A wet year promises a boost to Colorado River Basin reservoirs and ecosystems

Shannon Mullane
Colorado Sun
Boats sit at the Lake Fork Marina on Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, Colorado, on May 23. Because of this year's higher-than-average snowpack, Blue Mesa Reservoir is predicted to fill almost to capacity and recovery from past emergency releases sent downstream to support Lake Powell. The releases were a response to the ongoing megadrought in the Colorado River Basin.
Dean Krakel/The Colorado Sun

The network of pipes and massive bathtubs that is the Colorado River Basin’s reservoir storage system is going to see some recovery this year thanks to higher-than-average snowpack. That’s a promising sign for aquatic habitats in need of a health boost.

Overuse and a 23-year drought have drawn down the water stored in reservoirs across the basin, which spans seven states, 30 Native American tribes and part of Mexico. Recently, one of the basin’s largest reservoirs, Lake Powell, even needed emergency releases from upstream reservoirs, including Blue Mesa Reservoir in western Colorado, to safeguard against a looming crisis. 

As most water officials and experts will emphasize, one good year of snow won’t solve the crisis. But this year, the system’s largest reservoirs will end the year with more water than they had at the start, and water managers don’t foresee any need for drought-related releases from Blue Mesa. 

Which means, as upstream reservoirs benefit from the wet year, there might be more opportunities for releases that help manage river sedimentation and bolster downstream ecosystems, said Bart Miller, healthy rivers director at Western Resource Advocates. 

“Having years that do have really high flow helps counterbalance the years with low flows,” Miller said. “It helps scour out the channels; it helps get rid of some of the riparian vegetation that might otherwise encroach; it helps with spawning cues for all sorts of native species.”

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