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.

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.


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.

Pages