Black Canyon of Gunnison gets a scouring |

Black Canyon of Gunnison gets a scouring

Mark Jaffe
The Denver Post/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado

MONTROSE ” A whitewater torrent rushed over the Crystal Dam on Wednesday and coursed into Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The release marked the end of a 36-year battle by the National Park Service to win an annual spring discharge from a series of dams upstream to cleanse and scour the river through the canyon.

“This is the beginning of repairing and healing the park’s ecosystem,” said Michael Dale, a Park Service hydrologist.

Before the federal Bureau of Reclamation began gradually building up the flow last week, the Gunnison River was flowing about 1,000 cubic feet a second.

Wednesday morning, the flow was about 7,500 cubic feet a second, or about 2 million gallons a minute.

The stronger flow is intended to mimic natural spring runoff, removing sediment and algae and helping to break down riffles and whisk away vegetation encroaching on the riverbank, Dale said.

“One year’s high flow won’t do it all, but now we can hope for a spring flow most years,” Dale said.

The natural flow of the Gunnison was blocked in the 1970s by the Aspinall Unit, a set of three dams built and run by the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Park Service began trying to obtain a water right for the canyon in 1972. It was granted in late 2008.

“This has been one of the longest, most complex water-right battles in Colorado,” said Drew Peternell, an attorney for the sportsmen’s group Trout Unlimited.

To win that right, the concerns of hydropower agencies, ranchers and farmers ” and downstream towns fearful of flooding ” had to be addressed.

“We were able to reach a consensus that everyone could support,” said Clayton Palmer, an environment specialist with the Western Area Power Authority, which markets electricity from the Aspinall Unit.

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