When you look at water flowing down a river, do you ever think about where it came from and where it’s going? And what sent it on its way?
In broad terms, of course, Colorado’s water comes from mountain snowmelt and, in the case of Western Slope rivers, flows toward Lake Powell — unless it is pulled out along the way to flow through our taps or into the tissues of peach, alfalfa or corn plants. Some is also intercepted early and piped across the Continental Divide to serve Front Range cities and farms.
The story of just a few water molecules can provide a window into the complexities of Colorado water management, and how we expect our rivers to simultaneously function as plumbing and carry out the normal river business of supporting fish and boats.
Take, for example, a few water molecules that begin their terrestrial journey as snow in the mountains just east of Aspen. In the spring, they melt and flow into the Fryingpan River, a tributary to the Roaring Fork.
Some of these molecules are captured early and flow east into a tunnel bound for the Arkansas River Valley. Once across the divide, they may help float a raft or two on their way to a cantaloupe field in Rocky Ford. Other molecules keep flowing west, until they are captured a little ways downstream in Ruedi Reservoir.
Even though these two sets of water molecules are separated soon after birth, their fates remain closely tied.
The molecules in Ruedi Reservoir will stay there, helping provide a pleasant boating and fishing environment, until they are released to flow down to the Roaring Fork and then the Colorado River en route to a Palisade peach orchard that has been relying on water out of the Colorado River since long before any of those tunnels to the Arkansas were drilled.
The ability to store and release of water from Ruedi is what permits those other molecules to keep flowing across the divide, even when water is needed downstream by users with more senior, and therefore higher priority, water rights.
That’s the (bare) basics of the plumbing, but other factors go into what water is released when, including the needs of endangered fish in the 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River upstream from the confluence with the Gunnison. The needs of anglers immediately downstream from Ruedi are also taken into account, with attempts made to prevent unsafe or unfishable conditions. In addition, there’s a hydroelectric plant to consider.
Complicating matters further, what’s happening on the main stem of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon also has an impact on releases from Ruedi. If the Shoshone Hydroelectric Power Plant in Glenwood Canyon is operating at full capacity and calling for its full share of water, less water has to be released from Ruedi to satisfy downstream water users.
Recently the Bureau of Reclamation released a draft Environmental Assessment of Round II of the Ruedi Reservoir Water Marketing Program, which would allow additional water users, including Ute Water, to contract for water in Ruedi. The reservoir was purposely built larger than needed to just provide replacement water in part so that sales of the excess water could help pay the costs of constructing the project.
Comments were only accepted until July 1, but reviewing this document, which is available at www.usbr.gov/newsroom/newsrelease/detail.cfm?RecordID=43485, provides much more detail on all the issues that must be taken into account when managing western water. If our current run of dry years continues, it’s unlikely to get any less complicated any time soon.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison basin roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.