Colorado Rivers

Esther Honig / KUNC

Groundwater pumping is causing rivers and small streams throughout the country to decline, according to a new study from researchers at the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Arizona.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

Early season snowfall in some parts of the Colorado River Basin have raised hopes of a drought recovery. But that optimism is likely premature.

In Colorado, higher than average snowfall in October and early November has allowed ski resorts to open early after a dismal start to last year’s season.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

The effects of climate change are already being felt at the headwaters of the West’s most important river system, according to a study released earlier this year.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization compiled the latest science on climate change in the Colorado River headwaters in a report titled Climate Change in the Headwater: Water and Snow Impacts (PDF), presented to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments in February.

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.

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

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.

Highest January Snowpack For Colorado In Three Years

Jan 14, 2017
SNOWTEL / Natural Resources Conservation Service

After a very dry fall, Colorado’s snowpack has bounced back. Statewide, the snowpack is at almost 160 percent of normal, with the state’s historically snowiest months still to come.

“To have our snowpack where it is right now for the state is a really good position to be in going forward for water supplies into the spring and summer,” said Brian Domonkos, Colorado snow survey supervisor and hydrologist.

The good news extends to cities and reservoirs downstream of Colorado, like Lake Mead in Nevada which has experienced record lows.

Laura Palmisano / KVNF

Some native fish in the Colorado River and its tributaries are struggling to stay afloat. Invasive species, dams and water diversions all complicate the recovery of endangered fish. One long-standing program is part of a multistate effort to save four species of fish native to the Colorado River Basin: humpback chub, Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker and bonytail.

It all started in 1988 when the federal government signed an agreement with Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, establishing what's called the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Earlier this year, Des Moines, Iowa, made news when the city announced it would sue farmers in a legal battle over fertilizer. The city’s water supply from the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers often surpasses the legal limit for nitrates (10 mg/L), which commonly appear in water contaminated by runoff from farm fields.

Too many nitrates are a health hazard, particularly for infants whose blood can lose its ability to absorb oxygen. So nitrates must be reduced or removed, but cleaning nitrates from the city’s water is a huge expense. When nitrate levels rise above the safe drinking water limit, Des Moines fires up a filtering system that costs thousands of dollars to operate each day.

Colorado's Wet Spring Brought Downriver Changes For The Platte

Oct 14, 2015
Peter Stegen / Platte Basin Timelapse

Wet spring and summer rains soaked much of the High Plains in 2015. The Platte River, which runs through Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska before emptying into the Missouri River, saw historic flooding.

"We were, at the beginning of this year, looking at a really large project this fall as far as clearing bars in the river," said Andrew Pierson, the conservation director at Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, Nebraska. "The high flow that we had, both volume and duration of flows, did 80 percent of that work for us."

Like other conservation groups on the central Platte, Audubon routinely clears vegetation from the river channel to improve habitat for cranes and other species. All the water though scoured tons of vegetation from the river channel. Now, the newly-created swath of flat, bare sandbars and braided river channels will make an ideal wildlife habitat.

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