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Two new Colorado River reservoirs are rising on the Front Range, are they the last of their kind?

Chimney Hollow Reservoir under construction photo
The Chimney Hollow Reservoir under construction in Larimer County. July 8, 2022 Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

By Olivia Emmer

As two major new water storage projects designed to capture the flows of the drought-strapped Colorado River are rising on Colorado’s urban Front Range, observers say they represent the end of an era on the river.

The projects, Northern Water’s Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Berthoud, and Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir Expansion, in Western Boulder County, both more than 20 years in the making, will store an additional 167,000 acre-feet of water, the majority from the Colorado River. That’s enough water for more than 320,000 new homes.

The projects come during a period of crisis on the river, with the federal government in June ordering Western states to find radical new ways of cutting water use by next month to stabilize the deteriorating river system.

“These two projects, [Chimney Hollow] and the Gross Reservoir Expansion, might be the last of their kind. They are coming in under the wire of a change in how we have to see the Colorado River – it’s not something we can keep tapping,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent water and climate researcher and consultant, who spent a decade working for the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado.

The river basin includes seven states and Mexico. In the U.S., Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprise the Upper Basin, while Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the Lower Basin.

One hundred years ago, the Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided 15 million acre-feet of water equally between the Upper and Lower Basin states, but in this drier world, the river likely provides an average closer to 13 million acre-feet. Climate change is expected to further reduce that flow. More water has been allocated to the two basins than is available most years.

Northern Water and Denver Water are building new water storage to meet the demands of a growing urban Front Range and to provide themselves more flexibility in managing their Colorado River supplies.

CRSP map

Northern Water delivers municipal and agricultural water to about a million people over about 1.6 million acres. They bring over about 220,000 acre-feet of water each year from the West Slope to the Front Range via the Colorado Big Thompson Project and Windy Gap. About half is used for agriculture and half for cities and industry.

Joe Donnelly, Northern’s project manager for the Chimney Hollow Reservoir Project, said the project is a major mechanical and logistical feat, with water passing through two pump stations, five hydropower plants, seven reservoirs, and nearly 20 miles of tunnels before reaching Chimney Hollow.

Chimney Hollow will be an off-channel reservoir with 90,000 acre-feet of capacity and will sit just west of Carter Lake in Larimer County. According to the project’s website, it will be the second-ever asphalt-core dam in the United States and, once dam construction is fully underway, the on-site rock quarry “will be producing 63,000 tons of material per day, making it one of the largest mining operations in Colorado.” The project broke ground in August 2021.

Northern Water plans to begin storing water in Chimney Hollow Reservoir upon completion in 2025 and hopes to fill it within three years by storing approximately 30,000 acre-feet of water each year out of the Windy Gap Project’s average of 48,000 acre-feet of water per year.

In Boulder County, less than 50 miles south of Chimney Hollow, sits Denver Water’s Gross Reservoir. Originally built in the 1950s, it was designed with expansion in mind. Construction recently began to increase the height of the dam from 340 feet to 471 feet. This will add 77,000 acre-feet of storage, more than doubling its current capacity. Water from the Colorado River Basin is diverted under the Continental Divide through the Moffat Tunnel into South Boulder Creek, then stored in Gross Reservoir, and then delivered via South Boulder Creek to other Denver Water infrastructure.

Denver Water serves about 1.5 million people, a number that is slated to grow by 1 million residents by 2040, according to its website. All of their water goes to municipal and industrial uses. In 2021 Denver Water diverted about 140,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, approximately half their supply.

“As the climate warms and the atmosphere becomes wetter because of more evaporation, that causes more significant storm activity. If you look right at the Continental Divide where our facilities are, the climate models are basically split as to whether we’re going to see more or less precipitation,” says Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead. The expansion of Gross Dam will capitalize on “those significant events that we believe will occur in the future with climate change.”

Denver Water has also cited resiliency goals as part of its motivation for expanding Gross Reservoir’s capacity. “The Buffalo Creek and Hayman Fires caused significant sediment loads [in our water supply] and exposed a vulnerability in our system. Eighty percent of our water supply is in the south end of our system,” explains Lochhead. “The other event was the severe drought in 2002. During that drought, the north end of our system almost ran out of water.”

Northern Water and Denver Water both say that these added storage projects will help them protect their customers from climate variability. They are betting on enough wet years to fill their reservoirs to help get through the more frequent dry years, even as the population in their service areas grows.

“If we’re thinking about putting in new water storage projects, all the risk is really on the dry side. Are we going to be able to fill this and get the yield we’re assuming in our economic analysis for the project?” cautions Lukas. “I would be much more focused on all of the dry scenarios, the lower runoff outcomes coming out of the climate model informed projections, than the relatively fewer projections that suggest we could get more runoff in the future.”

In the face of shrinking river flows, some environmentalists and other experts are critical of building more water storage when existing reservoirs struggle to stay full and river ecosystems are more stressed than ever.

Save the Colorado sued both storage projects as part of its mission to oppose dams and diversions on the Colorado River. Director Gary Wockner takes a hard stance, saying “These two projects will further drain and destroy the Colorado River at the exact moment the system is collapsing.”

But other environmental organizations take a more pragmatic position. Legal Counsel for the Colorado Water Project at Trout Unlimited, Mely Whiting, said that her organization didn’t oppose these two storage projects because they were a preferred alternative to building the Two Forks Dam, a vetoed project that would have inundated some of the headwaters of the South Platte under 1 million acre-feet of water.

Whether a warming climate will create more precipitation and improve storage levels is a major question.

While Chimney Hollow and the Gross Reservoir Expansion are underway, any future storage in Colorado or elsewhere will be problematic, Lukas says.

“Climate change cuts both ways with respect to storage. It both makes it more appealing, and it is a potential tool for resilience, but only if that reservoir can be filled enough to create the benefits that are expected,” explains Lukas, “If those storage projects involve transbasin diversions from the Colorado [River], that is looking increasingly untenable in a multi-state and a national-political sense, let alone at the local, East Slope-versus-West Slope context. To propose new diversions out of the Colorado River Basin to anywhere, for anything, is really going to be looked at sideways unless things really improve in the basin.”

Olivia Emmer is a freelance journalist based in Carbondale, Colorado. She can be reached at olivia@soprissun.com.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

The westward spread of zebra and quagga mussels shows how tiny invaders can cause big problems

A boat propeller encrusted with zebra mussels. NPS/Flickr

By Christine Keiner, Rochester Institute of Technology

The zebra mussel has been a poster child for invasive species ever since it unleashed economic and ecological havoc on the Great Lakes in the late 1980s. Yet despite intensive efforts to control it and its relative, the quagga mussel, these fingernail-sized mollusks are spreading through U.S. rivers, lakes and bays, clogging water supply pipes and altering food webs.

Now, the mussels threaten to reach the country’s last major uninfested freshwater zones to the west and north: the Columbia River Basin in Washington and Oregon, and the waterways of Alaska.

