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

Be prepared for some of the West’s biggest and most important rivers and streams to see record low flows this spring and summer.

That’s the message of the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s latest water supply forecast released Monday.

“Below average precipitation continued to be the norm and not the exception for the month of January,” the forecast report reads. “January marks the fourth consecutive month of the 2018 water year with widespread below average precipitation.”

Luke Runyon / KUNC

This winter in the southern Rocky Mountains is shaping up to be one for the record books. And not in a good way.

Parts of the West are currently experiencing one of the driest and warmest winters on record. Snowpack is far below normal levels in southern Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and California, leaving some to worry about this year’s water supply.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

The first official forecast for the amount of water expected in the Colorado River and its Rocky Mountain tributaries this spring is in, and the outlook is grim.

“Well, it’s not looking really great at this point,” says Greg Smith, a senior hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Layers of snow in the Colorado, Wyoming and Utah mountains feed the Colorado River basin. Some regions are reporting the driest start to a winter ever recorded. All of the river’s upper basin streams empty into Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Utah-Arizona border. The lake’s inflow -- all water entering the reservoir -- is anticipated to be 55 percent of average during spring runoff.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

When you’ve held on to something valuable for a long time, it can be hard to choose to give it up. When that something is water, it’s even harder — especially in the desert southwest.

But that’s the reality facing water managers in the lower stretches of the Colorado River, a lifeline for farms and cities in the country’s driest regions.

Clément Bardot / Wikimedia Commons

Pull out a map of the United States’ desert southwest and see if you can locate these rivers: Rio del Tizon, Rio San Rafael, or Rio Zanguananos. How about rivers named Tomichi, Nah-Un-Kah-Rea or Akanaquint?

Having some trouble? None of these names are used widely today, but at some point in the last 500 years they were used to label portions of what we know now as the Colorado River and its main tributaries, the sprawling river basin that supports 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, across one of the world’s driest regions.

Until 1921, the Colorado River didn’t start in the state that bears the same name. It began in Utah, where the Green River from Wyoming and the Grand River from Colorado met. The story of how the Colorado River finally wended its way into the state of Colorado less than a century ago is a lesson in just how fickle our attitudes toward nature can be.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

We’ve heard it before: The West just doesn’t have enough water to satisfy all the different demands on it. In Colorado, the majority of our water supply comes from mountainous snowpack, which melts each year to fill streambeds and reservoirs.

But could there be another way?

Luke Runyon / KUNC

In poll after poll, Americans make it clear: People working together is a good thing.

Collaboration is a lofty goal touted by political and business leaders as a potential way forward on anything from climate change to healthcare to obesity. Drop your weapons, turn your enemies into partners and achieve great things — or so the thinking goes. But collaboration is a concept that sounds great in the abstract and quickly turns messy in practice, with plenty of pitfalls along the way toward a common goal.

Avoiding drawn out fights has always been tough when dealing with water issues in the West.  Collaboration wasn’t always the go-to strategy for environmentalists, political figures and water managers who held competing interests on overtaxed, overdrawn rivers.

But with the Windy Gap Firming Project in northern Colorado’s mountains, old grudges are being put aside in favor of new, collaborative tactics. While some of the West’s oldest enemies are working together, those who feel left behind by all the newfound teamwork aren’t ready to sing "Kumbaya."

Courtesy Northern Water

In an attempt to halt the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir outside Loveland, and the diversion of Western Slope water to the Front Range, environmental groups filed a lawsuit Thursday against the federal government, saying an environmental analysis on the Windy Gap Firming Project failed to provide enough viable alternatives.

The environmental coalition, led by Fort Collins-based Save The Colorado and aided by the University of Denver College of Law’s Environmental Law Clinic, sued both the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers for what it says were faulty federal permits to build the project. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District proposed the Windy Gap Firming Project.

Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

In the spring of 2014, a rare moment happened on the lowest stretches of the Colorado River. Instead of its last few drops being diverted at a dam near the U.S.-Mexico border, it flowed through its banks.

“There was a remarkable amount of excitement and energy in the air,” says James Leenhouts, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who runs the agency’s Arizona Water Science Center and was present for the moment. “One of the most remarkable impacts of the flow was the human impact.”

In communities where the river hadn’t flowed for nearly two decades, impromptu festivals broke out, children waded into the water and mariachi bands set up to entertain the crowds. As the water settled into the valley it was clear the “experimental pulse flow” made a profound cultural imprint on the region the Colorado River once regularly flooded.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

Update 10-23-17: The Colorado Attorney General's Office has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by Deep Green Resistance on behalf of the Colorado River ecosystem. The story has been updated to reflect this development.

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A few months ago Denver civil rights lawyer Jason Flores-Williams had an idea. He’s made a name for himself recently in a class action lawsuit against the city of Denver where he’s representing the city’s homeless people.

“A lot of times I meet with class members, I take them out to dinner because they’re starving,” he said.

While at a Denver Mexican restaurant, the group started talking about homelessness. One of his homeless clients piped up.

“In an off the cuff, offhand comment [he] said, ‘the only thing more homeless than the homeless is nature,’” Flores-Williams recalled.

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