Casper: Wyoming Water Association conference, “Currents in Wyoming Water,” October 16-18, 2019

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

From the Wyoming Water Development Commission (Anne MacKinnon) via The Rock Springs Rocket Miner:

The Wyoming Water Association is holding a conference in Casper over three days, from the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 16, to mid-day Friday, Oct. 18. Titled “Currents in Wyoming Water,” the conference will provide detail on an array of important water issues.

Water ties us all together – and makes us interdependent in ways we may not always recognize – as it moves through our landscape and our lives.

Towns, agriculture, power plants, oil and gas production, trona processing plants, coal mines, recreation and tourism all involve water. Sessions at this conference will introduce newcomers and update old hands on issues such as how to work with an irrigation district that has landowners with small acreage, how to get drought information, and how cities put together their water supply portfolio.

Thursday morning, there will be a panel discussing how the right to water is sometimes moved from one use to another in Wyoming – often, only temporarily, and sometimes quite informally. Many considerations are required in such a change, since other users up and down a stream could be affected. People with experience in such arrangements will lay out a variety of examples for the audience.

Agriculture uses most of the water used in Wyoming, but a good portion of the water in our streams flows to and supports people and economies in other states. That means Wyoming works with other states on the rivers we share.

Issues on the Colorado River, whose headwaters include the Green and Little Snake Rivers in Wyoming, are increasingly intriguing these days. The portion of the river in the southwestern U.S., in particularly, has seen nearly 20-year drought. Problems due to drought can ripple back up the river to headwaters states like Wyoming. Colorado River issues will get a whole afternoon of discussion on Wednesday from the Wyoming Commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission, former State Engineer Pat Tyrrell.

Gov. Mark Gordon will address the water issues he finds most important at a luncheon Thursday, and former Wyoming Water Development Director Mike Purcell (now a member of the Water Development Commission), will provide his long-term perspective on water at the conference banquet Thursday evening.

Friday morning will close the conference with updates by a roster of representatives from many of the agencies, state and federal, that deal with water in Wyoming: the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, the Wyoming Water Development Office, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission, the Wyoming State Geologic Survey, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The conference presents a wide range of issues that will help us all understand more about water in Wyoming. Registration is available at http://www.wyomingwater.org. There’s a significant fee for the conference; lawyers and engineers who attend can get continuing education credits. College classes or individual college students can attend for free, except for meals.

For those who want to hear more detail about Colorado River issues, University of Wyoming Extension in assistance to the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office is putting on a series of free and open public meetings on evenings in early November in locations central to the various Wyoming communities that use Colorado River water. Each meeting runs from 6 to 8 pm:

Monday, Nov. 4, Pinedale, Rendezvous Pointe Senior Center

Tuesday, Nov. 5, Green River, Sweetwater County Library

Wednesday, Nov. 6, Baggs, Little Snake River Conservation District Office

Thursday, Nov. 7, Cheyenne, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, South Gathering Room

Anne MacKinnon is a former member of the Wyoming Water Development Commission, and an adjunct professor at the University of Wyoming where she is currently part of an extension team assisting the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office with public outreach on Colorado River issues.

#YampaRiver: Water year recap

From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

This water year was marked by above-average snowpack, a spring of precipitation at or near average and a summer that turned drier and, at least anecdotally, windier than average late in the season.

Cool spring temperatures melted snowpack off slowly, giving irrigators time to use that water before it flowed passed. The river ran high and fast at about 1,000 cubic feet per second through Steamboat Springs from the time the snow started melting in late April until early July, according to U.S. Geological Survey data recorded at the Fifth Street stream gauge. A mix of rain and summer snow on the summer solstice brought the river one of its latest peaks on record at the Fifth Street gauge in downtown Steamboat, flowing at 4,180 cfs on June 21.

