Colorado River

Dry conditions are the worst they’ve been in almost 20 years across the Colorado River watershed, which acts as the drinking and irrigation water supply for 40 million people in the American Southwest.

As the latest round of federal forecasts for the river’s flow shows, it’s plausible, maybe even likely, that the situation could get much worse this year.

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.

Mitch Tobin/waterdesk.org

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.

The West’s water security is wrapped up in snow. When it melts, it becomes drinking and irrigation water for millions throughout the region. A high snowpack lets farmers, skiers and water managers breathe a sigh of relief, while a low one can spell long-term trouble.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a group of explorers led by Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell set out to document the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. It was the first trip of its kind. To commemorate the journey, a group of scientists, artists and graduate students from the University of Wyoming called the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition has been retracing his steps this summer. 

Heather Hansman

In 2016 author and journalist Heather Hansman set out to paddle the Green River from its start in the Wind River Mountains 700 miles to its confluence with the Colorado River in Utah. Her goal was to understand this tributary - who got to use its water and why. Now she is out with a new book called Downriver. She told Wyoming Public Radio's Caroline Ballard why she chose the Green River.

Eric Barnes

For the last four years, Green River and Little Snake River basin ranchers have been getting paid not to irrigate in late summer to conserve Colorado River water. But the pilot phase of the program is now over. The next step is developing the technology to measure how much water is actually saved.

Nick Cote for KUNC/LightHawk

The Colorado River is short on water. But you wouldn't know it by looking at a slate of proposed water projects in the river's Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

Melodie Edwards

It's late May in Wyoming. It snowed last night, and more snow is predicted. That's why it's good that Big Piney Rancher Chad Espenscheid is behind the wheel of the truck. The roads are sloppy and Middle Piney Creek is running high.

Judy Fahys / KUER News

The drive behind a massive water development project in southwestern Utah, the Lake Powell Pipeline, shows no signs of slowing even after the Colorado River Basin states signed a new agreement this spring that could potentially force more conservation or cutbacks.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Construction on the Fontanelle Reservoir won't get started until extreme drought strikes because officials say the unfinished bottom won't be accessible until then.

Water leaders from the seven states that make up the Colorado River basin are one step closer to finalizing a drought contingency plan. Representatives from Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona met in Phoenix Tuesday to sign a letter to Congress asking for federal approval of the plan.

States that rely on the Colorado River for their water supplies are currently unable to finish a series of agreements that would keep its biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, from dropping to levels not seen since they were filled decades ago.

Five states — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nevada — are done. The country of Mexico has also completed its portion. But California and Arizona failed to meet a Jan. 31 federal government deadline to wrap up negotiations and sign a final agreement.

LUKE RUNYON / KUNC

The temperature is hovering right around 90 degrees the day Dale Ryden and I float down the Colorado River near Grand Junction, Colorado. The water looks so inviting, a cool reprieve from the heat, but if either of us jumped in we'd be electrocuted.

The Colorado River is running low on water. The lifeline that slakes the thirst of 40 million southwestern residents is projected to hit a historic low mark within two years, forcing mandatory cuts to water deliveries in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.   

Facing exceptional drought conditions, cities throughout the watershed this summer have imposed mandatory water restrictions, ranchers have begun selling off cows they’re unable to feed, and the river’s reservoirs are headed toward levels not seen since they filled decades ago.

Low water levels on the Colorado River could force water shortages in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2020, according to a new forecast from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

A shortage on the river is tied to the level of its main reservoir, Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada. If the lake drops past an elevation of 1,075 feet, water users downstream have to start cutting back how much water they use. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects the lake to drop below that level next year, triggering water cutbacks in 2020.

US Fish and Wildlife Service-Mountain Prairie Region

States in the Colorado River’s upper basin, including Wyoming, are considering ways to start saving any water conserved from efforts like avoiding irrigation in hayfields or watering lawns. It’s a novel idea being considered in the wake of low snow packs this year in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah that have caused Lake Powell to receive less than half its usual flow. That flow is needed to satisfy water allocations promised to states downstream. 

After nearly a month of terse exchanges among water managers in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona about Colorado River conservation strategies, representatives from the five states met Monday in Salt Lake City to hash out their differences.