As an environmental historian, I study how people’s attitudes toward nonindigenous species have changed over time. Like many other aquatic aliens, zebra and quagga mussels spread to new bodies of water when people move them, either accidentally or deliberately. Human-built structures, such as canals, and debris can also help invaders bypass natural barriers.

In my view, reducing the damage from these outbreaks – and preventing them if possible – requires understanding that human activities are the root cause of costly biological invasions.

Map showing zebra and quagga mussel distribution in 2021.
Zebra and quagga mussels have moved east, south and west from the Great Lakes into many other U.S. rivers and lakes. USGS

Past transoceanic invasions

European exploration of the Americas between the late 1400s and 1700s led to massive transfers of organisms, a process known as the Columbian exchange, named for Christopher Columbus. Many investors grew rich through shipping livestock and plantation crops across the oceans. Transatlantic travel also introduced microbes that caused infectious diseases, such as smallpox and measles, that killed millions of Native Americans who lacked immunity.

During the 19th century, European and North American colonizers established acclimatization societies to import desired species of foreign animals and plants to use for food, sport hunting or beautifying their environments. Many such efforts failed when the introduced species could not adapt to their new conditions and died off.

Others triggered legendary ecological disasters. For example, after the Victorian Acclimatisation Society released European rabbits in Australia in 1859, they multiplied rapidly. Feral rabbits and other introduced species like cats have destroyed millions of Australia’s native plants and animals.

Shipping has also accidentally spread alien species. Human-built canals made it easier to transport goods, but also provided new pathways for aquatic pests.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, Canada expanded the Welland Canal between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie to allow large ships to bypass Niagara Falls. By 1921, these technological improvements enabled the sea lamprey, a parasitic fish, to move from Lake Ontario into the upper Great Lakes, where it is still a serious threat to commercial fisheries.

In 1959, the U.S. and Canada opened the St. Lawrence Seaway, a maritime network that connects the Atlantic with the Great Lakes. Ocean-going ships using the seaway brought along stowaway species in ballast water – tanks full of water, used to keep the ships stable at sea.

Water pours from an outlet on a large bulk carrier vessel's bow into the harbor.
A ship berthed in Southampton, England, discharges ballast water. Peter Titmuss/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When ships reached their destinations and flushed out their ballast tanks, they released alien plants, crustaceans, worms, bacteria and other organisms into local waters. In a milestone 1985 study, Williams College biologist Jim Carlton described how ballast water discharges provided a powerful vehicle for biological invasions.

The Great Lakes mussel invasion

Zebra mussels are native to the Black and Caspian Seas. They are thought to have entered North America in the early 1980s and were formally identified in the Great Lakes in 1988, followed by quagga mussels in 1989.

Soon the striped bivalves were blanketing hard surfaces throughout the lakes and washing up on shorelines, cutting beachgoers’ feet. Zebra mussels clogged intake pipes at drinking water treatment plants, power stations, fire hydrants and nuclear reactors, dangerously reducing water pressure and requiring expensive remedies.

Mollusks are filter feeders that typically make water clearer. But zebra and quagga mussels filtered so much plankton from the water that they starved native mussels and fostered harmful algal blooms. The invaders also passed deadly type E botulism to fish-eating birds.

By the early 1990s, 139 alien species had become established in the Great Lakes, with almost one-third arriving after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened. Ship-related introductions, along with other pathways, such as aquaculture and aquarium and bait fish releases, transformed the Great Lakes into one of the world’s most invaded freshwater ecosystems. https://www.youtube.com/embed/YiFHlOiPn1M?wmode=transparent&start=0 Local officials grapple with a spreading infestation of zebra mussels in Lake Brownwood in central Texas.

Early policy responses

The U.S. began regulating ballast water management in 1990 but had trouble closing loopholes. For instance, vessels declaring that they had no pumpable ballast water on board did not have to empty and refill their ballast tanks in the middle of a voyage with clean ocean water. As a result, live freshwater organisms lurking in tank sediments could still be released in vulnerable ports.

Finally, after comprehensive studies, the U.S. and Canada in 2006 required ships to flush tanks containing residual sediment with seawater. A 2019 assessment found that only three new species became established in the Great Lakes from 2006-2018, none of them via ship ballast.

Now, however, other human activities are increasingly contributing to harmful freshwater introductions – and with shipping regulated, the main culprits are thousands of private boaters and anglers.

Stemming the westward spread

Zebra and quagga mussels are moving west and south from the Great Lakes, attached to private boats or carried in bilge water and bait buckets. They have been found in Nevada, Arizona, California, Utah, Colorado and Montana.

If the mussels reach the Columbia River ecosystem, they will threaten native wildlife and irrigation pipelines and dams that are vital for agriculture and hydropower. Government officials, wildlife managers and scientists are working hard to prevent that from happening.

Public outreach is critical. Travelers who transport their boats without decontaminating them can transfer zebra and quagga mussels to inland rivers and lakes. The mussels can survive out of water in hot places for weeks, so it’s important for boaters and anglers to clean, drain and dry boating equipment and fishing gear.

Aquarium keepers can help stem the tide by disinfecting tanks and accessories in order to prevent accidental releases of live organisms into public waterways, and by being vigilant about their purchases. In 2021, zebra mussels were detected in imported moss balls sold as aquarium plants across the U.S. and Canada.

The U.S. Geological Survey maintains a website where people can report sightings of nonindigenous aquatic species, potentially spotting new infestations during the critical early phase before they become established.

Maintaining public support

Some of these efforts have shown encouraging results. Since 2008, Colorado has operated a rigorous boat inspection program that has kept zebra and quagga mussels out of state waters.

But prevention isn’t always popular. Officials closed the San Justo Reservoir in central California to the public in 2008 after zebra mussels were found there; residents argue that the closure has harmed the community and are lobbying the federal government to eradicate the mussels in order to reopen it for fishing.

Mitigating the destructive effects of invasive species is a complex mission that may not have an obvious endpoint. It requires scientific, technological and historical knowledge, political will and skill to persuade the public that everyone is part of the solution.

Christine Keiner is Chair, Department of Science, Technology, and Society, Rochester Institute of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

After initial failure, new effort could bring green hydrogen pilot project to Yampa River Valley

Friends of the Yampa board members and members stand in Juniper Canyon, scouting the Maybell Irrigation Ditch, a diversion that takes water off the Yampa River into the Maybell Valley west of Craig. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Yampa by Kent Vertrees.
Friends of the Yampa board members and members stand in Juniper Canyon, scouting the Maybell Irrigation Ditch, a diversion that takes water off the Yampa River into the Maybell Valley west of Craig. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Yampa by Kent Vertrees.

By Jerd Smith

After an attempt last year to secure funding for a green hydrogen pilot in the Yampa River Valley failed, state officials and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, among others, are taking another run at the idea, using a new program launched earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Energy.

In February, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would make available $8 billion from the new bipartisan federal infrastructure funding package to create hydrogen hubs across the country. In March, Colorado New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming formed a partnership to compete for the financing, a process that is likely to take months, if not years, to complete.

