Ruedi Reservoir will pay a price for warm, dry April

Reservoir expected to reach only about 90% of capacity this summer

The view of Ruedi Reservoir from the Ruedi Overlook Trail in June 2016.
Scott Condon/Aspen Times file

The dry, warm month of April prevented the snowpack from building and sunk the chances to fill Ruedi Reservoir this summer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“It’s not good at all,” said Tim Miller, a. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist who manages water levels at the reservoir. “We took a pretty good nosedive from April to May.”

The snowpack in the upper Fryingpan Valley was only about 60% of median as of May 1, he said. Forecasts are for runoff into the reservoir to be only about 55% of average.

Ruedi Reservoir is at about 60% full right now. It holds 102,000 acre-feet of water. It would need about 42,000 acre-feet to fill.

Current projections are for it to reach about 90,000 acre-feet this summer, according to Miller.

Last year the bureau also dealt with a dry late spring that prevented the reservoir from filling. It reached about 96,750 acre-feet or 5,000 acre-feet below full.

The Roaring Fork River basin, like much of Colorado and the Western United States, has been battling a prolonged drought. AccuWeather Inc. reported Wednesday that 75% of the Western U.S. is experiencing drought conditions. About 21% of the areas are facing exceptional drought, which is the most extreme.

Droughts create dry soils, which can absorb snowmelt before it reaches rivers and streams. Dry conditions also create sublimation, where melting snow turns to vapor instead of liquid.

The reclamation bureau took a conservative approach and released the minimum allowable amount of water for most of the winter from Ruedi dam.

“We were as cautious as we get,” Miller said.

The release is currently at 110 cubic feet per second. It ran a bit higher in January, February and part of March to try to avoid build-up of anchor ice, which can have detrimental effects on river ecosystems.

Miller said the implications of a low water year at Ruedi Reservoir are a mixed bag. Generally, contracts for water will be fulfilled, he said. However, water may not be available for an endangered fish recovery program on what’s referred to as the 15-mile reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contracts for water from Ruedi for that program when it is available.

People who like to boat and fish in Ruedi Reservoir also will be affected.

“The recreation side of it will definitely suffer,” Miller said.

The lower water level will likely reduce the amount of time the boat ramp will be operable at the Aspen Yacht Club. The public boat ramp near Ruedi dam opened for operations Saturday.

A lower water level in the reservoir also will mean lower releases into the lower Fryingpan River through the summer. Water levels won’t be as high as usual in late spring and early summer, so there won’t be a disruption to the Gold Medal trout stream.

However, low water levels and high summer temperatures are a regular cause for concern. The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy has sounded the alarm in past summers about high water temperatures stressing trout.

Water releases could increase in June once downstream entities that possess senior water rights make a “call” for water for agricultural uses, Miller said.

April Long, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said the reservoir is used to meeting numerous water needs in the Roaring Fork Valley and on the Colorado River system. It is hard to know the full impact of the reservoir not filling, she said.

“But I expect to see lower flows in the Fryingpan and lower Roaring Fork, which can negatively impact aquatic life, particularly trout, and could mean a shortened boating season,” Long said via email. “In addition to the environmental and recreational impacts, this causes economic impacts for our communities. Low flows and a hot summer combine to create warm water where trout get stressed and struggle to survive. This could result in fishing restrictions in the afternoons.”