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From Excellent to Bad: How Colorado’s Eight Major Rivers Are Faring

Not everyone sees drought, pollution and water woes as issues in Colorado. A report by Conservation Colorado hopes to change that by evaluating the health of eight major rivers in the state.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
The Arkansas River in Colorado was one of eight rivers graded by Conservation Colorado in a report about the health of the state’s rivers.Bob Wick, courtesy of Conservation Colorado

Colorado might be part of the West, but when it comes to water challenges, it isn’t always seen that way. Even Colorado residents tend to see droughts and water quality issues as California or Arizona problems, says Kristin Green, Front Range field manager for environmental group Conservation Colorado.

That thinking is what prompted the organization to begin assessing the health of Colorado’s major rivers. Conservation Colorado recently released a report card, grading one river for each of Colorado’s eight basins: the Arkansas, the Colorado, the Dolores, the North Fork of the Gunnison, the North Platte, the Rio Grande, the South Platte and the Yampa.

Each river is graded on its water flow compared to preindustrial times, its water quality, how water is diverted and what major dams the river has. The hope, says Green, is that this will highlight the serious issues that the rivers of Colorado face and which eventually will impact the entire Colorado basin. Water Deeply spoke with Green about the report card and the state of Colorado’s rivers today.

Water Deeply: What prompted this report now?

Kristin Green: Water in the West is a really big deal, to put it mildly, and Colorado is a very big part of that story, of course. We’re a headwater state to the Colorado River, and then we certainly have our own water demands and limits on how we’re going to meet those demands and what our supply is going to look like. But I think that sometimes in the larger [Colorado] basin, Colorado is seen as a being different than California or Arizona or some of those other states where drought is just an always-talked-about thing, even among broader members of the public. So, there is this desire to say “we’re a part of this, too.”

Each state has its unique limits, but we’re very much part of the water woes of the West. It just seems like most people don’t know that if you live on the Front Range in Colorado the majority of your water is being diverted through the continental divide from the Western Slope [of the Rocky Mountains].

We had this understanding that for our advocacy to really matter to folks, and for them to engage and understand why these solutions are important, they need to understand what some of the barriers are and what the lay of the land is a little better. And this report card, by looking at one of the rivers in each of the major basins, seemed like a great tool to start that conversation.

Water Deeply: There are several factors that go into grading these rivers: flow, water quality, water diversion and major dams, and then there is an “other factors” section, which is not graded. How did you choose those?

Green: One of the ways that we arrived at the factors we did is that we really wanted to pick the things that really matter, and obviously are direct contributors to river health. Those are all big ones. When you look at the amount of water that is still running through a river, how much water is getting removed out of the river for various uses, those are pivotal components when you’re thinking about a river’s health.

We also needed to find some factors that we could reasonably compare across rivers. The reality is that each of these basins is very unique and it is easy to get to a place where you feel like you’re comparing apples and oranges. For instance, we looked at the idea of factoring in water use – how much is going to agriculture versus municipal versus how much is getting used within that basin generally, and we quickly found out that that was going to be really difficult to assess. You look at the agricultural use in a basin, and it is not like everyone who lives in that basin are the ones consuming everything being grown through that agriculture – that’s getting distributed to different parts of the state, so is it really fair to count it as that basin’s water use?

But at the same time there are unique factors to each of these basins that improve or pivot what the health of the river is, and so it did feel important to create space for factoring that stuff in, so that is why we have that “other factors” category.

Water Deeply: Based on what you learned from putting this report together, how do you feel Colorado’s rivers are doing?

Green: The reality is, Colorado’s rivers have some things that they’re struggling with. The flipside of that is, we still have remarkable rivers in terms of their environmental value, the recreational experience they offer and what their role is in the overall environment and ecosystem here. I actually really do feel optimistic that we are at a point in time where we are going to start shifting away from the status quo of how we have developed and managed our water here in the state.

As in many Western states, we were having these population booms. Finding water to meet those needs is a real issue. In Colorado, 80 percent of the population is on the eastern side of the mountains and 80 percent of the water is on the western side, so there was an element of where it made sense to shift around resources to where the people were.

But, that being said, I think that more and more we’re starting to understand [the need for] healthy rivers, both for the nonconsumptive value, the role that they play in the environment and what they mean for our very robust and recreational economy in Colorado. We have to be factoring that in when we think about how we manage water, and I really do think that is happening more.

Water Deeply: The worst rated river, which got a D-, was the Dolores River. Why is it the worst?

Green: A critical part of the Dolores story is looking at the McPhee reservoir, built in the mid-’80s. When you look at a river in term of its natural state and how it has been severely altered by infrastructure and impoundments, the Dolores is just the poster child example of that, unfortunately. And also, water quality issues. Mining is a large water quality issue in that area. We’re seeing pollution from uranium tailings and other runoff from old mines at the headwaters. The dam itself is not just impacting flows, but the flows are so altered that it impacts the water quality in terms of changes in the water temperature, changes in sediments.

Water Deeply: The Yampa was the best rated and got an A. Why did it get such a good grade and how does it differ from the Dolores?

Green: To sum it up, the Yampa is at the other end of the spectrum from the Dolores in terms of how much the river has been altered from its natural state. If you look at flows on the river, historically versus now, they’re fairly unaltered.

Water Deeply: Were you surprised at the grades that these rivers got?

Green: I wouldn’t say that I was surprised. It was certainly interesting to see some of the breakdown and the data, and particularly some of the water quality factors.

On the one hand I think this report is accurate and sheds light on what the situation is, but the flip side is these are absolutely areas that can be improved and protected and are still incredible.

Water Deeply: Is there anything else that you would like to say?

Green: I just want to underscore that we really do look at this report as providing an exciting opportunity, hopefully, to take action, restore and conserve our rivers. The hope is that, as more folks understand the issues that [the rivers] face, we’re equipped to advocate for them.

This report is meant to be encouraging and serve as an educational tool for the average person, non-water-wonk, here in Colorado. And ultimately we hope that folks feel that these rivers are an incredible resource, and that we have opportunities to protect them and that these challenges are just the first step to making real gains toward meeting all of our water needs here in Colorado.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Kristin Green’s job title as Front Range field manager at Conservation Colorado. In fact,  her current  job title at Conservation Colorado is water advocate.

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