According to the Colorado Energy Office, the idea would be to create multiple sites in each state, in part to boost each state’s chance of winning some of the funding to build the hydrogen plants and to use each state’s unique natural assets to test different scenarios, such as whether to use hydropower or solar, and which storage and transmission systems could work best.

The Yampa River Valley’s coal-fired power plant at Craig, which is operated and partially owned by Tri-State, will be decommissioned beginning in 2025, with the process set to be completed in 2030. The plant once employed more than 300 people, but is now down to roughly 100 employees, according to Tri-State’s spokesman Mark Stutz.

Last year, Tri-State, Xcel and the State of Colorado applied for a federal grant to begin a feasibility study on producing green hydrogen, a process that could use hydropower, solar energy or wind to create the electricity needed to split water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen can be emitted without increasing greenhouse gases, while the hydrogen can be stored and used to create electricity.

But Colorado’s proposal was rejected. Now, with an eye on helping the Yampa River Valley protect its water and its economy from the loss of coal jobs, the utilities, the state, Yampa Valley economic development agencies, and Colorado State University are looking at other routes to a green energy transition.

“We’re listening to every and all options,” Stutz said. “We will be a small player in this. But we have a site, and we believe Craig is a good location because of the transmission, water and site availability.”

There is also some interest in building a small nuclear facility at the site, because the hydrogen technology has yet to be perfected and costs remain high, Stutz said.

Still, hydrogen has been described as the missing link in the transition away from fossil fuels. It can be produced in several ways. Green hydrogen, the subject of the proposal at Craig, is made from water using electrolysis. The oxygen separated out of the H2O can be vented, leaving the hydrogen, a fluid that can be stored in tanks or, as is in a demonstration project in Utah, in salt caverns. The hydrogen can then be tapped later as a fuel source to produce electricity or, for that matter, put into pipelines for distribution to fueling stations.

How much water would be needed to produce green hydrogen isn’t clear. But the Yampa Valley’s existing coal-fired plants have strong water portfolios that could be used.

Craig Station, in 2022, is projected to use 7,394 acre-feet of water, according to a Tri-State filing with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. By 2029, the last year of coal generation at Craig, Tri-State projects water use will decline to 4,270 acre-feet.

With drought depleting streamflows across Colorado and the West, the Yampa River is being watched closely, in part because it is a major tributary to the Colorado River.

Environmental groups have long hoped that either the state or environmental coalitions could purchase the water rights from the utilities in order to keep more water in the river and improve its health. But because hydrogen production would likely use less water than coal production, there could still be an environmental benefit in the conversion of the plants to hydrogen production, according to Jennifer Holloway, executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce who also serves on the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable.

“There are a lot of scientists who think it is a great opportunity for our area to use the hydrogen to repurpose our infrastructure. We have a lot of skilled workers that could easily be shifted into a hydrogen production scenario,” Holloway said.

But she said she would like to see as much water as possible left in the river.

“My concern with hydrogen is are they going to take too much? Everything they’ve told me is that the hydrogen would use less water. If that is indeed the fact, that is good news,” she said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Opinions differ on timeline as Crystal River Wild & Scenic efforts move ahead

State Highway 133 crosses the Crystal River several times as it flows downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale. Some proponents of a federal Wild & Scenic designation are pushing for a quick timeline while others want a more cautious approach. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM
State Highway 133 crosses the Crystal River several times as it flows downstream to its confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale. Some proponents of a federal Wild & Scenic designation are pushing for a quick timeline while others want a more cautious approach. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

By Heather Sackett

A campaign to protect one of the last free-flowing rivers in Colorado is moving forward, but some proponents say not enough progress has been made over the past year.

Last spring a handful of advocates led by Pitkin County revived an effort to secure a federal Wild & Scenic designation, which would protect the upper Crystal River from future development, dams and diversions. A year into the effort, some say a planned stakeholder process is moving too slowly, while others say a designation can’t be rushed and must be approached carefully and inclusively.

The different philosophies underscore a rift between those who say a cautious and thorough multi-year approach is what’s needed to ensure success and those who say mounting threats to the river, driven by the climate crisis, demand bold and immediate action.

“That difference of opinion concerns me a great deal,” said Kate Hudson, Crystal River Valley resident and western U.S coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance. “We are at an existential moment both in terms of water and climate and our congressional balance of power that requires we at least try and do this faster. We should at least try to move this as quickly as possible.”

In 2021 Pitkin County Healthy Rivers granted $35,000 to Carbondale-based environmental conservation group Wilderness Workshop to start up a public outreach and education campaign, with the goal of laying a foundation of grassroots support for the effort. The organization has built a website, held events and collected about 1,000 signatures on a petition supporting the designation. The next step will be working with Pitkin County to hire a facilitator for a formal stakeholder process.

At the June Healthy Rivers board meeting, Wilderness Workshop’s Wild & Scenic campaign manager Michael Gorman gave a presentation about progress so far. Board member Wendy Huber asked about the timeline and whether the process should be moving faster. Gorman said a designation could take several more years.

“I’m feeling a little urgency,” she said. “To sort of dilly dally seems to be losing opportunities.”

Grant Stevens, communications director for Wilderness Workshop, said that while he understands the community’s urgency, it’s important to develop a proposal that Colorado’s congressional representatives can get behind. A designation must be approved by Congress and advocates have been in contact with representatives from Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper’s offices.

“We want to make sure we have something that a federal elected official will support, and we need to make sure we go through a community-driven process to get to that point,” Stevens said. “We don’t want to rush that.”

The view looking upstream on the Crystal River below Avalanche Creek. A Pitkin County group wants to designate this section of the Crystal as Wild & Scenic.
CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM
The view looking upstream on the Crystal River below Avalanche Creek. A Pitkin County group wants to designate this section of the Crystal as Wild & Scenic.CREDIT: CURTIS WACKERLE/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Designation details

The U.S. Forest Service first determined in the 1980s that the Crystal River was eligible for designation under the Wild & Scenic River Act, which seeks to preserve rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values in a free-flowing condition. There are three categories under a designation: wild, which are sections that are inaccessible by trail, with shorelines that are primitive; scenic, with shorelines that are largely undeveloped, but are accessible by roads in some places; and recreational, which are readily accessible by road or railroad and have development along the shoreline.

The potential proposal for the Crystal includes all three types of designation: wild in the upper reaches of the river’s wilderness headwaters, scenic in the middle stretches and recreational from the town of Marble to the Sweet Jessup canal headgate. Each river with a Wild & Scenic designation has unique legislation written for it that can be customized to address local stakeholders’ values and concerns.

Despite its renowned river rafting, fishing and scenic beauty, which contribute to the recreation-based economy of many Western Slope communities, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache La Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. This underscores the difficulty of trying to preserve free-flowing streams, especially in a water-scarce region where some would like to see rivers remain available for future water development.

