‘Somebody’s going to have to use less’: Colorado River managers grapple with drought

PAGE – Years into a record-breaking drought across the Southwest, officials of the seven states along the Colorado River finally forged an agreement in 2007 on how to deal with future water shortages. Then they quietly hoped that wet weather would return.

It didn’t.

Those states now are back at the negotiating table to hammer out new deals to avoid a slow-moving crisis on the river system that supports 40 million people from Colorado to California.

You can see the extent of the problem in a place like Page, Arizona, on the southern edge of Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the country behind Lake Mead.

Jennifer Pitt, who works on Colorado River policy for the National Audubon Society, stands on an overlook peering down at the lake and the immense concrete dam holding it in place.

“Now you can tell that there’s a river here underneath this reservoir because it has somewhat of a linear shape,” said Pitt, tracing the red rock canyon with her finger. “And it’s wending its way towards where we’re standing, here, overlooking the Glen Canyon Dam.”

The canyon behind the dam is stained with a stark white ring. For the past 20 years, Pitt said, demands for water have outstripped the supply, meaning Lake Powell and Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam further downstream, continue to drop. Both are less than half full.

Without changes to how the two reservoirs are managed, Pitt said, levels could dip below the point where no water can be released, referred to as “dead pool.”

“If that happened, that would be a catastrophe for this region’s economy,” she said, “for all of the people who depend on the Colorado River and for all of the wildlife that depends on it as well.”

(The National Audubon Society receives funds from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

It’s not about blame

That dystopian future of abandoned farms, dried-up streams and water-stressed cities is one that James Eklund of the Upper Colorado River Commission and other water managers are attempting to avoid.

“Take Lake Mead. More is being taken out than comes into it,” Eklund said. “Like your bank account, if you do that over a sustained period, you will run a deficit, and if you’re talking about water for 40 million people and economies that are massive – fifth-largest economy in the world, the Colorado River Basin represents – then that’s significant.”

Managers are attempting to boost reservoir levels with a suite of agreements under the umbrella of “drought contingency planning.” The premise is simple: Cut water use now, use that saved water to bump up Powell and Mead, and doing so will help to avoid bigger problems in the future, when supplies are likely to be even tighter.

Calcium deposits on the rock formations at Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, show the impact of lingering drought on water levels. Hydrologists fear the reservoir will drop to the level at which no water can be released – a situation known as “dead pool.” (File photo by Alexis Kuhbander/Cronkite News)

Water officials in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are working on a plan that covers the river’s Upper Basin and focuses on boosting snowpack with weather modification, better management of reservoirs and creating a water bank in Lake Powell.

The Lower Basin plan, being worked on by officials in Arizona, California and Nevada, is meant to create new incentives for farmers and cities to conserve water in Lake Mead and to agree to earlier, deeper cuts to water use so the reservoir can avoid dropping to dead pool levels.

Tuesday, water officials with all of the states, except Arizona, released draft agreements that spell out water cuts to boost levels at Mead and Powell according to azcentral.com. Arizona water officials plan to work through November to develop an agreement that state lawmakers would need to approve next spring.

“There is clearly enough evidence that if we were to have another 2000 to 2004 kind of a multiyear drought, the system is in very serious trouble,” said Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

When the current management guidelines were written in 2007, planners were optimistic, Kuhn said.

“Historically, we’ve always said, ‘Well, next year will be better,’” Kuhn said. “And that’s the easy way out.”

Now, after another of the driest and hottest water years on record, much of that optimism has evaporated.

Kuhn said Arizona has had the hardest time coming to an agreement because of intrastate battles over who will take cuts to water allocations and when they’ll take them. But states in the river’s Upper Basin have had issues, too.

One example is with the concept of demand management.

“It’s the difficult one,” Kuhn noted. “Somebody’s going to have to use less.”

Kuhn said there’s a fear that if those cuts aren’t doled out fairly, it could injure economies throughout the Southwest. Colorado River District officials and agricultural interests from Colorado’s Western Slope have said they’re on board with a demand management program only if farmers are given a choice about how much water they give up, and that they’re paid for forgoing water deliveries to their operations. But state officials have left the door open to mandatory cutbacks in a crisis.

Lake Mead sports a white “bathtub ring” more than 100 feet tall in this December 2015 photo, illustrating how far the water level has fallen after years of drought. (File photo by Alex Demas/Cronkite News)

Over the past three years, drought contingency negotiations have laid bare old tensions throughout the basin. Farmers and cities have blamed each other’s collective water uses for decades. And the same is true with water managers protective of their own interests in either the Upper or Lower basins.

“The thing we have to remember is (water use) in the basin is over 80 percent agriculture,” said Colby Pellegrino, who handles Colorado River issues for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the utility serving metro Las Vegas.

Current conservation programs, like the utility’s aggressive buyback of residential lawns, won’t be enough, Pellegrino said.

“We can take out all the lawns we want and still not solve the problems that climate change is going to throw at us,” Pellegrino said.

