Western Water

Water is life. So smart reporting on water issues is a vital public service, especially with the ever-growing demand on western watersheds.

Luke Runyon covers the Colorado River, its tributaries, and the massive area dependent on its limited water resources. We quickly learn that the Roaring Fork River is connected with the snowfields of Rocky Mountain National Park, the canyons of Dinosaur National Monument, and the irrigated farmlands of southwest Arizona. These stories are part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by public radio station KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for editorial content.

Seven years ago, a pulse of water on the Colorado River at the U.S.-Mexico border temporarily reconnected it to the Pacific Ocean. Scientists used the so-called “pulse flow” to study what plant and animal life returned to the desiccated delta along with water.

Armed with that knowledge, scientists and conservation groups are trying a new and more targeted strategy to bring water back to the final 100 miles of the Colorado River this year.

News Brief: Luke Runyon on Western Water Shortages

Jul 20, 2021

Lake Powell is at its lowest level ever. The Federal government could declare a water shortage throughout the Colorado River Basin as soon as August.  For this week’s News Brief, KDNK’s Amy Hadden Marsh spoke with KUNC water reporter Luke Runyon to find out what this means.

The water levels behind the Colorado River’s biggest dams are fast-approaching or already at record lows. The historic 21-year megadrought that is squeezing some Western states’ water supplies will also likely start showing up in energy bills, because those dams can’t produce as much electricity.

Updated July 19, 2021:

Federal officials laid out details of how reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell will release water in an attempt to keep producing hydropower. On Friday the Bureau of Reclamation published new forecasts for reservoir operations in the Colorado River basin.

The Colorado River is tapped out.

Another dry year has left the waterway that supplies 40 million people in the Southwest parched. A prolonged 21-year warming and drying trend is pushing the nation’s two largest reservoirs to record lows. For the first time this summer, the federal government will declare a shortage.

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Water supplies are so tight in the West that most states keep close watch over every creek, river, ditch and reservoir. A complex web of laws and rules is meant to ensure that all the water that falls within a state’s boundaries is put to use or sent downstream to meet the needs of others.

To prevent waste and avoid sparking an interstate legal battle, Colorado has started cracking down on what may seem like a drop in the proverbial bucket -- illegal ponds.

Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado.

Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water.

The Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs are likely to drop to historically low levels later this year, prompting mandatory conservation by some of the river’s heaviest users.

The latest Bureau of Reclamation reservoir projections, which take into account river flows in a given year, show a likelihood that Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada stateline will dip below the critical threshold of 1,075 feet in elevation in May and remain below that level for the foreseeable future.

The Fort Yuma-Quechan Indian Tribe is situated at a nexus in the Colorado River Basin.

That’s true in a geographic sense. The tribe’s reservation overlays the Arizona-California border near Yuma, Arizona. The two states are heavily reliant on water from the Colorado River.

California is spending more than $200 million to keep an unfolding ecological crisis from getting worse. The state wants to stabilize habitat along the southern bank of the Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake.

That is good news for nearby residents concerned about their health, but the restoration could also affect everyone who draws water from the Colorado River.

At issue is the wide swaths of exposed lakebed that have been uncovered as the thirsty lake’s water evaporates in the desert air.

The lake bottom is typically a deep layer of fine silt.

The Colorado River is one of the most engineered river systems in the world. Over millions of years, the living creatures that call the river home have adapted to its natural variability, of seasonal highs and lows. But for the last century, they have struggled to keep up with rapid change in the river’s flows and ecology.

2020 has been a tough year for some of the Colorado River basin’s long-planned, most controversial water projects.

Proposals to divert water in New Mexico, Nevada and Utah have run up against significant legal, financial and political roadblocks this year. But while environmental groups have cheered the setbacks, it’s still unclear whether these projects have truly hit dead ends or are simply waiting in the wings.

Many communities in the West are growing, and in some places that’s putting pressure on already scarce water supplies.

That’s the case in northern Colorado, where a proposed set of reservoirs promises to allow small suburbs to keep getting bigger. The project, called the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), has stirred up a familiar debate over how the West grows, and whether water should be a limiting factor.

Tracking the coronavirus pandemic could soon be a bit easier because of one simple fact: everyone poops.

Around the world , wastewater plants have become unlikely sentinels in the fight against the virus, allowing scientists to track the disease's spread at the community level. The practice of testing sewage samples is spreading across Western U.S. states as well, with programs currently running in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California.

Charismatic is hardly the best word to describe the humpback chub, a fish with a frowny eel face jammed onto a sportfish body in a way that suggests evolution has a sense of humor. Nor did tastiness build a fan base for this "trash fish" across its natural habitat throughout the Colorado River Basin. But, in 1973, the humpback chub became famous by winning federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The water has made development possible and is used for farms, homes and businesses. Meanwhile, recreation has risen to over 4 million annual visitors in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, with tourists bringing in over $420 million to local communities.

A tight-lipped Western Colorado irrigation association is remaining neutral on the growing presence of private investors in their sizable pool of senior water rights.

When the Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966, it was a major development for water management in the arid west. It would also transform Glen Canyon, sometimes described as America's "lost national park," into the second largest man-made reservoir in the country.

In Nevada, Investors Eye Underground Water Storage As A Path To Profits

Jun 12, 2020

Twenty-two miles outside of the nearest town (Wells, pop. 1,246), graffiti on a crumbling hotel wall reads: "Home on the Strange." Down a dirt road, there's an abandoned car. An arch stands at the entrance of a dilapidated school. It's what is left of a town that lost most of its water rights.

Around the turn of the last century, New York investors established Metropolis, Nevada as a farming community. By 1912, they had constructed a dam. They built a hotel, a school and an events center. The Southern Pacific Railroad constructed an office and built a line to the town.

Then the water ran dry.

Central Arizona has been booming -- more people, more houses, more need for water. There's also a long-term drought, and less water to buy from the Central Arizona Project canal system . It's leading Phoenix exurbs to cast about, looking for new buckets.

Other regions of the state say: don't come here.

For five years, Zay Lopez tended vegetables, hayfields and cornfields, chickens, and a small flock of sheep here on the western edge of Colorado's Grand Valley - farming made possible by water from the Colorado River.

Lopez has a passion for agriculture, and for a while, he carved out a niche with his business, The Produce Peddler, trucking veggies seven hours away to a farmers market in Pinedale, Wyoming.

Lopez also moonlights as a Realtor, with his finger on the pulse of the local real estate market. A few years ago, he noticed a strange new phenomenon. Much of the irrigated agricultural land sold in the valley - such as parcels just down the road from his farm - wasn't being bought by another farmer. Instead, his new neighbor was Water Asset Management, a New York City-based hedge fund with deep pockets.

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