Trouble on the Colorado River
June 2, 2013
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK — The Colorado River's winter whisper in the Kawuneeche Valley was becoming a quiet spring roar earlier this month as the stream hinted at the beginnings of the snowmelt's pell-mell tumble off the mountains.
But not a drop of that snowmelt cascading into the Colorado River will reach the Pacific Ocean. The last time the Colorado River reached its delta at the Sea of Cortez was in 1998.
The Colorado River — the carver of the Grand Canyon and the chaotic stage for river runners in Glenwood, Westwater, Cataract and numerous other canyons — is bridled by urban growth from its headwaters at La Poudre Pass at the Larimer-Grand county border all the way to its dry delta in Mexico.
More than 35 million people rely on the Colorado River for drinking water and lawn care. More than 5.5 million acres of farmland depend on the river for irrigation.
As an avid fly-fisherman and Roaring Fork Valley river activist, Ken Neubecker knows the Colorado River well. In April, the group he works for, American Rivers, named the Colorado the group's most endangered river of 2013.
"It's been one of the most endangered rivers for a long time," he said earlier this month while watching trout jump in the muddy Colorado River as it raced, swollen with silty spring runoff, through Glenwood Springs. "It's good to see that the entire river is getting attention now because the entire river is pretty much worked to death. It has been plumbed from top to bottom."
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All the people who rely on the river every day are projected to double to up to 76 million in the next 50 years. New industries, such as thirsty oil shale development in northwest Colorado, are expected to use more water from the river. Climate change is expected to make the flows in the river less and less regular and less and less certain.
"We're putting very intensive demands on very limited resources, somehow hoping that we won't push the river to its breaking point," said Dave Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited.
The challenge for the river's caretakers is daunting, he said: "It's really trying to keep it as a viable living river in the face of diversions."
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced in December that it expects the flow of the Colorado River to decrease at the northern end of the Grand Canyon by about 9 percent in the next 50 years because of regular periods of drought in the river's headwaters. That is expected to create a large gap between how much Colorado River water is needed for cities, farmers and wildlife and how much water the river can actually provide.
When the future of the Colorado River is uncertain, the future of Northern Colorado is uncertain, too.
"If you're here in Fort Collins, half of the water that comes out of your tap is Colorado River water," said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. "We are part of the reason that the upper part of the river gets de-watered. We have to take responsibility for that."
Top to bottom, the story of the Colorado River is one of a plumbing system for the west's cities, farms and backyards.
Big cities, big demands
The first drops are stolen from the Colorado River by the Grand Ditch, which girdles the Never Summer Mountains near La Poudre Pass, diverting spring snowmelt into the Poudre River for the benefit of farmers far below on the plains.
A few miles south, Colorado River water filling Lake Granby and Grand Lake is piped beneath Rocky Mountain National Park to provide water to Fort Collins, Loveland, Boulder and other cities via the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. That project supplements the water Fort Collins takes from the Poudre River — a lifeline for the city after the High Park Fire dirtied Fort Collins' Poudre River water.
Denver diverts even more water from the Colorado River and as ongoing drought leaves the mountain slopes bare of snow, those who rely on the Colorado River farther downstream worry about what the river's future means for them.
You can hear the worry in the voices of the Colorado River's Western Slope caretakers, some of whom gathered earlier this month in Grand Junction to discuss how the drought-stricken Upper Colorado River Basin is expected to remain stricken and how the long-term outlook for the river's flows and the demand for all that water is looking all the more bleak as time goes on.
Speaking at a "State of the Rivers" meeting at Colorado Mesa University, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Erik Knight said this year's drought spells the fifth-driest runoff year ever seen on the Gunnison River, a major tributary to the Colorado. Lake Powell, which receives all the snowmelt in the Colorado River Basin from Colorado, Wyoming and northeast Utah, is expected to get only 42 percent of its normal inflow this year, he said.
National Weather Service hydrologist Aldis Strautins said all indications are that the drought ravaging the Colorado River Basin will continue its wrath despite a month or so of wet weather.
That's the short-term outlook. The long-term outlook has a direct effect on Northern Colorado.
Nearly all Colorado River water managers agree that the river's headwaters are likely to become hotter and drier as the climate changes, making flows more erratic and less predictable from year to year. So, the problem is this: because 90 percent of the people who rely on the Colorado River for water live in the Southwest, but 90 percent of its water comes from Colorado and Wyoming's mountains so the laws of supply and demand on the river don't benefit Coloradans.
Sometime down the line — maybe 20 years, maybe 30 or more — Colorado residents may be forced to cut back how much of the river's water they use if there isn't enough water in the river basin to give Front Range cities the water they need while sending Colorado's legal quota of water down the river to Arizona and California, said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District.
Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are required to provide Arizona and California an average of 75 million acre-feet of Colorado River water over 10 years. If the water demand exceeds water availability because of drought, climate change and urban growth, the law requires Colorado to severely cut back how much water it uses so there will be enough water to provide to the desert Southwest.
Kuhn said that means Colorado is going to have to be creative with how it stores water in reservoirs and decides how new ones are built.
Colorado is just beginning to devise a plan for how to deal with the gap in water supply and demand in the decades to come.
Throughout all the river basins in Colorado, the state is preparing for a 500,000 acre-foot gap — enough water to fill three brimming Horsetooth Reservoirs — between water supply and water demand by 2050.
Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order earlier this month that mandates that a draft of the Colorado Water Plan land on his desk by December 2014 and that it be finalized the following year.
"It will refine our understanding of what the gap is, what the timing of that is, when we have to have new or transferred water supplies and what are the options for getting those water supplies," Waskom said.
Protect the eosystems
American Rivers wants to make sure it's not just Fort Collins and Denver that have adequate water supplies in the future, but also the trout and all the other wildlife that depend on the Colorado River for their survival, said Matt Rice, American Rivers Colorado director.
Water providers should make sure there are adequate high spring flows on the river that scour the riverbed and keep it ecologically vital, because hese flows are coveted by water managers because the excess water can be stored in reservoirs for future use, he said.
"This is an issue that we all have to be part of the solution," Rice said. "The more water that municipalities like Fort Collins use from the Colorado River, the less water there's going to be in the Colorado River Basin. It starts at the household level. The more that the individual can conserve, the more there will be (for the river)."