This map shows the sections of the Crystal River that could be designated wild, scenic and recreational according to the finding of eligibility by the U.S. Forest Service.
CREDIT: COURTESY ROARING FORK CONSERVANCY
This map shows the sections of the Crystal River that could be designated wild, scenic and recreational according to the finding of eligibility by the U.S. Forest Service.CREDIT: COURTESY ROARING FORK CONSERVANCY

Stakeholder participation

Since the Crystal flows through Gunnison County and the town of Marble, advocates say getting those residents and elected representatives on board will be key to moving the effort forward. A first attempt at a Wild & Scenic designation, which sought to prevent the possibility of a future dam and reservoir project, couldn’t get buy-in from some Marble residents or Gunnison County. Advocates shelved the discussion in 2016 with the election of President Donald Trump. This time around, they hope to secure at least the participation if not the support of past opponents.

Marble Town Administrator Ron Leach acknowledged there is still a lot of work to be done as far as gauging public sentiment and building awareness.

Leach has been heavily involved in the town’s multi-year process to address overcrowding on the Lead King loop, a popular off-highway vehicle route near Marble. He said when it comes to these things, slow and methodical is the right strategy and that town officials are totally supportive of the Wild & Scenic stakeholders group, in which he participates as the Marble representative.

“The more process, the better the product,” Leach said. “I’ve learned that the hard way. Take it easy and make sure it’s right.”

Gunnison County Commissioner Roland Mason agreed. He said more conversations need to happen before he could say whether Gunnison County would support a designation.

“I appreciate the fact that they are not trying to rush the timeline,” Mason said. “From my perspective it’s moving at a little bit of a slow pace because of trying to get everyone on board but at the same time, it’s kind of necessary.”

But supporters may never get everyone on board. Larry Darien, who owns a ranch on County Road 3 that borders the river, was one of the early opponents to the designation and still remains opposed to Wild & Scenic because of its potential effect on private property.

While the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act does give the federal government the ability to acquire private land, there are many restrictions on those abilities. Condemnation is a tool that is rarely used, according to a Q&A document compiled by the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council.

“I’m not in favor of a dam on the Crystal River and I’m not in favor of water being taken out and sent someplace else and I’m not in favor of Wild & Scenic designation,” he said. “There are other ways we can manage this besides Wild & Scenic and I think that’s the way we need to go instead of getting the federal government involved.”

The alternate route Darien is referring to is a collaboratively created alternative management plan on the Upper Colorado River, which offers some of the same protections as Wild & Scenic, but still allows for some water development.

Advocates will have to decide whether total consensus is a realistic goal and if they should move forward even though some opposition remains.

The headwaters of the Crystal River include the tributary of Yule Creek, the drainage seen to the left from an Eco-Flight, where Colorado Stone Quarries’ marble quarry is located. Some, including Pitkin County, would like to see the Crystal River designated under the federal Wild & Scenic River Act.
CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM
The headwaters of the Crystal River include the tributary of Yule Creek, the drainage seen to the left from an Eco-Flight, where Colorado Stone Quarries’ marble quarry is located. Some, including Pitkin County, would like to see the Crystal River designated under the federal Wild & Scenic River Act.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Threats to the Crystal?

While there may be a general feeling of worry about drought and falling reservoir levels in the Colorado River basin overall, it’s unclear what — if any — specific, imminent threats there are to the upper Crystal River. In 2012, conservation group American Rivers deemed the Crystal one of the top 10 most endangered rivers. This was spurred by plans, which have since been scrapped, from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Conservation District to preserve water rights tied to reservoirs near Redstone.

Still, in a place where much of the state’s headwaters are taken across the Continental Divide to thirsty Front Range cities, Wild & Scenic proponents say it could happen on the Crystal, even if those threats are currently hypothetical. Many of Colorado’s rivers have been overly tapped, but there’s still water left to develop on the Crystal.

“To me, the greatest threat to the Crystal isn’t so much the storage facility, it’s that there’s still water in the Crystal,” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely. “The biggest risk to the Crystal is just taking water out of the drainage. That’s why I think the (Wild & Scenic) effort is still worth doing.”

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Flood maps show US vastly underestimates contamination risk at old industrial sites

Maywood Riverfront Park was built on the site of eight former industrial properties in Los Angeles County.
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

By Thomas Marlow, New York University; James R. Elliott, Rice University, and Scott Frickel, Brown University

Climate science is clear: Floodwaters are a growing risk for many American cities, threatening to displace not only people and housing but also the land-based pollution left behind by earlier industrial activities.

In 2019, researchers at the U.S. Government Accountability Office investigated climate-related risks at the 1,571 most polluted properties in the country, also known as Superfund sites on the federal National Priorities List. They found an alarming 60% were in locations at risk of climate-related events, including wildfires and flooding.

As troubling as those numbers sound, our research shows that that’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Many times that number of potentially contaminated former industrial sites exist. Most were never documented by government agencies, which began collecting data on industrially contaminated lands only in the 1980s. Today, many of these sites have been redeveloped for other uses such as homes, buildings or parks.

For communities near these sites, the flooding of contaminated land is worrisome because it threatens to compromise common pollution containment methods, such as capping contaminated land with clean soil. It can also transport legacy contaminants into surrounding soils and waterways, putting the health and safety of urban ecosystems and residents at risk.

A boat sits by a dock outside a new building along the waterway.

New York developers are planning thousands of housing units along the Gowanus Canal, a notoriously contaminated industrial area and waterway. Epics/Getty Images

We study urban pollution and environmental change. In a recent study, we conducted a comprehensive assessment by combining historical manufacturing directories, which locate the majority of former industrial facilities, with flood risk projections from the First Street Foundation. The projections use climate models and historic data to assess future risk for each property.

The results show that the GAO’s 2019 report vastly underestimated the scale and scope of the risks many communities will face in the decades ahead.

Pollution risks in 6 cities

We started our study by collecting the location and flood risk for former industrial sites in six very different cities facing varying types of flood risk over the coming years: Houston; Minneapolis; New Orleans; Philadelphia; Portland, Oregon; and Providence, Rhode Island.

These former industrial sites have been called ghosts of polluters past. While the smokestacks and factories of these relics may no longer be visible, much of their legacy pollution likely remains.

In just these six cities, we found over 6,000 sites at risk of flooding in the next 30 years – far more than recognized by the EPA. Using census data, we estimate that nearly 200,000 residents live on blocks with at least one flood-prone relic industrial site and its legacy contaminants.

Without detailed records, we can’t assess the extent of contamination at each relic site or how that contamination might spread during flooding. But the sheer number of flood-prone sites suggests the U.S. has a widespread problem it will need to solve.

The highest-risk areas tended to be clustered along waterways where industry and worker housing once thrived, areas that often became home to low-income communities.

Legacy of the industrial Northeast

In Providence, an example of an older industrial city, we found thousands of at-risk relic sites scattered along Narragansett Bay and the floodplains of the Providence and Woonasquatucket Rivers.

