Photo Journal: A Visit to the Upper Colorado River Basin
Last week, WRRC staff member Jessie Hampton visited family in rural southwestern Colorado. She stayed along Cebolla Creek, which flows down to meet the Gunnison River in Blue Mesa Reservoir, one of three reservoirs that make up the Curecanti Unit of the Colorado River Storage Project. Local ranchers use their water rights on Cebolla Creek to irrigate hay meadows. Jessie took photos of places she visited on her trip to showcase different types of water usage and management in the area.
Photo 1: Cebolla Creek is named for the wild onions that grow along it; cebolla means onion in Spanish. The high elevation (nearly 9,000 ft) means that the water flows fresh and cold, fed by mountain streams and snowmelt. The meadows on either side of the river in this shot have already been hayed.
Photo 2: This large meadow is waiting to be hayed. The irrigation has been turned off and sunny weather has dried everything out enough to permit haying equipment to drive on it without getting stuck.
Photo 3: Cebolla Creek curves away to the left while a portion of the water is diverted by a small rock dam into the headgate of an irrigation ditch (center).
Photo 4: In a setup typical for the area, a metal flume set into the irrigation ditch allows ranchers to monitor water levels and adjust as necessary by opening or closing the headgate.
Photo 5: The end of summer means it’s time to turn off the irrigation and start cutting the hay. Headgates are shut off and some ditches are further sealed with plastic sheeting, held down with good old-fashioned dirt and rocks, to keep the water in the river and out of the meadows.
Photo 6: A high country spring feeds a stock pond and spring box, used by wildlife and cattle. The landscape is dominated by sagebrush and ponderosa pines.
Photo 7: This spring box allows for both inflow and outflow, keeping the water relatively clean. Fence posts and barbed wire prevent cattle from tipping it over, while still allowing them to safely drink. A wildlife ramp affixed to one side gives smaller animals a way to escape, should they fall in.
Photo 8: The mountains are home to many types of wildlife, including this mule deer doe. Although many people think of the Rocky Mountains as being green and lush, this ecosystem is actually a high-elevation desert.
Photo 9: Looking down on Blue Mesa Reservoir, it is easy to see that the water levels are low. Note the stark color difference between the high-water mark and the surrounding land.
Photo 10: Some folks camping near the water’s edge provide a sense of scale. The high-water mark is far behind them, at the edge of the green grass.
Photo 11: The upstream side of Blue Mesa Dam may not look like much, but it marks the beginning of the majestic Black Canyon of the Gunnison below.
Photo 12: There is a small parking area on top of the dam, where the Bureau of Reclamation has provided informational signage for visitors.
Photo 13: Downstream, an overlook provides a clear view of the base of the dam, where there is a power plant and an overflow spillway.
Photo 14: Dragonflies and other aquatic insects are important members of the riparian ecosystem.
Photo 15: Final thoughts from Jessie
I have been visiting the ranch on Cebolla Creek for nearly 30 years. I have watched the water in Blue Mesa Reservoir rise and fall in accordance with the seasons, snowpack, rainfall, and demand for water. I have seen Cebolla Creek flow low enough to splash across in rubber boots and flood high enough to wash out bridges. While I am relatively new to the WRRC, I am already gaining a deeper understanding of how those high-elevation Upper Basin water levels affect life downstream. The ongoing drought in the southwest presents a host of challenges for water users throughout the Colorado River Basin. Is it possible to do more with less? How can we cut back, and whose water rights will be cut first? How do we collaborate to find solutions that cross state borders? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. I hope to bring my connections with the Upper Basin into my work with the WRRC, just as I brought newfound appreciation for the complexity of Colorado River water issues to my recent visit to beautiful Cebolla Creek.
Photo credits: Jessie Hampton, Gunnison County, Colorado.
Banner Image: The view from Blue Mesa Dam
My name is Juliana, and I am one of four AmeriCorps Water Educators in Tucson working with Arizona Project WET (APW). So much happened in our first few weeks on the job. We all jumped right into the action. As water educators, we are tasked with teaching students from 4th grade all the way through high school through APW’s different programs. During the first month, in addition to learning about water and how to lead the lessons through training and seminars, we also had firsthand teaching experiences.
On Friday, October 28, the US Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) announced the initiation of an expedited process for developing a “Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS)” on proposed revisions to the December 2007 Record of Decision relating to the Colorado River Interim Guidelines. The SEIS will lay out options to address the troubling operating conditions facing the river system now and in the future. Public comments submitted by December 20 will be reflected in the draft SEIS to be released next spring, with the final expected in late summer.
The WRRC has three great events lined up for this month. Next week, on Thursday, November 10, we will be hosting a Brown Bag webinar featuring two University of Arizona (UArizona) graduate students who will each present on their 104(b) research projects. The presentation from Chandler Noyes will address the paleoclimate and past recharge rates in the Tucson Basin across the Holocene.
The inaugural recipient of the Rodney Blaine Lewis Scholars Award is Divine Kickingbird, who is enrolled at the University of Arizona as a first-year law student and aims to join the graduate program in Tribal Governance.