At issue is how the Central Arizona Project (CAP) -- the operator of a 336-mile aqueduct that pumps Colorado River water to farmers and cities -- is conserving water in Lake Mead, the river’s largest reservoir. The project is managed by the Central Arizona Water Conservancy District (CAWCD) and is the state’s largest water provider.

Leon Reed / Flickr Creative Commons

Supporters of an $80 million dam project in south-central Wyoming are looking at the possibility of a federal land transfer to secure the land for the site. It’s the only remaining path forward for the project since legislators chose not to fully fund it. 

Battle Creek is a tributary of the Yampa River, which flows into the Colorado River.
By Dicklyon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the 2018 Legislative Session, the Wyoming House and Senate resolved two water project bills, ultimately agreeing to fund the West Fork Reservoir. The original legislation would have allocated $40 million, but the House eliminated the project completely. The Senate later resurrected it with $10 million in funding, and eventually, lawmakers reached a compromise of $4.7 million. 

Colorado River Water Users Association

The House last week removed the West Fork Reservoir from a bill that includes a number of water projects proposed around the state. On Wednesday, the Senate returned $10 million in funding for the dam near Baggs. Originally, state water developers asked for $40 million for the project, and estimated that it would cost twice that. 

Loco Steve / Flickr

Last week, lawmakers on the Select Water Committee agreed to put $40 million in their budget to build a new dam in southern Wyoming, but only if all the money for the project is identified first. The total cost of the dam is estimated at $80 million dollars.

Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde says with more droughts expected in the future, more irrigation water is needed for about 25 different ranches along the West Fork of Battle Creek in south-central Wyoming.

Colorado River Water Users Association

The Walton Family Foundation has announced a plan to give out $35 million to help protect the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers. $20 million of that will go to restoration of the Colorado River, part of which originates in the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming.

The foundation's Colorado River director Ted Kowalski said organizations like Trout Unlimited, American Rivers and the Nature Conservancy will be able to receive grants for projects to help save the river.

Eric Barnes

In the 1960’s, Fontanelle Reservoir in southwest Wyoming was partially built to store water from the Green River for irrigation and industrial use in Western Wyoming. It was never completed, but now a bill has passed the U.S. House that would allow the state of Wyoming to finish the job.

Since the Green River is a major tributary of the Colorado, expanding the reservoir could allow as much as 100,000 more acre feet of water to be diverted from the Colorado River system.

With drought and climate change creating water shortages in lower desert states, Wyoming is looking for more ways to store its share of Colorado River water. Last week, a bill sponsored by Representative Cynthia Lummis that would expand the storage capacity of Fontanelle Reservoir on the Green River in southwest Wyoming passed the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously.

Lummis says Wyoming needs more water to grow.

April Barnes

You might think of the Grand Canyon as one of the wildest places in the U.S. But the fact is, the Colorado River that runs through that canyon is not wild at all. Here’s a quote from Cadillac Desert, a documentary on water in the West.

"This river, the Colorado, can be turned on and turned off down to the last drop on orders from the Interior Secretary of the United States," a voiceover tells us. "This was the first river on earth to come under complete human control."

Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge

The shadows of cottonwood trees grow long as the sun sets over Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Wyoming. A perfect time to spot wildlife on the Green River. Among the reeds, I see a white patch with a long neck. A trumpeter swan. Refuge project leader Tom Koerner passes me a pair of binoculars.

“That's probably a single bird and right in this wetland unit we just drove by there's three different pairs that nest in here,” Koerner says. 

Green River Recreation Department

It’s been a decade and a half of drought for Western states, many of which depend on the Colorado River for water. That includes Wyoming where the main branch of the Colorado—the Green River—originates in the Wind River Range.

The Upper Colorado River Basin states have decided to try a water conservation program long used in the Lower Basin states that pays water users to let their excess water flow back into the river.

PRA / Creative Commons

Twenty-thirteen marks the 14th year of the worst drought in the past century, so Colorado River Basin states are following 2007 agreement guidelines, and releasing less water from a major reservoir, Lake Powell.


Only 7.48 million acre feet will be released from Lake Powell next water year, down about 9% from normal levels. It’s the lowest release since the 1960s.