Over the decades, as these factories manufactured textiles, machine tools, jewelry and other products, they released untold quantities of environmentally persistent contaminants, including heavy metals like lead and cadmium and volatile organic chemicals, into the surrounding soils and water.

Map with dots, primarily along waterways.
Flood-prone relic industrial sites in Providence, R.I. Marlow, et al. 2022, CC BY-ND

For example, the Rhode Island Department of Health recently reported widespread drinking water contamination from PFAS, often referred to as “forever chemicals,” which are used to create stain- and water-resistant products and can be toxic.

The tendency for older factories to locate close to the water, where they would have easy access to power and transportation, puts these sites at risk today from extreme storms and sea-level rise. Many of these were small factories easily overlooked by regulators.

Chemicals, oil and gas

Newer cities, like Houston, are also vulnerable. Houston faces especially high risks given the scale of nearby oil, gas and chemical manufacturing infrastructure and its lack of formal zoning regulations.

In August 2017, historic rains from Hurricane Harvey triggered more than 100 industrial spills in the greater Houston area, releasing more than a half-billion gallons of hazardous chemicals and wastewater into the local environment, including well-known carcinogens such as dioxin, ethylene and PCBs.

Maps with dots widespread in the city.

Flood-prone relic industrial sites in Houston. Marlow, et al. 2022, CC BY-ND

Even that event doesn’t reflect the full extent of the industrially polluted lands at growing risk of flooding throughout the city. We found nearly 2,000 relic industrial sites at an elevated risk of flooding in the Houston area; the GAO report raised concerns about only 15.

Many of these properties are concentrated in or near communities of color. In all six cities in our study, we found that the strongest predictor of a neighborhood’s containing a flood-prone site of former hazardous industry is the proportion of nonwhite and non-English-speaking residents.

Keeping communities safe

As temperatures rise, air can hold more moisture, leading to strong downpours. Those downpours can trigger flooding, particularly in paved urban areas with less open ground for the water to sink in. Climate change also contributes to sea-level rise, as coastal communities like Annapolis, Maryland, and Miami are discovering with increasing days of high-tide flooding.

Keeping communities safe in a changing climate will mean cleaning up flood-prone industrial relic sites. In some cases, companies can be held financially responsible for the cleanup, but often, the costs fall to taxpayers.

The infrastructure bill that Congress passed in 2021 includes $21 billion for environmental remediation. As a key element of new “green” infrastructure, some of that money could be channeled into flood-prone areas or invested in developing pollution remediation techniques that do not fail when flooded.

A large brick housing complex with people sitting in lawn chairs outside. A sign on the lawn is in Spanish.

The West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Ind., was built on the site of an old lead refinery. It was closed down after children there were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. The sign reads: ‘Do not play in the dirt or next to shredded wood mulch.’ AP Photo/Tae-Gyun Kim

Our findings suggest the entire process for prioritizing and cleaning up relic sites needs to be reconsidered to incorporate future flood risk.

Flood and pollution risks are not separate problems. Dealing with them effectively requires deepening relationships with local residents who bear disproportionate risks. If communities are involved from the beginning, the benefits of green redevelopment and mitigation efforts can extend to a much larger population.

One approach suggested by our work is to move beyond individual properties as the basis of environmental hazard and risk assessment and concentrate on affected ecosystems.

Focusing on individual sites misses the historical and geographical scale of industrial pollution. Concentrating remediation on meaningful ecological units, such as watersheds, can create healthier environments with fewer risks when the land floods.The Conversation

Thomas Marlow, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Interacting Urban Networks (CITIES) at NYU Abu Dhabi, New York University; James R. Elliott, Professor of Sociology, Rice University, and Scott Frickel, Professor of Sociology and Environment and Society, Brown University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Some still don’t have a reliable water source near the headwaters of the Colorado River

Country Meadows Mobile Park. Maltarich/KBUT
Country Meadows Mobile Park. Maltarich/KBUT

By Stephanie Maltarich

Water supply is regularly interrupted for residents in a Gunnison mobile home park. After years of bringing attention to the issue, they still haven’t seen solutions. Several members of the community have been working on a state-wide plan to bring more attention to water equity issues.

Listen to the story here.

A few weeks ago, residents of a mobile home park in Gunnison were without water for most of the day; the three wells that supply water are often unreliable. Those who live in the park have been speaking up for years without result. While some in the valley struggle with reliable water, a few Gunnison residents worked on a new state initiative to address equity in water issues in Colorado. 

Just off the highway, a few minutes north of Gunnison, is Country Meadows mobile home park. The dusty dirt lot is made up of about 55 mobile homes nestled beneath a stand of cottonwood trees. 

Elizabeth McGee moved to the park last August, and it didn’t take her long to learn that the water may or may not come out of the faucet – depending on the day. 

My sister lives with my mom, she’s like, ‘yeah, we’ll go without water forever’ and I’m like, this is not okay,” said McGee. 

This motivated McGee to join the nonprofit, Organizacion de Nuevas Esperanzas, or ONE, which translates to “new hopes” in Spanish. Last year, a group of mobile home park residents formed the nonprofit in to voice their concerns about water and a long list of other problems.  

“I think 20 trailers up here in front that went without water almost all day yesterday,” said McGee. “It was on for a little while, and then it got turned off again.”

McGee was recently elected as ONE’s board president, and she says the nonprofit has helped residents connect with the county, lawyers and advocacy groups to call attention to the park’s owner who rarely responded to their concerns. In 2020, they filed complaints with the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), but since the park sold in the spring, no one is sure if, or when, they’ll see a resolution. 

Elizabeth McGee, Country Meadows resident and ONE Board President. Maltarich/KBUT
Elizabeth McGee, Country Meadows resident and ONE Board President. Maltarich/KBUT

Gunnison sits at the headwaters of the Colorado River. Access to water to drink, shower, wash dishes and do laundry is usually as simple as twisting a knob and letting water run from the tap. But a  2019 census study found that one in 45 homes in Gunnison County has poor plumbing. 

Sonja Chavez is the general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD). The organization started in 1959 to protect all water uses in the Upper Gunnison River Basin. Chavez’s job keeps her in the know about all things related to water. And sometimes, what she learns is surprising. 

“I know within my own local community, there are people who don’t have access to good quality, clean water,” said Chavez.

Chavez is part of a Colorado group that spent the last year discussing many issues around water equity. The conversations focused on water equity often focused on the fact that some don’t have access to reliable, clean drinking water.

The group is called the Water Equity Task Force, and it brought together 21 diverse people, including members of Colorado’s federally recognized tribes and the acequia community, located in Southeast Colorado. 

“Our conversations and our task, as dictated by the governor, was really to identify the ways in which the Colorado Water Conservation Board could ensure that they are having diversity, equity and inclusion around conversations on water, and that we reach all the various populations,” Chavez said. 

The group met four times over a year to help incorporate equity into the Colorado Water Plan. The state created the plan in 2015 to work on the state’s water challenges while planning for an uncertain future. This year, the plan will see a huge update, and addressing equity is a big priority.

