Here’s a guest column from Beau Kiklis writing in The Pueblo Chieftain:
My organization, Conservation Colorado, just released a report card that looks at the state of our rivers and how we can work to protect them. In it, we evaluate and grade the health of eight major rivers in Colorado, based on factors including water quality, the presence of dams and how much water is diverted out of the river and sent to be used elsewhere.
Here in the Arkansas River Basin, the Arkansas River received a “C” grade, meaning it is in mediocre condition and needs our attention.
The Arkansas River Basin is the largest basin in Colorado, making up nearly a third of the state’s total land area. Cities including Pueblo and Colorado Springs are located in the basin and get their water from this critically important river.
A tributary to the Mississippi River, the Arkansas is born from snowmelt high in the rugged Sawatch Mountains above Leadville. It serves several states as it cascades east and eventually spills into the Gulf of Mexico. The wild upper section of the Arkansas River is famous for containing Colorado’s longest stretch of gold medal trout fishing waters, spectacular scenery and thrilling whitewater boating opportunities through the Numbers and Browns Canyon National Monument.
However, up in the mountain headwaters, human impacts have marred this river, mainly due to pollution from the area’s more than 150-year legacy of hardrock mining. Mining pollution taints the water quality in the Arkansas and while various remediation and clean-up efforts have improved the river from its previous state of poor water quality, the work is not done — many abandoned mine sites continue to pollute the river today.
While much of the upper stretch of river has improved over time, the lower Arkansas faces its own unique challenges, mainly the need to provide water for the bustling cities of Pueblo and Colorado Springs, as well as an established agricultural economy. Today, the Arkansas River Basin has the second-highest percentage of urban and commercial water use in the state, leaving farmers downstream struggling to irrigate their crops with limited water.
As the trend of urban growth prevails, it is critical that we manage our water with the future of our agricultural and recreational economies in mind. Consider this: average flows on the Arkansas River have decreased by 17 percent over the last 10 years. While this cannot be attributed to any one thing, it would be hard not to point to the cities outside of the Arkansas River Basin that buy up agricultural water rights to meet their own demands. When water is moved outside of the basin, it contributes heavily to decreasing river flows.
Luckily, the Arkansas River is an excellent example of how collaboration and innovation can provide solutions to the issues facing our rivers.
For example, some Arkansas River irrigators are choosing to take part in water conservation programs and are advocating for even more tools to improve flexibility for sharing and leasing their water without compromising their water rights. These new ideas avoid drying up farmland and help our water supply go further. And it can stretch even further if cities and towns also work to improve the efficiency of their own water use.
It’s important to note that recreation and tourism contribute $1 billion to the economy of the Arkansas River Basin every year and therefore we should put time and effort into fostering them.
Out of the eight rivers we assessed in our report card, only one received an “A” grade, while four received a grade of “C” or less. In short, our Colorado rivers face significant challenges, but there are many ways that we can make a difference for them. If we work together to save water, prioritize safe drinking water, and implement innovative policy solutions, we can ensure a future where our rivers are clean and flowing.