Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
June / July 1999


Black Canyon Water Rights

by Steve Glazer, Water Resources Committee Chair


The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument (BCNM), located 10 miles east of Montrose off Highway 50 towards Gunnison, is a true geological wonder. Its steep walls are over 2,000 feet deep and only a few hundred yards wide at its narrowest point. As the gateway to the Gunnison River, over 1.2 million acre-feet of water flow through it every year—about 40 percent of the Colorado River’s flow at the Utah state line.

The BCNM was created by a Presidential Order in 1933. The canyon itself is a designated wilderness area. In 1972, the Park Service filed for federal reserved water rights for the BCNM and, in 1978, a Colorado water court awarded rights to the United States “that permits the utilization of water under the reservation doctrine in the form of direct flow rights.” The court instructed the Park Service to come back in five years to quantify its right.

Quantifying this right was complicated when the Aspinall Unit (Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs) was constructed just upstream from the canyon in the mid 1960s. These reservoirs have massive storage and hydropower rights with appropriated water rights dating back to 1957.

The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Aspinall Unit to maximize power generation, control floods and meet recreation needs both in the Gunnison Gorge and at Blue Mesa Reservoir. This has flattened out the natural hydrograph of the river by storing spring runoff flows and then increasing flows in the winter to produce power while maintaining a minimum year-round flow of 300 cfs. Photo: John Fielder

Water rights proposed by the Park Service could not interfere with the Aspinall rights. If they did, it would be contrary to the intent of Congress when it appropriated the money to construct the Aspinall Unit.

So, after 25 years of indecision, the Park Service began developing a consensus proposal to meet competing purposes and responsibilities of multiple federal, state, regional and local agencies, entities and organizations in December 1998.

To complicate things even more, four years ago the Bureau of Reclamation signed a five-year interim contract for releases from Aspinall to determine how the operations of the Aspinall Unit affect the endangered Colorado pikeminnow (formerly named sqawfish) and the razorback sucker.

The Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have similar goals for the Aspinall Unit. They would like a return to the spring-peaking runoff flows and reduced flows in winter. But, to accommodate the concerns of the Bureau of Reclamation, the Park Service is proposing to subordinate its priority date of 1933 to 1957 so its rights would be equal to the Bureau’s.

Needless to say, this has upset many environmental and conservation organizations, including the Sierra Club, who believe the river should be returned to a more natural regime.

    The Department of Interior Solicitor’s Office has instructed all of the federal agencies to speak with a common voice on managing the Gunnison River. We have asked that discussions between agencies be held in public so we can participate in the decision-making process. Eventually, the Park Service will have to go back to water court to perfect its rights.

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