KUNC reporter Luke Runyon discusses drought conditions of Colorado River

Ty Betts

A map of the Colorado River likely shows a solid blue line stretching from northern Colorado across the southwest and into the Pacific Ocean. However, as Luke Runyon noted, for the last 100 miles, there isn’t actually any water.

Luke Runyon at LSC
Luke Runyon points to the upper basin of the Colorado River while talking about snowmelt. (Devin Cornelius | Collegian)

Runyon, who covers topics related to the Colorado River basin as a reporter for northern Colorado radio station 91.5 KUNC, led a discussion Wednesday in the Lory Student Center about the state of the Colorado River and the people who depend on it.

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“We’re in a drought and we’ve been in a drought for 18 years,” Runyon said. “It’s not getting better, and there is more and more reason to think that this is the new normal.”

2018 in particular is shaping up to be an extremely low year for snowpack, Runyon said, which means less water will be available to the seven U.S. states and Mexico who all pull from the Colorado River. Runyon said 2002 was the driest year ever recorded for the Colorado River basin, and this year is only slightly above those levels.

Research from the Natural Resource Conservation Service shows that Colorado is only at 66 percent of average snowpack for 2018.

“People say we could maybe make (snowfall) up in months like April and May but at this point, it would take some pretty crazy snowstorms to make up that deficit,” Runyon said.

As water level decreases, policy will have to be reshaped to define who is entitled to what. Runyon said the rights to water for the Colorado River is comprised of more than a hundred years of agreements, legislation, compacts and treaties that collectively dictate how we use the river. Most notable is the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

“This is the big crowning jewel of the law of the river,” Runyon said. “Every update we get is an update to the Colorado River Compact.”

This compact guarantees both the upper and lower basin states 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year. Runyon said the biggest user of this water is currently California.

States will surely have to adapt in the case that snowmelt does not provide enough water to the Colorado River. One way this could happen is by reducing water as homeowners. Runyon said this could include buyback programs where cities pay homeowners who reduce the size of their yards.

Saving water could also come in the form of reshaping agricultural practices.

“There are lots of programs to pay farmers to put in drip irrigation,” Runyon said.

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As for Colorado, Runyon said the state could be doing more in terms of conserving water.

“In Colorado, there have been a lot of people who have said we’re probably not doing enough to encourage conservation within cities,” Runyon said. “If you look at other programs in more desert communities, they’ve gone above and beyond.”

The effects of Colorado’s water usage and continued drought can be seen in places like Lake Mead.

Lake Mead, which is fed by the Colorado River, rests behind the Hoover Dam and can be an indicator of the lower basin’s water supply. Runyon described a bathtub-like ring around the lake where the water level used to be.

“I remember visiting Hoover Dam when it was really full. Standing up on the dam, the water was right there – if you jumped over you’d be fine,” Runyon said. “If you jumped over now, you would not be fine.”

Collegian news reporter Ty Betts can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @TyBetts9.