Colorado River faces flood of challenges

Ryan Summerlin

GRAND JUNCTION — The common denominator among speakers at the Colorado River District’s annual seminar Friday was that stakeholders have an uphill battle to protect the river. The effects of climate change coupled with demand outpacing supply are continuing to leave water rights holders in a pickle — draining every drop of water before the Colorado reaches its mouth.

The Colorado River Basin is in its 16th year of drought, which ultimately hampers water supply, hydroelectric power, recreation and the basin’s ecology.

Jeff Lukas, an research integration specialist with Western Water Assessment, outlined the growing impacts of climate change on the Upper Colorado River Basin, comparing the basin’s temperatures, precipitation and runoff during other periods of record heat. Some of the key climate change risks for Colorado are reduced annual runoff, earlier runoff, degraded water quality, greater water demand and more frequent droughts, according to Lukas.

Many people are seeing a decrease in runoff for a given amount of precipitation, which Lukas links to warmer temperatures.

Some of the key climate change risks for Colorado are reduced annual runoff, earlier runoff, degraded water quality, greater water demand and more frequent droughts, according to Lukas.

About 75 percent of precipitation goes back into the atmosphere, and the bulk of streamflow happens during a narrow window of time, about 80 percent occurring between April and July, he said. Rising temperatures indicate that this trend of decreased streamflow will continue.

Record warm years earlier in the 20th century were also very dry, but now the basin is seeing record heat in wet years as well, said Lukas. And the Colorado River Basin is more sensitive to warming than other basins.

Warming also leads to earlier snowmelt and runoff, less snow accumulation and declines in runoff, said Lukas.

Lukas expects rising temperatures to result in increased water consumption and stress on the water supply and rights holders.

Other speakers representing the Colorado River District, farmers and lower basin entities that manage river water distribution presented various efforts to combat anticipated shortfalls.

But even without the troublesome effects of climate change, human mismanagement of the Colorado River Basin’s finite water supply has led to higher downstream demand that the basin can supply, said Abrahm Lustgarten, a ProPublica reporter who has covered the Colorado River Basin in an extensive written series and a Discovery Channel documentary.

Farmers in arid sections of the Colorado River Basin took the brunt of the blame for this imbalance, simply by virtue of agriculture being the biggest water consumer, according to Lustgarten. Agriculture makes up from 70 to 75 percent of the demand on the Colorado River Basin.

But Lustgarten, a former Roaring Fork Valley resident and Glenwood Post reporter, also points to federal government incentives that encourage these farmers to grow crops that require tremendous amounts of water. Additionally, farmers routinely consume every drop of water they’re entitled to out of fear of a “use it or lose it” rule for water rights, according to Lustgarten.

Few of the speakers described a rosy picture of the Colorado River Basin’s future, and all underscored the challenging circumstances that stakeholders urgently need to confront.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.