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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

New Monitoring Program Hopes To Boost Science On Colorado River Headwaters

Nick Cote for KUNC
The Colorado River gets its start in Rocky Mountain National Park and flows through northwestern Colorado. Its watershed provides drinking and irrigation water for about 40 million people in the southwest.

A new federal program hopes to fill in knowledge gaps on how water moves through the headwaters of arguably the West’s most important drinking and irrigation water source. 

The U.S. Geological Survey announced the next location for its Next Generation Water Observing System (NGWOS) will be in the headwaters of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. It’s the second watershed in the country to be part of the program, after a successful pilot on the Delaware River started last year.

The purpose of NGWOS is to give researchers and decision-makers an in-depth, real-time look at conditions within the upper reaches of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. The two basins are located adjacent to each other and make up a broad swathe of western Colorado. The cities of Winter Park, Aspen, Crested Butte, Vail, Eagle, Gunnison, Montrose and Grand Junction all fall within the study area. 

Credit Courtesy USGS
The U.S. Geological Survey selected the headwaters for the Colorado and Gunnison rivers for a new scientific monitoring program.

The monitoring system uses a network of sensors and cameras, to give scientists the clearest picture of how the river starts high up in the Rocky Mountains. 

Chad Wagner, who oversees the program for USGS, said when fully implemented the new monitoring system will provide high-quality data on streamflow, evaporation, water storage in snowpack, soil moisture, and groundwater. It will then feed that data to existing models that are “data-starved” in some regions, Wagner said. 

The program will also fly drones equipped with cameras to gather data on reaches of the river that aren’t currently monitored.

“The cameras are not just for imagery,” Wagner said, “but cameras that can measure stream velocity, that can measure ground penetrating radar so we can get depths of the stream bed. We can get below the streambed to look at groundwater interaction with streamflow.”

Drones can be used to collect real-time water quality data, Wagner said. Using certain cameras scientists will be able to quickly detect algal blooms, quantify high levels of contaminants and track sediment movement.

Observations within the Colorado and Gunnison river headwaters can also be used to inform decisions in other, smaller snow-fed basins in the West as well, Wagner said. 

“Nearly all of the flow of the Colorado River originates in the Upper Basin states and runoff from the headwaters and the Gunnison river basin is really nearly three times that of other basins in the area, so it’s a particularly critical basin for downstream users,” Wagner said. 

More than 40 million people in seven U.S. states and two Mexican states rely on the Colorado River for drinking and irrigation water. 

To expand to the new basin, NGWOS is asking Congress for an initial $7.8 million investment, and an annual appropriation of $4.5 million to operate the program. USGS plans to set the monitoring program in 10 medium-sized watersheds. 

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

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