COLORADO — For around 40 million people, from Wyoming to California, their water comes from Colorado. Studies have shown the Colorado River is sensitive to recent warming trends and drought and water levels are dropping as a result. A new project spearheaded by the non-profit organization, Colorado Water Trust, hopes to boost water levels and the health of the river.
“More and more frequently it appears that our rivers are in need, particularly in late summer months and early fall months,” said Kate Ryan.
Ryan is the project manager for this Colorado Water Trust 15-Mile Reach project.
“The Colorado Water Trust is a non-profit organization that works statewide on projects to restore to Colorado’s rivers in need. We were founded back in 2001,” Ryan said.
This project will focus on an important stretch of the river, called the 15-Mile Reach, where they’ve seen a startling trend. This stream segment begins just east of Grand Junction and ends where the Gunnison River merges with the Colorado River.
“Their target for the river was just over 800 cfs. For much of the end of July, August, September flows in the 15-Mile Reach were about half of that. So they were really, really low,” Ryan said.
As water levels dwindle, this project aims to turn the tide.
“In Colorado, you can only use water if it’s been approved in water court for specific purposes. And so we look for water upstream that’s been approved in water court for power generation. And we deliver it down to the Grand Valley Power Plant,” Ryan added. “That power plant returns the water, without having consumed any of it, back to the river at the head of the 15-Mile Reach where it has great benefits for streamflow and the endangered fish.”
After the water runs through the plant, it continues on to the 15-Mile Reach. This project boosts water for agriculture, keeping four endangered fish species under water, all while generating clean power.
“We end up collaborating with farmers and ranchers, we help flows that they can rely on, and we work with towns and cities to maximize their use of water,” said Ryan. “The way this project is organized we can be very responsive to what the river needs during a given year.”
Among the ongoing drought and historic wildfire season, Ryan said 2020 was a busy year for the organization. Since flows in the 15-Mile Reach were running so low, Colorado Water Trust stepped up. They released enough water to fill around 600 Olympic size swimming pools back into the river.
“2020 was quite different. The flows in the Colorado River, despite a healthy snowpack and really robust season of runoff, dropped in July and August. We ended up delivering almost 1200 acre feet of water, which is almost 390 million gallons of water.”
This 15-Mile Reach project is even reeling in help from outside Colorado, collaborating to keep the Colorado River running.
“We at the water trust have received funding from Coca Cola, Intel Corporation, Coors Seltzer. So we’re getting all this private money from corporations to purchase water to deliver to the 15-mile reach,” said Ryan.