Sonja Chavez general manager of Upper Gunnison Watershed Conservancy District. Maltarich/KBUT
Sonja Chavez general manager of Upper Gunnison Watershed Conservancy District. Maltarich/KBUT

Some of the members of the task force had deep connections to water, but others were community members with other areas of expertise. Like Dr. Alina Luna, professor emeritus at Western Colorado University. 

For Dr. Luna, water equity means everyone has access to potable water. 

“We need water to allow people not only to thrive,” said Dr. Luna. “But also to be able to exist and survive.” 

Dr. Luna has years of experience in equity-focused work. She chaired Western’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Internationalization Committee and created an undergraduate minor with a focus on diversity. 

Although she admits she didn’t know much about water issues before sitting on the task force, she thinks if people can understand the basis of equity, they can apply it to all water issues. 

”You know, people, I think, confuse equity with equality,” said Dr. Luna. “Equity is about meeting people where they are giving them what they need to be successful. Equality assumes that everybody needs the same thing to succeed.”

Back at Country Meadows, Elizabeth McGee said she never considered herself an organizer or community activist before moving here. 

“I used to be a very quiet in my own little world type person,” said McGee. “And then I moved out here and I was getting tired of all of us getting abused because that’s pretty much what’s happening, is we’re being abused.” 

Alina Luna stands outside Western Colorado University. Maltarich/KBUT
Alina Luna stands outside Western Colorado University. Maltarich/KBUT

No one in Country Meadows is sure what will happen now that the park is under new ownership, but McGee said she and members of ONE will continue to fight until they know every home in the park has a steady stream of water. 


KBUT’s Headwaters series was made possible by The Water Desk, an independent initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Emergency Colorado River rescue plan likely to include more Flaming Gorge releases, payments to cut water use

Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody
Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody


By Jerd Smith

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming may face requests for voluntary cutbacks in their use of Colorado River water next year, as the federal government eyes releasing more water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir and as Arizona, California and Nevada scramble to find ways to slash water use quickly.

Experts say these actions are among dozens of options likely to be on the table as negotiators race to find ways to help rescue lakes Powell and Mead, whose levels continue to drop in the midst of another desperately dry drought year.

Last month, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton gave the seven states that share the Colorado River 60 days to come up with a plan to cut water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet next year and going forward to keep the system from collapsing. A plan is expected to be unveiled on or before Aug. 16.

The Colorado River system reservoirs, including Powell, Mead and Flaming Gorge, are managed by the federal government and Touton has made clear that the feds will decide how to cut water use themselves if the states and other major players, such as the tribes and environmental groups, don’t come up with their own feasible plan.

This week the Upper Basin states, which include Colorado, released a five-point plan outlining what they would be willing to do. Actions in the plan include supporting the release of more water from Upper Basin reservoirs, re-starting a large-scale farm fallowing program, improving water measurement and monitoring, saving more water in a special drought pool in Lake Powell, and implementing more conservation programs in the Upper Basin.

What the Lower Basin states will propose isn’t clear yet, but what is clear is that the dwindling river continues to deteriorate.

What the river produces

Once thought to generate more than 15 million acre-feet (maf) of water annually, the Colorado River as a whole now generates much less, thanks to a 22-year drought that shows no signs of easing. With the Lower Basin states, Arizona, California and Nevada, routinely using some 10 maf, and the Upper Basin states using between 3.5 to 4.5 maf, lakes Powell and Mead have been drawn down to cover the river’s annual shortfalls.

Now, the massive hydropower plants at Lake Powell are in danger of shutting down, with Powell and Mead roughly 25% full.

According to a new Reclamation analysis the system will need 600,000 to 4.5 million acre-feet annually through 2026 to keep Powell’s hydropower system operating and help balance the river system. This is in addition to current efforts to increase lake levels and conserve water.

While Upper Basin states have called loudly for Lower Basin states to shoulder the burden for Commissioner Touton’s cuts, Colorado experts such as Brad Wind, general manager for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said everyone will have to contribute to achieve the cutbacks.

“I imagine the folks at the negotiating table are looking at every tool possible to rebalance the system. Some mandatory, some voluntary,” Wind said. “We need to put our heads together on how we can conserve water. The supplies are shrinking. If we have to have cutbacks, and that is one option we have heard about, it would have grave consequences for Northern Colorado.”

Pots of water

Jennifer Gimbel, interim director of Colorado State University’s water center and former deputy commissioner for Reclamation, said the federal government will likely call for more releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah. In July of 2021, the federal government took emergency action and released 161,000 acre-feet of combined water from Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado. This year the feds ordered another 500,000 acre-feet be released from Flaming Gorge and opted to cut releases from Powell by 500,000 acre-feet to create a 1 million acre-foot buffer.

But it is already clear that won’t be enough.

“It’s reasonable to assume that they are looking at all pots of water available to them, including Flaming Gorge,” Gimbel said.

She also said it was likely that the Lower Basin will ask the Upper Basin states to make voluntary cutbacks in their own water use, given that California, Arizona and Nevada are being forced by the federal government to do so.

“The Lower Basin would ask the Upper Basin to cut back as part of any bigger deal that’s on the table, but that will be a hard sell in the Upper Basin because we haven’t been using our full 7.5 million acre-feet,” she said.

Gimbel was referring to the amount of water the Upper Basin states are legally entitled to under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, in which the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states were each allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water.

Crisis averted earlier?

Melinda Kassen, a former environmental water attorney for Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said watching the Colorado River unravel has been disappointing, because so many people have been trying for years to get the states and the federal government to act sooner.

“This all could have been prevented,” she said, “and it’s particularly painful for me to watch, given that we gave the Upper Basin a chance with the DCP [2019 Drought Contingency Plan] to think hard, do a lot of testing and try some things, and they chose to do nothing.”

Kassen was referring to Colorado’s decision earlier this year to temporarily halt work on establishing a drought pool in Lake Powell, which would have required voluntary reductions in water use primarily by the state’s farmers, and the ability to track and measure the amount of conserved water that made it to Powell. Those reductions, envisioned to be temporary and compensated, would have come as part of a program known as demand management, and putting it in place under the DCP requires agreement from all four Upper Basin states.

“We could have stored 500,000 acre-feet in Powell,” she said. “We could have put together a program to pay people not to farm. The water wouldn’t have been lost. Instead we squandered an opportunity to figure out how to do this.”

Colorado officials cited, in part, waiting for the other Upper Basin states to catch up as the reason for putting the program’s development on hold.

All eyes on ag

Because agriculture consumes roughly 80% of the river’s supplies basin-wide, finding ways to slash agricultural water use in the short term and long term will be critical, experts said.

Gimbel and others are hopeful that billions of dollars in new funding through the new federal infrastructure act can be used immediately to pay growers to temporarily cut back use until ag irrigation systems can be further modernized to use less water.

