain region that should be receiving repeated storms leaving a few inches weekly, we’ve seen empty skies. One month later, snowpack has shrunk to 105%, and will continue to shrink unless more snow comes .
Snowpack isn’t the only drought measure keeping Gunnison County residents worrying. This summer, when the conversation wasn’t revolving around the housing crisis it was focused on the other crisis: Blue Mesa Reservoir. The Blue Mesa Reservoir, referred to simply as “Blue Mesa,” is the largest lake in Colorado. Created by the Blue Mesa Dam built in the 1960s by the Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir is part of the larger Curecanti National Recreation Area and hosts almost one million visitors annually.
A popular spot for recreation, including fishing, ice fishing, boating, water skiing, sailing, and windsurfing, the dam downstream also uses hydropower to provide electricity to Gunnison County. But last summer locals were reminded of the most prioritized use of Blue Mesa: water storage for downstream users.
I was introduced to Blue Mesa less than two weeks after moving to Gunnison, on a weekend boating outing in June. Still fresh to town and knowing less than a few people, I happily accepted this last-minute impromptu invite. We left from the Elk Creek Marina, cruising west on the reservoir. At some point, we turned off into a side channel and slowly meandered upstream, until we found a place to rest along the muddy shores and explore. There, time expanded.
We wandered along the shoreline up the stream, climbing over rocky hills, finding animal bones, and examining rocks. We slathered on sunscreen, laughed together at a harmless kayak mishap, and shared snacks. A child at heart, I drifted between making conversation with the adults and splashing through the cold shallow water searching for crawdads with the two boys. When at last we packed up the kayaks and gathered our strewn belongings, we realized we left not a moment too soon.
A storm was coming in, blackening the sky in rapid movement, and we were miles from the marina. At full speed, the driver hurried back, worry stretched across her face. I wondered how likely a lightning strike would hit us, and then all at once, the rain arrived. It arrived fast and strong, pelting us with large droplets that soaked us in moments.
And then, in an instant, the rain changed to hail. Cold, hard, pea-sized hail. We cowered in the back of the pontoon, shielding ourselves, as hail filled the bottom of the boat and our bags. When at last we reached the marina, we were cold and wet, but admitted it had been a spectacular – and unforgettable – day.
Less than a month after the memorable Blue Mesa boat trip, I learned the reservoir would be drawn down eight feet over the next couple months. Already at only 44% full, I didn’t understand why the National Park Service was letting so much water go downstream. But to any native Gunnison County resident, the answer was obvious – to supply water to Lake Powell. Lake Powell, at only 31% full and its lowest water level ever, was about to lose its capability to produce hydropower at the dam due to low water levels.
Lake Powell is created by Glen Canyon Dam, which impounds the Colorado River in northern Arizona, and supplies five billion kilowatt hours of hydropower annually to the states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Nebraska. And thanks to Lake Powell receiving 2.5 million acre-feet of water less than predicted due to drought conditions, Blue Mesa was one of the reservoirs on the hook for supplying some replacement inflow.
In August, boat owners were instructed to remove their boats at the Elk Creek Marina, as the floating dock and marina were expected to hit the lake bottom, and over two dozen marina and restaurant employees lost their jobs six weeks early. Now, in February, Blue Mesa is only 29% full, and the change is stark to anyone passing by.
Based on snowpack, water experts are predicting Blue Mesa will regain some of its lost volume this year, and as of now, additional emergency drawdowns aren’t expected. But in our new normal, there are no guarantees. And whatever happens the rest of the winter with snowpack, the west is still facing the worst drought in 1200 years.
The 2000-2021 span is the driest 22-year period since 800 A.D., the farthest back records are available. Here, at the headwaters, we are more fortunate than communities downstream. But a quote from a National Park Service spokesperson still haunts me: “We probably won’t see Blue Mesa full for a very long time, if ever again.”
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. We round the bend, where the trail meets the Gunnison River, and I can hear the icy river flowing on its way to Blue Mesa. Like Blue Mesa, I visited this exact spot in June, just days after moving to Gunnison, and watched throughout the summer as the water level sank, exposing rocks and shoreline.
Now, almost eight months after I first enjoyed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the shore, delighted in my perfect lunch spot, I wonder what it will look like this summer. I wonder too about Blue Mesa – will the snowmelt fill the reservoir? And I wonder about downstream – will there be enough water for those reservoirs – for Lake Powell? And if there isn’t – if this drought continues – how long will it take before all of us, the upstream and downstream users, must make sacrifices in our water consumption? How long can we survive if the water doesn’t come?
The trail winds before us through shadow, lined by the leafless shapes of trees and shrubs clinging to the water-rich soils along the shore. On the other side of the valley, the sky has turned from pink, to purple, to deep blue, a magnificent, breath-taking backdrop behind the mountains. The moon has made its appearance, chasing away the last remnants of the sun as it takes center stage for our awe and reverence. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
I walk on, my steps becoming a mediation and a prayer, begging to the valley, to the clouds, to the sky. Snow. Snow. Snow.
Additional resources and sources:
1] Colorado Weather: New Snowpack Numbers Looking Good For 2/3rds Of The State: https://denver.cbslocal.com/2022/01/12/colorado-weather-new-snow-pack-numbers-looking-good-for-2-3rds-of-the-state/
 Colorado snowpack in need of a boost: https://www.fox21news.com/news/colorado-snowpack-in-need-of-a-boost/
 Massive drawdown underway at Blue Mesa Reservoir: https://krdo.com/news/local-news/2021/08/02/massive-drawdown-underway-at-blue-mesa-reservoir/
 Falling water levels to impact Blue Mesa recreation: https://www.gjsentinel.com/news/western_colorado/falling-water-levels-to-impact-blue-mesa-recreation/article_4f48fab2-ee34-11eb-8aea-77bde281668c.html
 Water releases from an already low Blue Mesa Reservoir will prop up Lake Powell: https://coloradosun.com/2021/09/06/blue-mesa-reservoir-water-releases/
 Glen Canyon Dam: https://www.usbr.gov/uc/rm/crsp/gc/
 Drought-Hit Blue Mesa Reservoir Losing 8 Feet Of Water To Save Lake Powell Has A Marina Hurting: https://www.cpr.org/2021/09/03/blue-mesa-reservoir-lake-powell-water-supply-drought/
 Blue Mesa Water Database: https://bluemesa.water-data.com/
 How Bad Is the Western Drought? Worst in 12 Centuries, Study Finds: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/14/climate/western-drought-megadrought.html