water

Jake Brownell / 91.5 KRCC

 

At a two-day forum held by the EPA in Colorado Springs, local water officials, state health representatives, and residents of El Paso County called on the agency to take action to regulate a group of potentially toxic chemicals known as PFAS (also called PFCs). The chemicals have been linked to certain cancers and other illnesses, and were detected above safe levels in drinking water in Security, Widefield, and Fountain in 2016. Authorities believe the contamination came from PFAS-containing firefighting foams long used in training exercises at Peterson Air Force base.

Throughout the Western U.S., water conservation is in the toilet.

And that’s a good thing.

Stand near a river and you’ll hear a symphony of sounds: birds chirping, frogs croaking and water flowing. But what would it sound like if the stream itself could be transformed into classical music?

David Merritt, a Colorado-based researcher and musician, is helping answer that question by turning river data into music to hear how we’ve changed rivers throughout the West.


Brooks Kelly stopped at a display of smart sprinkler-system controllers.

"This 6-station timer — it's got a rebate," said Kelly, who works the plumbing aisle at the St. George Home Depot. "You buy it [and the] Washington County water district gives a $99 credit to your water bill. So, this is free."

Steve Johnson / Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Westerners in many states are using less water.  However that’s not the case in the Mountain West. In Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, home usage went up; in Montana it stayed the same. Experts say these figures are based less on population growth and more on state water policies.

We're In Drought. So Why Can We Still Water Our Lawns?

Jul 24, 2018
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Smoke-filled skies. Record-breaking heat. Brittle forestland closed to the public. And yet, for some Colorado residents conserving water remains optional, even as the state grapples with widespread drought and wildfire. 

There's a cycle that starts when the snow melts and the earth thaws high in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. It's a seasonal cycle based on timing and temperature, two variables that climate change is pushing increasingly out of sync.

To the outsider, it can be hard to see: Plants still grow, flowers bud, bears awake, and marmots breed. Broad-tailed hummingbirds still trill around a landscape that evokes the opening scene of The Sound of Music, with flowery meadows and granite peaks.

It’s early in the morning and Juli Scamardo is in chest waders, guiding me through a beaver meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“These are like mazes,” she says. “It’s hard to get through a meadow and know where you’re going.”

Until fairly recently, it was illegal to harvest rainwater in Colorado. Now, as in a number of other Western states, it’s seen as alternative water source in an increasingly dry landscape. But is rainwater safe?

Sybil Sharvelle, an environmental engineer at Colorado State University, is one researcher trying to answer that question.

Reservoirs that store water along the Colorado River are projected to be less than half full later this year, potentially marking a historic low mark for the river system that supplies water to seven U.S. states and Mexico.

Forecasters with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expect the river’s reservoirs -- Lakes Mead and Powell among them -- to be at a combined 48 percent of capacity by the end of September. That would be one of the lowest points ever for the combined water storage.

The effects of climate change are already being felt at the headwaters of the West’s most important river system, according to a study released earlier this year.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization compiled the latest science on climate change in the Colorado River headwaters in a report titled Climate Change in the Headwater: Water and Snow Impacts (PDF), presented to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments in February.

A warm spring has already melted much of the limited snowpack that sits high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in southern Colorado. Water is already flowing through the ditches near the rural village of San Pablo.

It’s 9 a.m. on a windy Saturday morning. Every now and then Dan Quintana -- in weathered work gloves and a ball cap -- raises up his shovel and slams it into the mud and matted willows that line the waterway that runs through his hay fields. His slight frame makes it easy for him to jump across the narrow ditch.

Jake Brownell / 91.5 KRCC


Peak Curiosity is a community-driven reporting series from 91.5 KRCC. We ask listeners to submit their questions about the Pikes Peak region and Southern Colorado, and then we answer them. Scroll down to the bottom of this post to submit your question!

The federal agency that oversees water in the West says southwestern states are facing an increasing risk of water shortages. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is now adding pressure to stalled talks over the Colorado River’s future.

Without action from states that rely on the river, there’s a 52 percent chance the Colorado River will be in an official shortage in 2020, according to figures compiled last month. Arizona and Nevada would be among the first to take cutbacks during a shortage. An extended drought and chronic overuse have sapped the river’s largest reservoirs.

2018 wasn't the worst winter on record for the southern Rocky Mountain region, but it was close to it.

“It was an extreme year on the dry side, widespread across the Colorado River Basin,” says Greg Smith, a hydrologist at the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) in Salt Lake City.

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.

A quiet, rising tension over water in the southwest has burst into the public square.

Agencies that manage and dole out the Colorado River’s water in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are attempting to publicly shame an increasingly isolated water agency in Arizona. The feud has the potential to either upset, or reignite, negotiations over the river’s future.

