It’s that time of the year again—there are only a couple months left of snowfall for Colorado’s snowpack. Skiers and snowboarders are hoping for a few more key powder days, while whitewater enthusiasts are wondering what this year’s “runoff” season is going to hold for the area’s rivers. In the Colorado River Watershed, the gradual melting of high country snowpack sustains stream flows and the livelihoods of communities downstream. Scientists and policymakers use SNOTEL (snow telemetry) data from snow survey sites to assess snowpack depth and water content to predict water supply conditions for the coming season. As of March 4th, according to the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the Upper Colorado River Basin was at 89% of its median Snow Water Equivalent (SWE). SWE refers to the amount of potential water available in the snowpack.
Colorado River From the High Rockies to the Sonoran Desert
The Colorado River starts its journey in the Never Summer Range in Rocky Mountain National Park. From there, it travels 1,450 miles to its delta in the Sonoran Desert where it meets the Gulf of California. Over thirty-three million people across Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Mexico depend on the Colorado River for their water supply. Mark Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water, writes:
The Colorado’s modern notoriety…stems not from its wild rapids and plunging canyons but from the fact that it is the most legislated, most debated, and most litigated river in the entire world. It also has more people, more industry, and a more significant economy dependent on it than any comparable river in the world.
The Colorado River has gone through many changes since conservationist Aldo Leopold canoed through its vibrant delta in 1922. Nearly a century of dam building and water diversion to serve growing populations, agriculture, and industry have altered the course and the flow of the river. During many seasons, the river does not even reach the sea as it did for over six million years. The river delta itself has shrunk by more than ninety percent since the 1920s. The shrinking Colorado River is not just significant for human communities; ecological communities rely on the river as a lifeline as well. The Colorado River and its many tributaries are sources of water for plant and animal life in the basin and are critical habitats in themselves.
Colorado River Steps Towards Water Conservation and Watershed Health
Nowhere is the dwindling Colorado River more apparent than in the Colorado River Delta in the Sonoran Desert of northern Mexico. The Sonoran Institute has partnered with U.S. and Mexican governments, as well as local community groups, to restore critical wetland habitat in the delta in a project that they hope will reconnect the river with the sea and inspire long-term stewardship for the Colorado River.
Work towards water conservation in the Colorado River Watershed is happening locally as well. In addition to protecting water quality in the Gore Creek and Eagle River watersheds, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District is working towards water conservation with their “Use Water Wisely” campaign. The ERWSD provides education and resources for reducing water consumption for both indoor and outdoor water uses. They provide water efficiency devices including high efficiency showerheads and shower timers. Another important local group, the Eagle River Watershed Council, has led a number of watershed restoration efforts in addition to providing outreach and education on watershed issues.
This year, 2015, will be a critical year for water conservation statewide in Colorado. By the end of the year, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) will present the final draft of Colorado’s Water Plan (CWP), after feedback from stakeholders across the state. The CWP aims to be a diverse and comprehensive bottom-up plan for Colorado’s water future. Look for public discussions on initial drafts of the plan in the coming months.
Tory Dille is a Naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. She enjoys rafting and fly-fishing the Colorado River and hiking to the alpine lakes that feed its many tributaries.
Reisner, Mark. Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. London: Penguin Books, 1987.
Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. “Use Water Wisely” Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Last modified January 2015.
Environmental Defense Fund. “About the Colorado River Basin” Colorado River Basin. Last modified January 2015.
Zielinski, Sarah. “The Colorado River Runs Dry” Smithsonian Magazine. Last modified October 2010.