Climate change is just one pressure to get these deals done quickly. The U.S. Department of the Interior has given the Colorado Basin states an end-of-year deadline to get things done. If not, the assumption is the feds will step in to do it for them.

“That’s I think a fear of everybody on the river, especially in the Upper Basin,” said Jennifer Gimbel, a former Interior undersecretary, now with Colorado State University. “And the last thing we want is interference by the federal government in that role.”

The fate of the entire region hangs in the balance, said Gimbel.

At Glen Canyon Dam, Pitt, with the Audubon Society, said more than the fates of people and economies are tied up in river politics: An entire ecosystem is at stake.

“I think a lot of people who care about wildlife in this region are concerned,” Pitt said. “And it’s not just birds. Seventy percent of all wildlife in the arid West rely on rivers at some point in their life cycle. So it has outsize importance for anyone who appreciates nature in this part of the country.”



This story is 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.

From neon orange to chocolate brown: The West’s unluckiest river takes a beating

DURANGO, Colo. – In early August 2015, Barb Horn stood on a bank of the Animas River, waiting for mine waste spilled upstream to reach the city. She and hundreds of others waited hours for the waste plume to appear, but darkness fell.

The next morning, she saw the change.

“It was absolutely surreal,” Horn said. “And I think that’s why it went viral. It’s like somebody Photoshopped the river orange.”

Upstream, Environmental Protection Agency workers and an environmental contractor cleaning up the Gold King mine near Silverton had accidentally triggered the spill of 3 million gallons of rust-colored waste, known as “acid mine drainage.”

“If you’re a Harry Potter fan, it looked like butterbeer, like butterscotch,” said Horn, a water quality specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The water was laden with metals, including iron, which colored the water reddish-orange.

The Animas begins in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains before joining the San Juan River, an important tributary of the Colorado River.

For Horn, the spill was a stark visual reminder of the river’s long history of pollution from abandoned mines.

“And it immediately tugged on your heartstrings thinking nothing could live in that,” she said.

Barb Horn, a water quality specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, says ash from this summer’s 416 Fire was deadlier than acid mine drainage from the 2015 Gold King Mine spill. (Photo: Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The spill temporarily stopped recreation in the river and forced farmers to delay irrigation to their crops. But life in the river? It didn’t change much. The bugs and fish survived and showed no signs of short-term harm. The fish had been living with heavy mineralization of the water for decades.

Crisis averted — until this year.

“So I joke that now the river looks like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s chocolate fudge river,” Horn said.

We spoke along the river’s stretch through the city. The water was a cloudy brown color with suspended bits of charred debris.

The first few ash-laden runoff events probably killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30-mile stretch of the Animas.

The Animas began the summer with record low water because of long term drought and a warm winter. That primed the nearby mountains for wildfire. The 416 Fire ended up burning about 55,000 acres around the drainage basin for Hermosa Creek, a tributary of the Animas. When rains fall on the burn area, a thick sludge washes into the river.

Horn says official surveys haven’t been conducted, but it’s likely the first few ash-laden runoff events killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30-mile stretch of the river.

“You could literally see the fish coming to the banks gasping for air. It physically smothered their gills and their ability to breathe,” Horn said. “So there it was, it didn’t look as bad. It came from a, you could argue, natural source and did way more damage.”


Sediment and ash from the 416 Fire piles up along the banks of Hermosa Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. (Photo: Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Many Western rivers are stressed by drought, pollution, overuse by cities and farmers and runoff from wildfires. The Animas is the perfect poster child.

“It certainly is unlucky,” said Scott Roberts, a researcher with the Mountain Studies Institute, a nonprofit research group based in nearby Silverton. “It’s unlucky now. And it’s been unlucky for throughout time really.”

The river is facing problems that show themselves, including a vibrant orange smear or a chocolate brown sludge, he said. Or like earlier this summer, when the river all but disappeared within Durango’s city limits, recording its record lowest flow in 107 years of data.

But there are many other issues that don’t draw public attention. Before the Gold King Mine spill, and even now, the river receives acidic water laden with heavy metals from the region’s numerous abandoned mines. Adding insult to injury, in July 2018 a truck carrying waste material from the mine site crashed into Cement Creek, another Animas tributary.

“It’s being stressed by drought, being stressed by warmer temperatures,” Roberts said of the Animas. “It’s being stressed by runoff from wildfires, being stressed by elevated metal concentrations, being stressed by bacteria, by nutrients.”

Roberts points to studies that showed samples of the river’s water with high levels of bacteria commonly found in humans, likely leached from underground septic tanks.

Tom Knopick is co-owner of Duranglers, a fly-fishing outfitter. He predicts the Animas River “will be in a short period of time better than it was before the fire.” (Photo: Luke Runyon/KUNC)

“I don’t think the problems that are plaguing the Animas today are unique to the Animas,” said Ty Churchwell of Trout Unlimited, based in Durango. Trout Unlimited receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

In fact, Churchwell said, drought, ash-laden runoff and mine pollution are often the norm in Western watersheds. The Animas has just experienced the extremes of all three in a short period of time.