“When we have federal money to spend, we need to be looking at innovations in irrigation and farming,” Gimbel said. “But it’s not just as simple as changing crops. We know that irrigation uses a lot of this water, we know we depend on it to feed ourselves, but we have to put some heavy duty investments into how to do it differently and sustainably.”

On Aug. 16, Reclamation will release a new 2023 forecast for the river. Negotiators, unless they get an extension, must have a plan ready by then, according to Reclamation officials.

That tight deadline is almost unprecedented in the water world, where negotiations over delicate political issues and highly technical water management issues typically take years to bear fruit.

Bathtub drains

Larry Clever manages the Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction, which relies solely on the Colorado River and its tributaries for its supplies.

Clever is among those who are calling for immediate cutbacks in use by the Lower Basin states. Without those, he said, there will be little chance of bringing Powell and Mead back up to more sustainable levels.

“It’s hard to fill a bathtub when the drain is open,” he said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

A centuries-old system determines who gets water first and last

Ditches meander through Peterson Ranch. Maltarich/KBUT
Ditches meander through Peterson Ranch. Maltarich/KBUT
Listen to the story here.

Prior appropriation is the water law in the West that determines how water is divided among users. Most of the water in the Colorado River Basin is used for agriculture. Increasingly, Colorado is designating rights to streams themselves as rivers and drought continues to shrink water supplies.  

In the Upper Gunnison River Basin, the majority of the water that melts from mountains is used for agriculture. Fields are irrigated for pasture and hay to feed cattle on the nearly 100 ranches in the region. A centuries-old system determines who gets their first and who gets it last. 

Just off of Highway 50, about 15 miles east of Gunnison, Greg Peterson toured = his family’s ranch, Peterson Ranch. The land is an intricate system of water-filled ditches that runs through thousands of acres. The property has about 15-20 ditches in total. 

“So this is Tomichi Creek and the water is diverted out of it into the ditch that we irrigate with,” said Peterson. 

Peterson’s parents bought the property in 1962,  but the water rights tied to the land go back much further – all the way back to 1882. The ranch is one of nearly 100 small operations in the Upper Gunnison River Basin, most of which raise cattle and grow hay. 

Greg Peterson at his ranch near Gunnison. Maltarich/KBUT
Greg Peterson at his ranch near Gunnison. Maltarich/KBUT

On a spring day in May, Peterson is awaiting peak water runoff, so far runoff has been slow to fill the ditches so he can irrigate his property. He explained how the water moves from the ditch onto his property. 

“So we’ve created a dam in the river,” said Peterson. “And then the water goes down the ditch to where we turn it out in different places and irrigate with it.”

About 80% of the water that runs through the Colorado River Basin is used for agriculture. In and around the Gunnison Valley, the number is even higher, about 95%. 

Colorado’s water law is called prior appropriation, and it dates back to the end of the 19th century. And in theory, it’s pretty simple. To get a right to water, it had to be diverted from a stream or river and put to use, like irrigating fields. The right was made official after a court process. 

Flume measures water as it flows through Greg Peterson’s ditch. Maltarich/KBUT
Flume measures water as it flows through Greg Peterson’s ditch. Maltarich/KBUT

The system goes by ‘first in time, first in right.’ Those who came first have senior water rights.  Latecomers were given junior water rights. On dry years, those with a senior right may use all of the water, and, junior users may not have access to any. It’s not a perfect system, but Greg Peterson said it works.  

Peterson explained that when the water is short in the river, senior water rights holders control the system. 

“If it wasn’t for that, it’d be chaos,” said Peterson. “So yeah, I’m a strong believer in the prior appropriation system.”

Stacy McPhail is the executive director of the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy. The organization was founded in 1995, and since then has helped ranching families conserve their lands and water from development. 

It helped keep ranching here, and agriculture as a part of our kind of rural economy,” said McPhail. “But it also helped make sure that the water could not be moved out of our basin.”

Keeping water in the valley tied water rights to the land, and prevented water from being shipped across mountains to an increasingly thirsty front range. McPhail says although a lot of water is used in agriculture, much of it is reused as it flows downstream toward Mexico. 

“I’m not certain that everyone in the community or in the larger system of the state knows how recyclable that resource is, and how much we’re putting back into the river,” said McPhail. “It’s not just taking it out, you never see it again, it goes back and is reused and recirculated throughout.”

In the past, creeks have run dry, which kills aquatic life like fish and insects. They require a minimum amount of water called base flow to survive.  

Enter Colorado’s Instream Flow program, which started in 1973. Instream flows give legal water rights to rivers and streams and has helped protect almost 10,000 miles of waterways around the state.

One family in the Gunnison Valley is teaming up with the state’s instream flow program. Jesse Kruthaupt’s family also owns a ranch along Tomichi Creek, and he is the upper Gunnison project manager for Trout Unlimited. About a decade ago, the ranch did something unique: it agreed to lease its senior water rights to the river during periods of low flow.

“So our irrigation right becomes instream flow for a period of time,” said Kruthaupt. 

In response to the ongoing drought, the state has offered to pay ranchers to leave their water right in the river when levels sink to critically low levels. Kruthaupt said the program, which is facilitated by the Colorado Water Trust, has worked for his family.  In addition to running a successful ranch, they also have an interest in the fishery through his work with Trout Unlimited. 

But, Kruthaupt said every year it’s a continuous balancing act. 

“We were compensated for leaving water in the creek,” said Kruthaupt. “But we have to purchase hay or rent pasture to make up the difference that year.”

Kruthaupt said leasing water to the instream flow program may not fit the bottom line for every ranch. But, creative approaches like this will be essential as an already stressed Colorado River system struggles to meet water demands.

Cebolla creek, a tributary of the Gunnison River. Biddle/KBUT
Cebolla creek, a tributary of the Gunnison River. Biddle/KBUT

KBUT’s Headwaters series was made possible by The Water Desk, an independent initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Climate Change is making flooding worse: 3 reasons the world is seeing more record-breaking deluges

Fast-moving floodwater obliterated sections of major roads through Yellowstone National Park in 2022. Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service
Fast-moving floodwater obliterated sections of major roads through Yellowstone National Park in 2022. Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service

By Frances Davenport

Heavy rain combined with melting snow can be a destructive combination.

In mid-June 2022, storms dumped up to 5 inches of rain over three days in the mountains in and around Yellowstone National Park, rapidly melting snowpack. As the rain and meltwater poured into creeks and then rivers, it became a flood that damaged roads, cabins and utilities and forced more than 10,000 people to evacuate.

The Yellowstone River shattered its previous record and reached its highest water levels recorded since monitoring began almost 100 years ago.

Although floods are a natural occurrence, human-caused climate change is making severe flooding events like this more common. I study how climate change affects hydrology and flooding. In mountainous regions, three effects of climate change in particular are creating higher flood risks: more intense precipitation, shifting snow and rain patterns and the effects of wildfires on the landscape.

Warmer air leads to more intense precipitation

One effect of climate change is that a warmer atmosphere creates more intense precipitation events.

