A Colorado reservoir gets ready for an epic snowmelt

By Dave Marston

Reservoir manager Ken Beck says wryly that he has lots of water coming his way, “and I need a hole to put it in.”

In southern Colorado, Beck is the superintendent of Pine River Irrigation District and Vallecito Reservoir, which catches water from the 13,000 and 14,000-foot-high peaks of the Weminuche Wilderness. It’s a place so wild and beautiful that Teddy Roosevelt protected it in 1905 by creating the 1.8-million-acre San Juan National Forest.

The name Vallecito means “little valley” in Spanish, and the reservoir stores water for the town of Bayfield, population 2,838, as well as providing supplemental irrigation for 65,000 acres of Tribal and non-tribal land to the south.

This winter, Beck has been faced with a near-record snowpack, now expected to turn into some 320,000 acre-feet of water. His 82-year-old reservoir, however, can only hold 125,000 acre-feet. What’s more, snow was still falling in early April.

In late March, Beck saw moisture going up dramatically. Any reservoir manager has to deal with uncertainty, but Beck’s job, which he has held for seven years, has an Achilles heel.

“I was told by the Bureau (of Reclamation) to manage my reservoir so I don’t use my spillway,” he says. “We’re restricted because of the needed repairs.”

Spillways are critical elements of any dam. When oncoming water overwhelms the intakes for hydroelectric and outlet works, excess water flows into the river below. Beck has few options without the safety valve of a dependable spillway, yet he may be forced to use it.

Beck is well aware that dams can fail. Six major dams have failed in Colorado since 1950, with the biggest disaster occurring in Larimer County, in 1981. When its Lawn Lake Dam failed, three people died and property damage amounted to $31 million.

Beck says Vallecito’s management challenges came to the fore after “the big wakeup call of 2017, when Lake Oroville fell apart in California.” California’s tallest dam, Oroville, resembles Vallecito in being earthen built. It nearly failed when its spillways began eroding during high runoff.

Soon after, Vallecito’s dam was closely inspected, revealing leaks and erosion in its spillway. The Bureau of Reclamation, which built the dam, patched up the spillway but also put the dam “under review.”

By the end of March, Beck had released 15 times more water daily than during the previous month. By late April, Beck estimates, the formerly half-empty Vallecito Reservoir be just 20% full, better prepared for what could be an epic snowmelt.

In the arid West, this makes Beck a reservoir apostate. Spring is when reservoir managers follow a creed that’s been honed during periodic drought: Store as much water as possible as early as possible.

For Beck, that’s not wise. “But don’t mistake my being meek as weak,” he says. “I’ve got an Abe Lincoln style: Wrap good people around you and encourage them to say things you might not want to hear.”

Beck has surrounded himself with a team of straight shooters, though he relies most on Susan Behery, a Bureau of Reclamation hydrologic engineer, based in Durango. With Behery’s advice, Beck decided that Vallecito’s reservoir needed to be dramatically drawn down.

Evidence for doing that was obvious this winter as roofs sagged, driveways became mini-canyons, and snow at the nearby Purgatory ski area outside Durango reached 20 feet high in places. USDA SNOTEL sites above Vallecito Reservoir measured snowpacks at 170% and 180% of normal.

With so much big water ready to head their way, a reservoir manager might have decided to operate quietly and hope for the best. Instead, Behery says, Beck has been transparent with the public and collaborative. She admires Beck for it.

“I’m an engineer and nobody gets into engineering because they’re super good with people. I don’t do the fluffy stuff.”

Beck makes a lot of information available. He holds open meetings and emails a weekly newsletter to anyone interested. “A lot of people are asking why we’re turning out more water,” he says, “but I just met with farmers that say I haven’t brought it down enough.”

What does Beck predict will happen to his reservoir as snowmelt barrels toward Vallecito Reservoir?

“If spring rains come it will add to the pucker factor. But the spillway will hold.” Meanwhile, he’s a little bit on edge.

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Durango, Colorado.

Ken Beck at the Pine River Irrigation headquarters

This column was published in the following newspapers:

04/10/2023 Park Record Park City UT
04/10/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
04/10/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
04/10/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
04/10/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
04/10/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
04/10/2023 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
04/10/2023 Marinscope community newspapers Marin County CA
04/10/2023 Big Pivots Denver CO
04/10/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
04/11/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
04/11/2023 Coyote Gulch Denver CO
04/11/2023 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
04/12/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
04/12/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
04/12/2023 Delta County Independent Delta CO
04/12/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
04/11/2023 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
04/12/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
04/12/2023 Taos News Taos NM
04/12/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
04/13/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
04/12/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
04/13/2023 Rock Springs Rocket Miner Rock Springs WY
04/13/2023 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
04/13/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
04/13/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
04/14/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
04/15/2023 Albuquerque Journal Alburquerque NM
04/15/2023 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
04/19/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
04/20/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
04/21/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
04/12/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
05/10/2023 Pikes Peak Courier Woodland CO
5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Wayne Hare
1 year ago

Nice article. I’m confused though why other water managers aren’t on board with drawing down reservoirs. Isn’t it intuitively obvious that a LOT of water is going to be headed downhill?

A #Colorado reservoir gets ready for an epic snowmelt — Writers on the Range #snowpack #runoff (April 11, 2023) – Coyote Gulch
1 year ago

[…] the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David […]

Richard Allan Bowen
1 year ago

Last year, a HUGE infrastructure bill was sign into law by the President. Why doesn’t Vallecito managers get some of this money to repair the spillway?

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Once a week you’ll receive an email with a link to our weekly column along with profiles of our writers, beside quirky photos submitted from folks like you. Don’t worry we won’t sell our list or bombard you with daily mail.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x