This extended the rafting season on the stretch of river through town, but it delayed tubing season until July 15. The river also closed for only a day this summer, when flows fell below 85 cfs on Aug. 29. The city of Steamboat Springs and Tri-State Generation and Transmission released water to increase hydropower production at the dam at Stagecoach Reservoir and boosted flows through town, allowing the river to reopen the following day…

The late runoff was a boon for [Jeff] Meyers, though Erin Light, the Colorado Division of Water Resource’s Division 6 Engineer, said that wasn’t the case across the entire Yampa River basin.

“Some areas did really well, and other areas seemed like all the snow just soaked right into the ground,” Light said. “It would certainly make sense that would occur, given how dry we were the previous year, that a lot of snow just soaked right into the ground. That definitely was a factor in some areas.”

Meyers said the snow-soaked ground helped his pastures recoup from a hot, dry summer in 2018.

“Of course, it’s not just the hay crop, but it’s also the pastures,” he said. “After 2018, they really needed a break, and they got one. This year was really great that way.”

A winter thick with snow and a spring full of rain broke a 20-year streak of drought conditions in the state of Colorado, though slight rainfall in late summer brought back abnormally dry conditions in late July, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Routt and Moffat counties are currently in abnormally dry conditions, according to the Drought Monitor.

Colorado Drought Monitor October 1, 2019.

#YampaRiver Fund launch

A lovely curve on the Bear River, which is really the headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

On Thursday, Steamboat Resort announced that it plans to donate $500,000 to the Yampa River Fund as a founding donor to the new endowed fund, which will pay for projects to protect the Yampa River’s flow…

The Yampa River Fund will pay for three types of projects aimed at benefiting all water users, from South Routt ranchers to Steamboat rafters to people drinking water from Craig faucets and the endangered fish living in Dinosaur National Monument. This includes leasing water to boost flows in dry years, actions to restore the river health and water infrastructure improvements.

The $500,000 donations will be matched dollar for dollar under a million-dollar matching challenge grant, boosting the amount raised by the money to $1 million…

The Nature Conservancy will lead management of the fund until at least 2021.

Perlman said the resort is “putting their money where its mouth is” in supporting its core values, particularly collaboration and environment. This donation is the largest single cash donation since the resort was founded in 1963. Last week, Steamboat Resort also announced it has created a new department focused on environmental sustainability

The resort will donate $100,000 per year to the fund for the next five years.

Smith said Ski Corp.’s donation “lays a strong foundation for the effort to be successful.” Ski Corp. will participate in the fund’s board of directors and the smaller steering committee that will make funding decisions…

Ski Corp. will join about 20 other local governments, companies and organizations overseeing the fund’s operation. Other entities range from agricultural organizations, such as the Moffat County Cattleman’s Association and Community Agricultural Alliance, to nonprofits, such as the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council and Friends of the Yampa, to businesses, including Smartwool and Tri-State Generation and Transmission…

[Nancy Smith] also noted there’s still $2 million needed to reach organizers’ fundraising goal of $4.75 million over the next five years.

From the Craig Daily Press (Clay Thorp):

On Thursday, Sept. 19, community members gathered in Steamboat Springs for the launch of the Yampa River Fund, an endowed fund that will be used to fund projects to improve river health, protect the water supply, and boost river flow in dry years.

Currently the fund has about $2 million, but organizers plan to build the fund up to $5 million.

The Yampa River Fund specifically directs its money to goals included in several Northwest Colorado river management plans, including those created by the Yampa, White and Green River Basin Roundtable, and many others. These goals include protecting water users on the Yampa from curtailment, finding ways to address water shortages, and keeping water infrastructure up to date.

