Blue Mesa and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Blue Mesa Reservoir, located 10 miles southwest of Gunnison, is Colorado’s largest water body. At full capacity, it holds 940,800 acre feet of water and is 333 feet deep at the Blue Mesa Dam. Blue Mesa is only one component of the Aspinall Unit, which also includes the lesser-known Morrow Point Dam and Reservoir and Crystal Dam and Reservoir. All three were authorized in 1956 and work in tandem to regulate the flows of the Gunnison River, provide storage and supply hydroelectric power.
Today, the Unit is also operated in consideration of environmental concerns. In 2008, after years of negotiations between environmental groups, the Bureau of Reclamation and the state of Colorado, a water right was finally decreed for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Situated downstream of the three dams, the Black Canyon’s riparian resources have been degraded by decades of artificial flows. The decree requires minimum flows in the park of 300 cubic feet per second, and a once-annually, 24-hour peak flow intended to imitate natural spring runoff hydrology. There are many ways to explore the impressive infrastructure and natural features of the area:
From June through Labor Day, park rangers lead 1.5-hour boat tours on Morrow Point Reservoir, at the head of the Black Canyon. Leaving twice a day at 10 am and 12:30 pm, tours include stunning scenery and information about geology and history. Contact the National Park Service at (970) 641-2337 ext. 205 for 2012 start dates.
Explore the national park. Just outside of Montrose, the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is open year round. Visitors can camp, hike, and stand in awe at numerous dramatic viewpoints of the canyon walls, which from river to rim are more than 2,000 feet tall.
Watch the Crystal Dam spill. In big water years like 2011, the Crystal Dam spills, or fills to the point of overflowing, creating an impressive cascade. A steep road from the national park’s South Rim entrance leads down to the river and takes visitors close to the base of the dam. Information on the Crystal Dam spill is available at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Grand Junction office: (970) 248-0652.
Connect with the National Park Service, which offers volunteer opportunities, at www.nps.gov/blca/supportyourpark/volunteer. htm. Contact High Country Citizens’ Alliance, a regional environmental group which advocates for the health of the Upper Gunnison River, at www.hccaonline.org. Or call the Gunnison Basin Roundtable chair Michelle Pierce at (970) 944-2333.