This occurs because warmer air can hold more moisture. The amount of water vapor that the atmosphere can contain increases by about 7% for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) of increase in atmospheric temperature.

Research has documented that this increase in extreme precipitation is already occurring, not only in regions like Yellowstone, but around the globe. The fact that the world has experienced multiple record flooding events in recent years – including catastrophic flooding in AustraliaWestern Europe and China – is not a coincidence. Climate change is making record-breaking extreme precipitation more likely.

Extreme rain storms triggered flooding and mudslides in Western Europe in 2021, killing more than 200 people. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images
Extreme rain storms triggered flooding and mudslides in Western Europe in 2021, killing more than 200 people. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

The latest assessment report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows how this pattern will continue in the future as global temperatures continue to rise.

More rain, less snow

In colder areas, especially mountainous or high-latitude regions, climate change affects flooding in additional ways.

In these regions, many of the largest historical floods have been caused by snowmelt. However, with warmer winters due to climate change, less winter precipitation is falling as snow, and more is falling as rain instead.

This shift from snow to rain can have dramatic implications for flooding. While snow typically melts slowly in the late spring or summer, rain creates runoff that flows to rivers more quickly. As a result, research has shown that rain-caused floods can be much larger than snowmelt-only floods, and that the shift from snow to rain increases overall flood risk.

The transition from snow to rain is already occurring, including in places like Yellowstone National Park. Scientists have also found that rain-caused floods are becoming more common. In some locations, the changes in flood risk due to the shift from snow to rain could even be larger than the effect from increased precipitation intensity.

Changing patterns of rain on snow

When rain falls on snow, as happened in the recent flooding in Yellowstone, the combination of rain and snowmelt can lead to especially high runoff and flooding.

In some cases, rain-on-snow events occur while the ground is still partially frozen. Soil that is frozen or already saturated can’t absorb additional water, so even more of the rain and snowmelt run off, contributing directly to flooding. This combination of rain, snowmelt and frozen soils was a primary driver of the Midwest flooding in March 2019 that caused over US$12 billion in damage.

While rain-on-snow events are not a new phenomenon, climate change can shift when and where they occur. Under warmer conditions, rain-on-snow events become more common at high elevations, where they were previously rare. Because of the increases in rainfall intensity and warmer conditions that lead to rapid snowmelt, there is also the possibility of larger rain-on-snow events than these areas have experienced in the past.

The 2022 Yellowstone flood inundated communities and swiftly eroded the land beneath this cabin that housed park employees. Gina Riquier via National Park Service
The 2022 Yellowstone flood inundated communities and swiftly eroded the land beneath this cabin that housed park employees. Gina Riquier via National Park Service

In lower-elevation regions, rain-on-snow events may actually become less likely than they have been in the past because of the decrease in snow cover. These areas could still see worsening flood risk, though, because of the increase in heavy downpours.

Compounding effects of wildfire and flooding

Changes in flooding are not happening in isolation. Climate change is also exacerbating wildfires, creating another risk during rainstorms: mudslides.

Burned areas are more susceptible to mudslides and debris flows during extreme rain, both because of the lack of vegetation and changes to the soil caused by the fire. In 2018 in Southern California, heavy rain within the boundary of the 2017 Thomas Fire caused major mudslides that destroyed over 100 homes and led to more than 20 deaths. Fire can change the soil in ways that allow less rain to infiltrate into the soil, so more rain ends up in streams and rivers, leading to worse flood conditions.

A 2021 rainstorm that hit the denuded landscape of a burn scar sent mud flowing into streets and yards in Silverado, California. Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
A 2021 rainstorm that hit the denuded landscape of a burn scar sent mud flowing into streets and yards in Silverado, California. Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

With the uptick in wildfires due to climate change, more and more areas are exposed to these risks. This combination of wildfires followed by extreme rain will also become more frequent in a future with more warming.

Global warming is creating complex changes in our environment, and there is a clear picture that it increases flood risk. As the Yellowstone area and other flood-damaged mountain communities rebuild, they will have to find ways to adapt for a riskier future.

Frances Davenport is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

Colorado Reservoirs at 85% of average capacity, with little recovery expected summer rains may offer temporary relief

Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest storage facility in Colorado in the Upper Colorado River system.  Prolonged drought and downriver demand is shrinking the reservoir. On this day the water elevation was 7,457 feet.
Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest storage facility in Colorado in the Upper Colorado River system. Prolonged drought and downriver demand is shrinking the reservoir. On this day the water elevation was 7,457 feet. Ted Wood/The Water Desk

By Jerd Smith

As back-to-back drought years continue to reduce snowpack and spring runoff, Colorado’s reservoirs are seeing little to any recovery in storage levels, members of the state’s Water Availability Task Force said Tuesday.

“It’s going to be a challenge for this year and the forseeable future until we get a banner snowpack year,” said Karl Wetlaufer, assistant snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and a task force member.

Statewide reservoir storage is at 85% of average, a number that hasn’t improved much in the past three years, Wetlaufer said.

Colorado derives the majority of its drinking and farm water supplies from mountain snows that are collected in reservoirs, and as a result, reservoir levels are closely watched.

Across the state’s eight major river basins, those to the north remain the wettest, with the South Platte Basin, which includes metro Denver and the Northern Front Range, seeing storage levels at roughly 94% of normal.

The Colorado River Basin headwater region has storage levels of 98%.

But to the southwest, in the hard-hit San Juan Dolores Basin, which includes Durango, reservoir storage levels are the lowest in the state, registering just 67% of normal,

At the same time, a new report from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that the majority of Colorado remains in moderate to severe drought, with the southern portion of the state still mired in extreme drought.

Looking ahead to September, the forecast shows near normal precipitation for the state, but much higher temperatures as well.

At the same time, the drought continues to sap Colorado’s rivers. Statewide stream flows are expected to hit just 69% of average. And in the picture in the dry southwest corner of the state is grim, with the San Juan Basin expected to see stream flows of just 26% of normal, while the Rio Grande Basin streams are expected to hit 33% of average, according to the NRCS.

Task force member Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at Colorado State University’s Climate Center, said the drought will likely continue into the fall and early winter. Though summer rains will help improve soil moisture levels, it won’t be enough to compensate for the damage already done this year.

According to Bolinger, it is likely that La Niña conditions will continue into the fall and beginning of winter. But if the fall is warm and dry, that could worsen drought conditions and Colorado could start another snowpack season at a deficit.

Still, Colorado’s ability to store water is a bright spot in the broader Colorado River Basin, where Lake Mead and Lake Powell are hovering around just 25% full.

The seven Colorado River Basin states, which include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada, in the Lower basin, are under an emergency order to come up with a plan to slash water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet by August or face mandatory cuts imposed by the federal government.

“We are not getting enough years like 2019 (which had above average mountain snowpacks) to boost reservoirs again,” Bolinger said. “The more likely scenarios are for less water.

“Despite sounding all gloom and doom, if everybody knows what they have to work with, they will adjust. When you know what you’re working with, then you can make good decisions,” she said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.

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