Colorado State Parks face low water levels


Blue Mesa Reservoir is at its second lowest point in history and the water levels will not be rising anytime soon. This has been a problem at a number of Colorado State Parks.

Blue Mesa is one of Colorado’s water “savings accounts” and is the largest man made body of water in the state.

Colorado is the only state in which all the water flows out and a solution may mean more than just a lot of snow.

Gregory Barkley has been visiting the Blue Mesa Reservoir for over 30 years.

“It’s pretty peaceful when you’re out here by yourself. That’s what I enjoy about it,” said Barkley.

Yet the place that once brought him peace, lately has had the opposite effect.

“It’s sad. I mean, it’s kind of depressing seeing it this low,” said Barkley.

The Blue Mesa Reservoir is just one of several state parks across Colorado suffering from low water levels.

“As you look around the reservoir you can see the high water mark and you can see how much lower we are right now,” said Sandy Snell-Dobert, Public Information Officer with the National Park Service.

Five boat ramps are typically open in different parts of the reservoir. Now, that number has been reduced to one.

“I live right outside here and I’m not going to boat as much,” said Barkley.

“If we have continued low water conditions and we can’t use different parts of the reservoir because of not being able to put boats on the water, that could definitely impact the recreational use,” said Snell-Dobert.

Snell-Dobert said the reservoir is currently at 82 feet below full capacity, which doesn’t only impact people like Barkley.

“These reservoirs are built for water storage, particularly Blue Mesa Reservoir. Recreation is a side benefit of this,” said Snell-Dobert.

If the water levels continue to drop, those relying on the reservoir for irrigation purposes will also suffer.

“If everybody is in water shortage, soon you’ll have competition for what that water can be used for,” said Snell-Dobert.

“To be like this, there’s got to be an explanation and we’re not getting it,” said Barkley.

Megan Stackhouse with the National Weather Service said Western Colorado has been in a severe drought since 2017.

“Things started to worsen after we had the pretty dismal winter snow pack,” said Stackhouse.

Some portions of Western Colorado were in an exceptional drought, which is the highest drought category.

“With all of that rain we got in October we were able to see some areas improving to just a severe drought,” said Stackhouse.

While things may be looking up, Stackhouse said it’s going to take a lot more than just a few good weeks of rain.

“You definitely need a lot of steady precipitation,” said Stackhouse.

Many bodies of water including the Colorado River are at extremely low levels. While many people contribute this to the lack of snow pack in previous years, there is another factor to consider.

“The river is divided in half or nearly so. The lower basin gets slightly more water than the upper basin,” said Steve Acquafresca with the Colorado River District.

Acquafresca said while the drought may be the main issue, we’re also having to share 50% of what’s left of that water with six other states.

“The lower basin is California, Arizona, and Nevada. The upper states are Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico,” said Acquafresca.

The Colorado River Compact of 1992 requires the upper basin to continue sending the same amount of river water downstream, regardless of drought conditions.

“As the river shrinks, our reservoirs have allowed us to supplement the flow of the river and meet our lower basin obligation,” said Acquafresca.

As the water levels at those reservoirs also continue to decrease, the need for an alternate solution becomes even greater.

“If we continue in unmitigated drought, it remains to be seen how we can continue to do that going into the future,” said Acquafresca.

One of those solutions includes coordinating water releases. Getting rid of invasive species such as tamarisk, Russian olive, and Chinese elm could also help combat the issue.

“These invasive species transpire a great amount of water,” said Acquafresca.

So while the future of Blue Mesa along with other reservoirs remains uncertain, what remains certain is that something needs to change.

“I think if it continues it definitely could have an impact on visitation,” said Snell-Dobert.

“I feel sorry for the people in town too because it’s definitely going to shy away business,” said Barkley.

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