From the valleys of the West Slope, Colorado rivers are a cornerstone of our communities, economy, environment, and shared way of life. However, our state’s landlocked status means that the rivers’ water isn’t naturally accessible for a lot of Colorado communities; most often, we have to bring the water to us. Snowpack melts from mountain peaks and irrigates through tunnels and pipes to reach communities throughout the state. Water, as a seasonal and limited resource, is increasingly scarce as snowpack peaks earlier and warm temperatures arrive earlier.

Learn more about how water travels from mountain tops to our taps in our latest edition of “Conservation Chats.”

Despite the fact that Colorado is home to some of the best water recreation opportunities in the West, we’re facing a prolonged drought — and all the environmental issues associated with it.

Consequently, many Colorado rivers aren’t in great shape. The damaging effects of climate change and lingering impacts of overuse, poor management, and energy development continue to devastate our water supplies.

Summer after summer, our rivers seem to be shrinking. However, something about this summer is remarkably different. Currently, abnormally dry conditions are impacting approximately 4,023,000 Coloradans — about 80% of the state’s population.

Let’s look at a few of the rivers across the state to reflect on the past and what our new normal may look like.

Hold On: How Do We Measure Water?


We use the measurement of cubic feet per second (cfs) to measure water in motion. One cfs represents 7.5 gallons of water flowing by a particular point per second.

Imagine one unit of cfs as roughly the size of a basketball. So when we say a river has 449 cubic feet per second, imagine about 449 basketballs bouncing downstream every second!

Colorado River


Image Credit: Don Graham.

Glenwood Canyon:

Flows on July 23, 2018: 2190 cfs

Average flows on July 23 over the last 51 years: 4270 cfs

That’s over 2000 cfs less than the past average; that’s roughly 51 percent less than the average.

Also known as the “American Nile,” the Colorado River supplies more water for Coloradans than any other river in the state through pipelines from the West Slope to the Front Range. As one of the southwest’s most utilized bodies of water, the Colorado River is also one of the most vulnerable to increasing demand and the long-lasting impacts of climate change. Decreasing flows, increased evaporation resulting from higher temperatures, and dwindling snowpack levels continue to increase the gap between supply and demand.

Yampa River


The confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers

Deerlodge Park:

Flows on July 23, 2018: 98.1 cfs

Average flows on July 23 over the last 33 years: 914 cfs

That’s over 800 cfs less than the past average; that’s roughly 10 percent of the average amount of water.

The Yampa River remains as the last major free-flowing tributary to the Colorado River, the backbone of the West’s water supply. As the Colorado River continues to get exhausted from increasing demand, the Yampa is emerging as a source to meet growing water demands. There have been a number of proposals over the years to dam and divert water from the Yampa to send it to thirsty cities east of the Continental Divide, which would be a disaster for one of the West’s last wild rivers.

Dolores River


Image credit: Gabe Kiritz

Near Bedrock, CO:

Flows on July 23, 2018: 6.04 cfs

Average flows on July 23 over the last 34 years: 93 cfs

That’s less than the past average; that’s roughly 6.5 percent of the average amount of water.

The Dolores River has faced numerous challenges over the years, including dams, high water demands, mining pollution, and climate change. This river is severely threatened, recently scoring a D- on our Colorado Rivers Report Card. However, recent local efforts to revitalize the water have helped build a drumbeat to reinvigorate one of the most unknown and underappreciated rivers in the state.

The steps we take now to protect and improve our rivers will determine the viability — and future — of Colorado’s water. More importantly, what we do now will determine if we have healthy rivers and enough drinking water in the future.

Written by Audrey Wheeler

A year ago, we reported on the West Elk Coal Mine, a highly contested mine in Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest. At that time, we and many other Coloradans were concerned about Arch Coal’s proposal to expand its coal mine, which would destroy 1,720 acres of forest.

Now, those concerns have become reality. Just two weeks ago, the Trump administration’s Forest Service announced that it is forging ahead with a plan to allow the company to expand the mine. If approved, this decision will cause irreparable harm on the national forest in more ways than one.

To take a step back, the West Elk coal mine is located in western Colorado, north of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It’s an extremely controversial mine for a variety of reasons, including its location inside a roadless area of a national forest, its exemption from a new moratorium on coal leasing, and the fact that it is owned by formerly bankrupt company Arch Coal. But perhaps the most disturbing issue is the air pollution that it already causes, which would increase if the mine expands.

Mount Gunnison towering over the Sunset Roadless Area. The aspen forests on the right would be damaged by the mine expansion. Photo by Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice.

The West Elk mine has already been the single largest source of methane pollution in Colorado, spewing 58,000 tons of methane into the air every year. Methane — an immensely potent greenhouse gas — has more than 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide, and is a major contributor to climate pollution.

Although Colorado has some of the strongest rules in the nation for methane pollution from oil and gas activity, as the Colorado Independent reports, “Unlike methane from oil and gas drilling, coal mine methane remains unregulated at both state and federal levels.” The proposed expansion to the coal mine could mean emitting enough methane to negate half of the emissions prevented by Colorado’s methane rules for oil and gas.

Plus, under Arch Coal’s plan, more than six miles of forest will be bulldozed for roads and up to 48 drilling pads will be built in the Sunset Roadless Area, which connects to the West Elk Wilderness. The area is a rolling landscape of aspen and spruce-fir forests that provide habitat for native black bear, elk, lynx, and cutthroat trout.

The actions by the Trump administration to move forward with this mine expansion are even more disturbing because of how they deal with the impacts of government projects on climate change. Previously, government environmental reviews like this had to take into account the impact of the project on climate change. Now, the Forest Service claims that calculating climate impacts is not an “appropriate tool at the project level” and is “no longer representative of governmental policy.” This comes out of a Trump executive order that disbanded the agency working group associated with it.

Hikers in the Sunset Roadless area near the West Elk mine. Photo by Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice.

The Forest Service wants to give Arch Coal access to more than 17 million tons of coal — but at what cost? The West Elk Mine already has over a decade of coal in reserve, and this decision not only ignores the economic realities that face the coal industry, but it generates even more greenhouse gas emissions, further exacerbating climate change. Coal has been central to the local economy in this area for generation, but this coal mine expansion is a bad idea for the forest and for our climate.

The negative consequences of expanding the West Elk Coal Mine and the damage it would cause to our national forest are obvious. The U.S. Forest Service is asking the public to weigh in on this problematic West Elk Coal Mine expansion. Take action today to send a message to the administration that we value our public lands too much to watch them be destroyed. Follow this link to sign a petition to the Forest Service.

This one decision could destroy aspen groves, displace native wildlife, and vent methane pollution into our air. It’s a sign of what to expect under the Trump administration in terms of our public lands — and it’s up to us to stop it.

Cover image: The West Elk Mine. Image from WildEarth Guardians flickr.