Western Water Coverage | KUNC

Western Water Coverage

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. Reporter Luke Runyon heads up our water beat, covering the Colorado River, snowpack and areas dependent on scarce water resources.

We partner with news organizations throughout the southwest to fully cover water issues in the sprawling Colorado River basin. 

Our partners include: Aspen Public Radio (Aspen, Colo.), KVNF (Paonia, Colo.), KRZA (Alamosa, Colo.), KDNK (Carbondale, Colo.), KBUT (Crested Butte, Colo.), KSJD (Cortez, Colo.), KOTO (Telluride, Colo.), KNPR (Las Vegas, Nev.), KPBS (San Diego, Calif.), KUER (Salt Lake City, Utah), KJZZ (Phoenix, Ariz.), Arizona Public Media (Tucson, Ariz.), Wyoming Public Media (Laramie, Wyo.), KUNM (Albuquerque, New Mex.), KZMU (Moab, Utah), KAWC (Yuma, Ariz.), KHOL (Jackson, Wyo.), Cronkite News (Phoenix, Ariz.), High Plains Public Radio (Garden City, Kan.) and the Mountain West News Bureau

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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

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.

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."

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