Jake Brownell / 91.5 KRCC

It’s been nearly two years since residents in southern El Paso County learned their drinking water contained potentially unsafe levels of chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs (also referred to as PFAS). The chemicals were long used in products ranging from non-stick pans to industrial fire fighting foams, and they’ve been linked in recent years to certain cancers and other health conditions.

Ohio-based attorney Rob Bilott has been working on cases related to PFC contamination since the late 90s, and is credited with helping to bring the issue to light nationally through his litigation in West Virginia. He’s not affiliated with a local lawsuit against manufacturers of the PFC-containing firefighting foams thought to be responsible for contamination in the Widefield aquifer, but he’ll be speaking about the issue at Mesa Ridge High School in Widefield on Tuesday, 4/17, at 7 p.m.

From the roof of Chuck McAfee’s adobe farmhouse in rural southwestern Colorado, you can see into three other states: Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Mountain peaks are just barely visible above the horizon.

Even though this part of Montezuma County is considered the high desert, it’s common for these grass and sagebrush hills to be snow-covered into spring. This year they’re bare, and have been since last winter.

The Colorado River Basin is likely to see one of its driest spring runoff seasons on record this year, according to federal forecasters.

Scientists at the Salt Lake City-based Colorado Basin River Forecast Center say current snowpack conditions are set to yield the sixth-lowest recorded runoff into Lake Powell since the lake was filled more than 50 years ago.

In parched states like Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, water is a big issue, especially with growing populations that constantly need more and more. But there’s a big question: How do we accurately forecast the amount of water that will be available any given year? It’s not easy. But some Colorado scientists think they’re onto a possible solution -- inspired by Pokemon.

Western governors want to see more federal action to combat tiny but destructive creatures: invasive mussels.

A quagga mussel is only about the size of your thumbnail. But when the little mollusk reproduces en masse, it can wreak havoc on agriculture and lake tourism.

The humpback chub, a fish native to the Colorado River and considered endangered since 1967, has turned a corner.

In a recent analysis, scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say the chub’s five distinct populations throughout the Colorado River watershed in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona are stable enough to reclassify the fish as threatened rather than endangered.

Photo by Sierra Coon / Canyonlands National Park

Many are calling it far-fetched, but a mountain west entrepreneur is reviving a proposal to draw water from Utah's Green River and funnel it to Colorado's growing and drought-prone Front Range. The pipeline would move billions of gallons of water across hundreds of miles from Utah through Wyoming and down into Colorado.

Jim Mone / AP

 

Manufacturing and chemical giant 3M will pay $850 million to settle a lawsuit with the state of Minnesota over groundwater contaminated with Perfluorinated Compounds, or PFCs. 3M is also one of several companies named in a lawsuit over PFC contamination identified in El Paso County drinking water in 2016.

In 2014, the Colorado River did something it hadn’t done in decades. For a few short weeks that spring, the overdrawn, overallocated river reached the Pacific Ocean.

Instead of diverting the river’s last bit of water toward farm fields, the final dam on the Colorado River at the Mexican border lifted, and water inundated nearly 100 miles of the dry riverbed. It was called the pulse flow, meant to mimic a spring flood.


This winter in the southern Rocky Mountains is shaping up to be one for the record books. And not in a good way.

Parts of the West are currently experiencing one of the driest and warmest winters on record. Snowpack is far below normal levels in southern Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and California, leaving some to worry about this year’s water supply.


National Resources Conservation Service / www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov

Southern Colorado progressed from abnormally dry to moderate drought this week, according to the latest data from the US Drought Monitor. This comes as the region -- like the rest of the state -- is also seeing unusually low snowpack.

When you’ve held on to something valuable for a long time, it can be hard to choose to give it up. When that something is water, it’s even harder — especially in the desert southwest.

But that’s the reality facing water managers in the lower stretches of the Colorado River, a lifeline for farms and cities in the country’s driest regions.

Pull out a map of the United States’ desert southwest and see if you can locate these rivers: Rio del Tizon, Rio San Rafael, or Rio Zanguananos. How about rivers named Tomichi, Nah-Un-Kah-Rea or Akanaquint?

Having some trouble? None of these names are used widely today, but at some point in the last 500 years they were used to label portions of what we know now as the Colorado River and its main tributaries, the sprawling river basin that supports 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, across one of the world’s driest regions.

Until 1921, the Colorado River didn’t start in the state that bears the same name. It began in Utah, where the Green River from Wyoming and the Grand River from Colorado met. The story of how the Colorado River finally wended its way into the state of Colorado less than a century ago is a lesson in just how fickle our attitudes toward nature can be.

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