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Aspinall Unit Operations

The Wayne N. Aspinall (Aspinall) Unit is a water storage unit of the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP). The CRSP was authorized on April 11, 1956 to regulate the flow of the Colorado River; provide for flood control; provide for storage and delivery of water for irrigation, municipal, industrial, and other beneficial purposes; and generate electrical power. The CRSP also provides for recreation and improves conditions for fish and wildlife. Construction of the CRSP water storage facilities, including the dams and powerplants of the Aspinall Unit, was critical to the development of the Upper Colorado River Basin’s water and power resources.

The Aspinall Unit was originally named the Curecanti Unit. In 1980 the name was changed to honor U.S. Representative Wayne N. Aspinall from Colorado. The Aspinall Unit consists of dams, reservoirs, and powerplants at three sites: Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal.  The facilities were constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation and are located on the Gunnison River near Montrose, Colorado. Operation and maintenance of the dams and powerplants are performed by Bureau of Reclamation employees from the Curecanti Field Division of the Power Office and are funded from revenues received from the sale of CRSP power.

The capacity of the generating units in each of the Aspinall powerplants has been increased from the original capacity through the application of new technology and other work performed in the powerplants as repair or replacement of equipment occurred due to normal “wear and tear” and aging. The current combined nameplate capacity of the generating units in each powerplant is listed in the table below as well as the average annual generation.

Facility Construction Completion Date Number of Generating Units

Capacity (megawatts)

Average Annual Generation (kilowatt-hours)
Blue Mesa Dam
Blue Mesa Powerplant
264,329,000  (1968 - 2006)
Morrow Point Dam
Morrow Point Powerplant
343,450,000  (1971 - 2006)
Crystal Dam
Crystal Powerplant
167,771,000  (1978 - 2006)

The initial operation of the Aspinall Unit focused on maximizing water storage, hydropower production, releases for water rights and agreements, and reducing flow variations in the Gunnison River below Crystal Dam. Primary water storage occurs in the uppermost and largest reservoir, Blue Mesa. Blue Mesa and Morrow Point Powerplants are operated primarily as peaking powerplants and Crystal Powerplant is generally base loaded to moderate downstream flows.

When Blue Mesa dam began operating in 1966, a minimum downstream flow of 100 cubic foot-per-second (c.f.s.) was established for the Gunnison River. The minimum was increased to 200 c.f.s. in 1976 as Crystal Dam was nearing completion. In 1985, based on studies to protect the Gold Medal trout fishery that had developed downstream of the Aspinall Unit, the minimum release was raised to 300 c.f.s. except for extreme drought, operational emergencies or other qualifying circumstances.

The Aspinall Unit was authorized and constructed upstream of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison which was designated the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Nation Monument (National Monument) in 1933 and given an un-quantified reserved water right. In 1982, this reserved water right was upheld and ordered for quantification by the Colorado Supreme Court. The National Monument became the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in 1999. Although there have been efforts to reach agreement on the water right and its use, the matter remains unresolved. The magnitude of the reserved water right has the potential to significantly affect the Aspinall Unit's operation and ability to meet the authorized purposes and could also affect water users in the Gunnison River Basin.

Endangered fish are found in the lower Gunnison River approximately 50 miles downstream of the Aspinall Unit reservoirs. The endangered fish habitats are being studied to help identify reservoir releases and other measures to benefit the endangered fish species. Reclamation initiated the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in 2004 on the operation of the Aspinall Unit. The EIS will describe and analyze environmental effects resulting from proposed operational changes. Although an EIS was initiated, it has been delayed pending progress on the National Park reserved water right.

The Aspinall Unit Working Group, formed to provide an open forum for information exchange on the operation of the Aspinall Unit, meets three times a year. Participants include Reclamation, other government agencies and public and special interest groups.


Last updated: November 4, 2008