After the lean snow year, we were all getting a bit nervous about what water levels might look like later this summer. But then the rains came. And boy, did they come. It rained. It poured. We all celebrated and then it rained some more.
We saw that moisture here in the Eagle Valley, but the Front Range was hit even harder. In fact, in Colorado Springs, May was the wettest month on record with 8.13 inches of rain.
What does that mean for river flows on our side of the mountain this summer? And most importantly, are we out of the drought?
Moving Water East
To answer, we need to talk briefly about how the trans-mountain diversion systems work. In Colorado, there are 27 diversions that pull 580,000 acre feet of water from rivers on the Western Slope and deliver it through a vast and complicated series of ditches, reservoirs and tunnels to the Front Range. One acre foot is equivalent to a football field covered with one foot of water, so as you can imagine, there is a lot of water moving eastward. After all, 80 percent of the state’s water falls on this side of the Continental Divide, while 90 percent of the people and almost 75 percent of the irrigated acres in our state are on the East Slope.
Each of the diversion systems is different, but let’s look at the biggest one, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Water is collected in Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain and Willow Creek Reservoirs and Lake Granby (also a man-made reservoir despite the name). Pumps and gravity then move the water through the system and ultimately through the 13-mile-long Alva B Adams Tunnel, which runs underneath Rocky Mountain National Park. By the time the water reaches its destination on the East Slope, it has traveled through as many as 12 reservoirs, 35 miles of tunnels, 95 miles of canals and seven hydroelectric power plants.
There are many East Slope water providers involved in the various trans-mountain diversions, and each manages their system differently. Some deliver water from their reservoirs to the Front Range on an on-going basis, while others choose to concentrate the delivery in the winter and early spring so that reservoir levels can be restored with the spring runoff.
Rivers are High
The late runoff and heavy spring rains mean that our rivers are higher than usual; our reservoirs are at, near, or, in some cases, even above capacity; and little water is being diverted east. This will likely continue until late summer or early fall when the diversions will return to their normal levels. In the meantime, our local rivers will certainly benefit from the above average flows.
The Big Picture
Unfortunately, though, what we are experiencing in the headwaters of the Colorado River is not playing out in the headwaters of the Green and San Juan Rivers, which both join the Colorado River downstream in Utah. As a matter of fact, both those rivers are well below average. The headwaters region of the Colorado River is just one piece of the puzzle, and when we look outside of our borders, we are still in a prolonged and sustained dry period of historic proportions.
Downstream from us sits Lake Powell and beyond it Lake Mead. Water levels at Lake Powell have seen an uptick from the runoff (from 47 percent of normal inflow to 70 percent), but the same information for Mead has not yet been reported. Regardless, it is predicted that the first-ever federal declaration of a shortage on the Colorado River will be declared in 2017. This has major environmental, political and economic implications.
Although our unusually wet spring should be celebrated, we have to remain conscious of the fact that the drought isn’t over. It took years of drought for reservoir levels to drop to this point and it will take more than one wet spring to get us out.
Lucky for us, there are solutions to this problem that don’t simply involve rain dances. We can make real changes through water conservation measures. We all must look to more conservative landscaping, encourage our leaders to implement water-sensitive land-use planning, and simply stay engaged in this very important conversation.
Holly Loff is the Executive Director for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.
This article ran in the Vail Daily on June 17, 2015.