Colorado

River Stakeholders

Colorado's Colorado River Water Use Highlights:

Colorado's Colorado River Water Use:

From the 2023 Annual Report – View Full Report Here ⟶

Like the other states in the Colorado River Basin, Colorado was fortunate to receive above- average precipitation and water supplies in 2023.

A string of winter storms brought much-needed moisture to locations throughout the Colorado River Basin and its tributaries, providing the region with a brief reprieve after years of below- normal conditions and allowing reservoirs to recover from lower levels in 2021 and 2022.

“While we never fully know what the future may hold, so far Water Year 2023 has been a welcome reprieve from the previous three years with above normal snowpack, precipitation and streamflow runoff across much of the state,” according to a June 1 report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The snowstorms of spring transformed into summer rainstorms that continued to help river conditions throughout 2023. That moisture also helped to limit the ignition of wildfires that have had such a major effect on the watershed.

The region continues to face the long-term challenges of climate change-induced aridification, however, with much of the state returning to drought conditions as of October 2023.

On the policy front, Colorado was active in 2023.

In January, the Colorado Water Conservation Board approved its update to the Colorado Water Plan. The plan serves as a framework for collaborative efforts to address planning and was created through extensive input from stakeholders throughout the state. The update to the original 2015 Colorado Water Plan includes four main focus areas, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board: Vibrant Communities, Robust Agriculture, Thriving Watersheds and Resilient Planning.

The Colorado Water Plan is available for download at cwcb.colorado.gov/colorado-water-plan.

In addition, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation in 2023, signed by the governor into law, to create a Colorado River Drought Task Force. The task force met starting in July to provide recommendations to the General Assembly for “programs to assist in addressing drought in the Colorado River Basin and the state’s interstate commitments related to the Colorado River and its tributaries.” Recommendations will be referred to the 2024 session of the Colorado General Assembly.

Several projects affecting the Colorado River made significant progress in 2023.

In the Upper Colorado River Basin, construction crews neared completion of the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, a channel that will divert water from the Colorado River around Windy Gap Reservoir near Granby, move the water in a river- like channel around the reservoir and return it to the Colorado River below the Windy Gap Dam. It will allow the passage of fish and macroinvertebrates from above and below the reservoir and will allow the transportation of sediments around the reservoir as well. This long-sought project, part of the construction program for the Windy Gap Firming Project, will be substantially complete in 2024.

In 2023, a project to bring high-quality water from the Colorado River Basin to communities in the Arkansas River Basin received significant financial support from federal, state and local sources. The Arkansas Valley Conduit will fulfill long-term goals of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project by offering direct delivery, via pipeline, of water from Pueblo Reservoir to communities in southeastern Colorado.

Across Colorado’s Western Slope, water managers benefited from Water Year 2023’s additional moisture, adding flexibility to collaborative reservoir releases from Granby, Green Mountain, Wolford, and Ruedi Reservoirs to benefit important reaches for Colorado’s Endangered Fish and agricultural producers.

Despite optimism early in 2020 regarding the Colorado snowpack, dry soils and declining precipitation thrust the state into drought conditions by the end of spring. After a dry summer and an absence of seasonal monsoon moisture, the U.S. Drought Monitor indicated the entire state was in some level of drought by September, with much of Colorado in severe drought or worse.

Those dry conditions helped to create the conditions for significant wildfires in Colorado, especially in the Colorado River basin.

The Pine Gulch fire north of Grand Junction began on July 31 and consumed more than 139,000 acres, at the time making it the largest wildfire in recorded history in Colorado. Of great concern, the Grizzly Creek fire erupted on Aug. 10 along Glenwood Canyon east of Glenwood Springs. It consumed more than 32,000 acres directly in the Colorado River watershed and will have water quality impacts for communities such as Glenwood Springs for years to come. The Williams Fork fire began Aug. 14 and consumed more than 14,000 acres in the Upper Colorado River watershed. The Cameron Peak fire in Northern Colorado consumed more than 208,000 acres, which overtook the Pine Gulch fire as the state’s largest. While the fire has occurred in the Cache la Poudre River watershed, it will affect the water supplies of communities that also draw on Colorado River water via the Colorado-Big Thompson Project and the Windy Gap Project.

Most significantly, the East Troublesome fire ignited Oct. 14 in the Upper Colorado River basin. A combination of extreme weather and dry fuels created conditions for explosive growth, and in a short period the fire consumed more than 194,000 acres. That includes portions of the watershed directly above the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which supplies water to more than 1 million people and more than 600,000 acres of irrigated agriculture.

As those conditions continued to develop in Colorado, however, several significant developments were achieved among the stakeholders of the Colorado River.

After more than a decade of work, a group of stakeholders crafted an agreement to protect the outstandingly remarkable values of the Colorado River through the central portion of the state.

The Upper Colorado River Wild and Scenic Alternative Management Plan Stakeholder Group began its work in 2007 with individual stakeholders representing state agencies, local governments, environmental groups, recreational interests, landowners and water providers to develop an alternative to a potential federal Wild and Scenic River designation.

The stakeholder group’s alternative management plan was approved by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in late June. With the approval, a long stretch of river from near Kremmling to Glenwood Springs will be protected with an emphasis on recreational boating and fishing.

Elsewhere, the Arkansas Valley Conduit received $28 million in federal appropriations in February, and authorization for $100 million in state financing in June. The AVC will provide fresh drinking water from Pueblo Reservoir to 50,000 people served by 40 water providers in the Lower Arkansas River basin. The area is economically disadvantaged and groundwater supplies are brackish and contaminated. The AVC was first authorized in 1962 as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, which is managed by Reclamation and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Construction is expected to cost $540 million to $610 million and be complete in 2035.

Other project milestones in Colorado included the advancement of Gross Reservoir Enlargement Project via an order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and continued development of the Windy Gap Firming Project in the Upper Colorado River Basin.