Another factor that instigated the water fund are the reservoir releases that are becoming a regular occurrence to increase river flow in dry years…

Other signatories that have joined Craig and Moffat County in the fund include the Colorado River District, the Colorado Water Trust, the Community Agriculture Alliance, Friends of the Yampa, Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, Northwest Colorado Chapter of Parrotheads, Routt County, Smartwool, Steamboat Ski Resort, the Nature Conservancy, and the towns of Dinosaur, Hayden, Oak Creek, and Yampa…

The fund would have a steering committee of nine members along with a four-member board and the Nature Conservancy has apparently taken the lead on dispersing the funds. Any decision made on the board must be by unanimous consent, meaning if Moffat County doesn’t agree, it won’t happen…

Craig City Council signed the agreement at their Sept. 10 meeting. The city is interested in using the fund to possibly finance a diversion structure on the Yampa River near Loudy-Simpson park.

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

UW team traces Powell’s historic journey, eyes the future — Wyofile.com #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Looking down on camp at Big Pine, Red Canyon.
The photo shows the SCREE Powell 150 expdition camp at Big Pine Campground in Red Canyon of the Green River, Utah. The large green tarp was set up to keep the kitchen area and campers dry. Two very large ponderosa pines are in the center of camp, and surely were witness to the 1869 Powell expedition. Photo credit SCREE via the USGS.

Here’s a report from Katie Klingsporn writing for Wyofile.com. Click through to read the whole article and for the photos. Here’s an excerpt:

May 24, 2019 was 150 years to the day after a scraggly and ill-prepared outfit led by a one-armed Army major gathered in Green River Station, beside the outpost’s namesake watercourse, and embarked on one of the most significant river expeditions America has ever seen.

On the sesquicentennial anniversary of John Wesley Powell’s historic launch, a new band of river explorers assembled at the site to begin a bold journey down the artery of the American West — the Green and Colorado Rivers.

This time, things looked starkly different. The crew, made up of academics, scientists, educators and artists from the University of Wyoming, was a far cry from the rag-tag band led by Powell. In place of the gallingly ill-suited wooden boats of Powell’s expedition, state-of-the-art 18-foot rubber rafts lined the bank. And, perhaps most notably, this crew came equipped with the tools of modern adventure such as maps, streamflow forecasts and satellite phones. These travelers were, in other words, prepared — not something Powell’s expedition had going for it as the men ventured into what was then a little-understood blank spot on the American map.

Meet UW’s Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition, which set out on that May 2019 day to follow Powell’s arduous journey. Over 70 days and some 1,000 river miles this summer, its members retraced Powell’s route and mimicked other key aspects of his expedition — like collecting scientific data. But theirs was not to be a simple journey into the past. Instead the team set out with an eye toward the future and solutions for the river system’s modern-day problems. In this way, the expedition conducted a study not only of the geology or hydrology of the Colorado River Basin, but of Western economies, policies, climate, public lands and ideologies as they relate to the overtaxed river system…

The inspiration

A century and a half is a mere blip in the life of the Colorado River, but much has changed in its basin since Powell’s expedition. Cities have bloomed in the desert, diversions and pipelines have been built and a complex web of regulations has been written to divvy the water to its 40 million users. What once was a large swath of unknown today encompasses five states, two basin districts, more than a dozen dams and 15 special-management areas. Add to that ever-increasing agricultural and energy development, a nearly two-decade-long drought and wild swings brought by climate change, and the picture of the Colorado River Basin is one of a riverway so overburdened it no longer reaches the sea.

It’s the river’s predicaments that prompted the SCREE trip, Minckley said. A paleo-ecologist, Minckley specializes in Western ecologies and long periods of drought. A few years ago, with the anniversary of Powell’s expedition on the horizon and the quandary of the basin’s water management fresh in his mind, he said, he began thinking about how Powell was one of the first people who took the concern of water in the West seriously…

The takeaways

Spring gave way to summer as the crew wended its way south and west, plunging deeper into the Earth as rock layers climbed above. There were guests aplenty, too many campfires to count, breathtaking vistas and a couple mishaps — a raft flipped in Cataract Canyon, an engine broke down during the slog across Lake Powell.

