Western Water Coverage

As demand grows on western watersheds, reporting on water issues becomes more important. KUNC's Luke Runyon heads up the water beat, covering the Colorado River, snowpack and areas dependent on those limited water resources.

These stories are part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

A quiet, rising tension over water in the southwest has burst into the public square.

Agencies that manage and dole out the Colorado River’s water in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are attempting to publicly shame an increasingly isolated water agency in Arizona. The feud has the potential to either upset, or reignite, negotiations over the river’s future.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

A menace lurks beneath the snow high up in the southern Rocky Mountains.

At first glance it seems innocuous, another piece of a dynamic alpine ecosystem, certainly unable to cause the cascade of problems scientists say it could. How could something so simple undermine our water infrastructure, stress wildlife and lengthen the wildfire season all at once?

For most of the winter it stays hidden, buried under blankets of snow. Then, the days grow longer. The sun’s rays begin to melt the top layers, causing water to percolate through the snow and ice or evaporate, revealing the villain of this story.

Dust.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

The Colorado River Basin is likely to see one of its driest spring runoff seasons on record this year, according to federal forecasters.

Scientists at the Salt Lake City-based Colorado Basin River Forecast Center say current snowpack conditions are set to yield the sixth-lowest recorded runoff into Lake Powell since the lake was filled more than 50 years ago.

Casey Kuhn / KJZZ

The Salt River Project (SRP) puts on an annual water expo, and this year’s featured a pile of cold, wet, white powdery stuff on a hot sunny day in Tempe.

SRP Hydrologist Andrew Volkmer put snowshoes on two young boys while their guardian looked on.

This is the first time they’ve worn snow shoes, they said, and their guardian said someone might need to explain to them first what snow is.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

From the roof of Chuck McAfee’s adobe farmhouse in rural southwestern Colorado, you can see into three other states: Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Mountain peaks are just barely visible above the horizon.

Even though this part of Montezuma County is considered the high desert, it’s common for these grass and sagebrush hills to be snow-covered into spring. This year they’re bare, and have been since last winter.

Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The humpback chub, a fish native to the Colorado River and considered endangered since 1967, has turned a corner.

In a recent analysis, scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say the chub’s five distinct populations throughout the Colorado River watershed in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona are stable enough to reclassify the fish as threatened rather than endangered.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

How bad is 2018 snowpack in the southern Rocky Mountains, you ask?

Let me count the ways.

Currently, snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin, which supplies the vast majority of water for what is arguably the southwest’s most important river system, sits at 69 percent of median. In 2002, the watershed’s driest year on record, there was more snow on the ground at this point in March than there is now.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

The biggest lake in California is shrinking.

The Salton Sea occupies a hot, desert basin a short drive from the Mexico border and it’s been evaporating for years. From the air the lake is pear-shaped, bordered by an intense concentration of farms growing winter vegetables on its south end, and date palms, citrus and brussels sprouts to the north. It’s sustained by the Colorado River water that passes through these farms as irrigation before flowing into the 350 square mile lake.

The fact the lake is disappearing isn’t a shock. Its ever-widening shoreline is tied to a deal billed as a the single largest transfer of agricultural water to a municipal area in history. For at least 15 years, authorities in California have known this would happen.

Bret Jaspers / KJZZ

Jim Cuming is a retired farmer, third generation. His grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, by way of Canada. Edward Cuming got 160 acres in the Yuma Valley from the federal government.

The land was as undeveloped as a dry riverbed, Jim Cuming said. In order to survive and develop the farm, his grandfather had to make a living.

“This Laguna Dam project opened up. So they moved up to the dam and he worked on the dam there as a carpenter,” he said.

Pete McBride / U.S. Geological Survey

In 2014, the Colorado River did something it hadn’t done in decades. For a few short weeks that spring, the overdrawn, overallocated river reached the Pacific Ocean.

Instead of diverting the river’s last bit of water toward farm fields, the final dam on the Colorado River at the Mexican border lifted, and water inundated nearly 100 miles of the dry riverbed. It was called the pulse flow, meant to mimic a spring flood.


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