Colorado’s Biggest Reservoir Gets a Reprieve

Southwestern Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, drained by years of drought and a major release of water designed to aid a plummeting Lake Powell, is experiencing a rebirth this summer and could fully fill by the end of the recreation season.

“The water has been shooting up,” says Eric Loken, who manages the two marinas on the reservoir.

Blue Mesa is one of four federal reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin designed to hold water to help the Upper Basin states—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—meet legal obligations to send water downstream to Arizona, California and Nevada. The other Upper Basin reservoirs include Utah’s Flaming Gorge, New Mexico’s Navajo, and Utah and Arizona’s Lake Powell.

In 2021, already partially drained by years of drought and thin snowpacks, millions of gallons of water were sent from Blue Mesa downstream to Lake Powell in an effort to bolster that reservoir and keep hydropower-generating turbines operating.

Even more water was released upstream that year, from Flaming Gorge.

But this year, thanks to abundant snows and a cool, rainy spring across the region, Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge are in recovery mode, according to Alex Pivarnik, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist.

“Flaming Gorge is on the up. Blue Mesa is on the up. Powell is going to be increasing as well,” Pivarnik says.

Two years ago the picture was much different. Marina operators were scrambling to move docks and gasoline as reservoir levels plummeted.

Blue Mesa is Colorado’s largest reservoir, holding more than 940,000 acre-feet of water when it is full. An acre-foot of water equals nearly 326,000 gallons and is enough to serve two to four urban households for one year.

Last year, with little recovery in sight, Loken was forced to close the Elk Creek Marina, the largest on Blue Mesa. He, and the thousands of boaters, campers and anglers who visit the giant watering hole, worried that the future was so bleak that the reservoir might not recover.

“There was some concern that it would never refill,” Loken says. “There was concern we might have to send everything we had downstream [to Powell].

“But this year we are way up.  It’s a lake again. It’s quite nice,” he says.

And for this year, at least, as the water levels rise, federal officials say there will be no need for additional emergency releases under a special drought plan approved in 2019, giving everyone some room to breathe and enjoy the giant pool.

“There is no plan to do additional drought response [releases] in 2023,” Pivarnik says. “But we don’t want people to sit there and think one good year of runoff and snowpack get you out of 20 years of drought. We still have to manage for a drier future.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News.

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