If you have seen Ridgway Reservoir this summer, you have seen a low level of water and a high level of mud. The extreme drought affecting western Colorado is having an intense effect on it, and on Ridgway State Park as a whole. For instance, stretch of the Uncompahgre River that runs through the park has been reduced almost to a creek. The beach is closed to swimming, and has been for some time.
The reservoir is five miles long and normally contains 1,030 surface-acres of water. But these are not normal times.
The state of Colorado doesn’t own the land on which the park sits; that property actually belongs to the federal Bureau of Reclamation. “We are just the managing entity of the park,” explained park manager Kiersten Copeland.
Many people come to play in, or on, the reservoir. And many are upset that the water level is low. “A lot of people demand to know ‘why do you let all this water out! I can’t believe you’re doing’ this!”, Copeland said. “Well, it’s an ongoing process, and recreation is the tail end of this dog. There are so many things that go along with water in Colorado. The reasons this project was built are pretty obvious—irrigation water, potable water storage, flood control, and as an additional thing, they added recreation and natural resource management.”
“The Tri-County Water Conservancy District (http://tricountywater.org/) decides what water goes out of the dam. They’re responsible for answering to the water users downstream from us. So, when people get angry at us about the water levels, we point them to Tri-County, obviously.
“We manage the recreational, natural, and cultural resources, as well as all the public safety aspects,” Copeland explained. “A lot of us are trained as emergency medical technicians and peace officers, so we can manage the little town that develops in the park every summer.”
Meanwhile, you can expect the reservoir’s water levels to decline about another six feet in August. As of this writing, the Ridgway Reservoir was filled to a mere 64 percent of its capacity, according to Tri-County.
The agency provided a rundown of the problem in the July issue of its newsletter, Connections. The trouble started when the year began; the snow pack level was very low, and so was the runoff.
Tri-County stored the available water, but had to be careful not to let the water spill over; otherwise, the reservoir could have lost its smallmouth bass.
Next, a “call” was put on the Uncompahgre River which required all inflows to the reservoir to be passed downriver. That resulted in no increase in the water storage level.
Then came the long, hot summer. Above average temperatures led to above average evaporation and below average water levels.
We had the third-warmest June ever recorded in Colorado and across the nation, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The average temperature in Colorado was 4 degrees warmer than what Colorado typically expects to see in June, said Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger with Colorado Climate Center. “Some areas of the state have seen their record warmest January through June period, particularly around the San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which interestingly enough coincides with where we have seen some of the largest wildfires happen.”
2018 is now tied with 2016 for the fourth warmest January through June period in Colorado’s history. Bolinger told the newsletter that we’re also experiencing an unusual number of 90 degree-plus days. “The fact that we have had so many already is pretty remarkable,” she said. “Almost across the board, any location you look at in the state has had a much higher number of 90-degree days than they normally see at this time of year.”
In fact, 215 daily high records were shattered all over Colorado during the month of June. Bolinger reportedly believes the growing number of record-high temperatures could be due to a mixture of drought and climate change.
Don’t count on things cooling off anytime soon. The Climate Prediction Center reportedly thinks our above-average temperature streak might last through September.