The flows of the Gunnison River have always been a challenge since early settlers arrived in western Colorado. Low-lying valleys were often ravaged by spring floods, then by late summer, when irrigation was desperately needed it dwindled to a small stream. With the rapid settlement in the Uncompahgre Valley that began with the westward movement of miners, enterprising farmers moved into the valley to capitalize on the opportunity to provide the necessary food supply for the mining industry. Irrigation began about 1875 to grow crops including the first crop of hay which was shipped to mines in southwestern Colorado. As early as 1890, settlement and agricultural needs expanded such that additional water supplies became necessary. Soon, active support was sought for driving a tunnel from Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre Valley to deliver additional water.
After passage of the 1902 Reclamation Act, formally establishing the Bureau of Reclamation (known then as the Reclamation Service) the Uncompahgre Valley was selected for immediate water development. Construction of the Gunnison Tunnel began in 1905 and was completed in 1912 to divert water from the Gunnison River for irrigation needs. The project was initially called the Gunnison Project and was later changed to the Uncompahgre Project.
The Wayne N. Aspinall Unit on the Gunnison River was authorized as part of the Colorado Storage Project Act on April 11, 1956, as one of the four initial Colorado River Storage Project units and overlays part of the Uncompahgre Project. The Gunnison River, which originates in west central Colorado, is formed by the confluence of the Taylor and East rivers and is the fifth largest tributary of the Colorado River. Together, Blue Mesa Dam, Morrow Point Dam, and Crystal Dam developed the water storage and hydroelectric power generating potential along a 40-mile (64.6 kilometer) section of the Gunnison River while also regulating the flow of the river and in turn, assisting in the regulation the Colorado River. The three Aspinall Unit dams are located in the upper part of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, one of the longest, narrowest, and deepest gorges in the world.
Originally named the Curecanti Unit, the name was changed in 1980 to honor U.S. Representative Wayne N. Aspinall from Colorado, a strong proponent of water resources development in Colorado and the western states. He served 24 years in the House of Representatives and was instrumental in the passage of the Colorado River Storage Project Act.