“We certainly have experienced more than our fair share of traumatic incidents here in the last three years,” he said.

All these stressors don’t make it easy on local business owners, heavily dependent on tourists coming to town to raft and fish on the Animas. Low flows have curtailed river rafting operations throughout the Southwest.

Fishing isn’t restricted on the river through Durango, but local anglers are avoiding large portions of the stressed river this summer, said Tom Knopick, co-owner of Duranglers, a fly shop in downtown Durango.

He takes solace in knowing that all this trauma is bringing attention to the Animas’ myriad problems. Some of the mine waste is being treated now before draining into the river. When it comes to the fire-related sludge, the healing process has already begun.

“We’ve seen this before and we know that we know that it’s a short term problem,” Knopick said, comparing this summer to that of 2002 when the Missionary Ridge fire scorched more than 70,000 acres outside Durango. “You know we don’t like it. Rather not be dealing with it. But the reality is the Animas will be in a short period of time better than it was before the fire.”

But it could be another five to 10 years before the Animas is back to its former self, according to Horn of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“Rivers really are a great metaphor for our body and our own health and our own lives,” she said. “You can think about maybe the Animas is having a heart attack, a stroke and clogging up and saying we need to pay attention to what we eat or what we’re doing with her and to her.”

Horn said rivers have been rebounding from cyclical drought and fires for millenia. But human activity has made the frequency, duration and magnitude of those events worse.

This story is 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.

Can a river play the violin? It can with this researcher’s help

FT. COLLINS, Colorado – Stand near a river and you’ll hear a symphony of sounds: birds chirping, frogs croaking and water flowing. But what would it sound like if the stream itself could be transformed into classical music?

David Merritt, a Colorado-based researcher and musician, is helping answer that question by turning river data into music to hear how we’ve changed rivers throughout the West.

By day, Merritt is a riparian ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Fort Collins. By night, he’s a musician. One evening, off the clock from his Forest Service duties, he was messing around with audio files in his basement recording studio.

At the time, he was frustrated. He knows rivers are important, but making other people care is hard. If people could feel the seasonal peaks and valleys in river flow they might be more likely to appreciate their benefits, he thought.

Using his background in both flow data and recording music, Merritt pulled up the annual average flow figures for his favorite river — the Yampa in northwest Colorado — and funneled it through a program that turns numbers into digital music. He wrote a piece of code to turn the data into notes that a computer can play using Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI.

“I absolutely got chills as I listened to the flood of 1984 in church organ,” Merritt says.

Dave Merritt works in the basement recording studio in his Fort Collins, Colorado home. (Photo: Luke Runyon / KUNC)

He called his wife down. Had her put on the headphones and hit play.

The high notes represent the river’s seasonal peak. Encumbered by only a handful of dams on its main channel, the Yampa’s seasonal flow is dynamic, fed by snowmelt each spring. The year Merritt first played, 1984, was a record wet year in the Colorado River Basin.

Realizing he’d stumbled on a whole new way of experiencing data, Merritt started auditioning other rivers and trying out different instruments. When the rivers are low, the music is rhythmic and steady.

“I hear a heartbeat of violas and violins and piccolos and cellos,” he says. “And as a monsoon or a snowmelt hydrograph begins to form. You can hear other instruments picking up and you can hear the rate of the playing of these instruments speed up and vary.”

We’ve been measuring the flow of some Western rivers for more than a century, which Merritt says gives us the opportunity to hear how we’ve changed them. Take a river like the Green, which starts in Wyoming and snakes through Utah and Colorado. In 1962, the Green didn’t have any large dams. Its seasonal flow hit lots of highs and lows.

But just a few years later both the Fontenelle and Flaming Gorge dams were completed on the Green.

Flaming Gorge Dam is a key part of the Colorado River Storage Project. It allowed states in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River to hold on to more water, but it also dramatically changed ecosystems along the Green. Instead of the river reaching for the high notes each spring, the dam leveled it out. Flows corresponded more with demands for hydropower than with the needs of insects, birds and fish.

“This is what it sounds like under regulated conditions,” Merritt says. “It’s undeniably different and it’s undeniably had an effect on the organisms in those systems. And this is a way for you to hear it and and hopefully to feel it.”

For millennia rivers in the West surged seasonally, either from snowmelt or monsoon rains. The animal and plant life that call rivers home have evolved to be in sync with that rhythm.

“If we are aware of the consequences of damming and diverting a vast majority of the streams in the West then I think society could rally behind protecting one or two,” Merritt says.

Dave Merritt says he’s not naive to the fact that dams are part of what make life in the West possible. But now we have the ability to manage our existing dams better.

“Maintaining those vital components of flow regime that support those organisms is something that we can deliberately do and and probably do pretty well,” he says. “We would as a society benefit from being aware of that: Restoring some of the symphonic sounds of these rivers.”

Few rivers in the West are free-flowing like the Yampa. Merritt says when you hear the river turned into music, it’s easier to recognize its unique character.

“It’s something that we ought to treasure and protect like a piece of art or like a great symphony.”

This story is 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.