When the crew arrived at its final destination, the approximate confluence of the Virgin and Colorado rivers (now under Lake Mead) on Aug. 1, it had amassed hours of recorded conversations, pages of notes and drawings, hundreds of scientific samples, many ideas for classroom curriculum and a pile of memories from an unforgettable experience.

One thing the team did not have? The hard-and-fast answer to the Colorado Basin’s perplexing water puzzle. But, Minckley said, they’ve got a good starting place. The next step is to begin analyzing and digesting the information they gathered, while thinking about the most effective ways to move key findings into the public conversation.

@COWaterCongress Annual Summer Conference recap #cwcsc2019

The headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Steamboat Pilot (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

Water leaders from across the state converged on Steamboat Springs this week as part of the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference.

The Colorado Water Congress is a group of people who work and live in water, explained Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger…

In a legislative update, attendees heard about three proposals that could change water management in the state. Reps. Dylan Roberts, Jeni Arndt and Donald Valdez and Sens. Kerry Donovan, Jerry Sonnenberg and Don Coram sat on the panel.

“As somebody who represents Routt County and other Western Slope counties, we know what a dry year looks like,” Roberts said. “We just had one last year, and we’re fortunate to have a wet year this year, but we have to continuously plan for those dry years and look at any legislation that helps us to preserve and conserve as much water as possible, prevent forest fires and protect agriculture, because they’re the ones that really lose out when we have dry years.”

Changes to a program that increases river flow in dry years

The instream flow program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to designate water rights to preserve or improve the natural environment of a stream.

In the Yampa River, this program has been used to release reservoir water to boost flows through Steamboat in dry summers.

Under the current law, the program allows people who hold water rights to temporarily loan reservoir water to the state to boost flows in a stream three times over the course of a 10-year period. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has already used loaned water for an instream flow in the Upper Yampa River three times in 2012, 2013 and 2017.

Though reservoir water has been released in other years, including last summer, it was under a different legal mechanism.

Roberts, a Democrat who represents Routt and Eagle counties, introduced a bill that would allow for more instream flow releases.

“Once the 10-year period is done, you’re done forever, and you can never do it again,” Roberts explained. “So while city of Steamboat and the Yampa River has taken advantage of that program, they’ve started their 10-year clock. Once we hit 10 years in 2022, they won’t be able to use it again, so if we have a really low water year on the Yampa in 2023 or 2024, we won’t be able to use the instream flow to keep the Yampa running through town.”

The bill, as currently proposed, would allow these loans for five of every 10 years and allow it to be renewed twice once those 10-year periods end.

This would improve stream habitat, Roberts said, as well as limit economic impacts due to river closures placed during low flows that impact tubing outfitters, fishing shops and the businesses that benefit from recreation in the area.

Monger, who sits on the board of the Upper Yampa Conservancy District, said the program has “been a great thing.” The district operates Stagecoach Reservoir.

“(The district’s) actually been fortunate enough to have some available wet water that we can send down through to the city of Steamboat Springs, and it helps with water quality as well as water temperature,” he said. “It’s been a great thing, and the upper Yampa sells a little bit of water for its revenue sources to be able to take care of the water, so that’s a good thing.”

It would also expand the program by allowing more water to be released to create more habitat for aquatic species, whereas currently, these releases are smaller releases designated only to preserve the existing natural environment…

Ballot measure to legalize sports betting with tax revenue funding water projects

Earlier this year, the legislature passed a measure that will ask voters to legalize sports betting with tax revenue from the practice funding the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan.

If approved by voters, Colorado would allow some casinos to offer a sports book, essentially a room with a betting board and “every game known to man” on television screens, as Donovan put it. Casinos could also contract with online sports betting companies, such as DraftKings and FanDuel, to operate web-based sports betting. People could bet on college, professional and Olympic games.

While sports betting has taken place in the state, it’s currently illegal.

“This is a chance to legalize an action that we know is happening on the ground and to provide regulation protection under that act if people choose to bet on sports betting,” Donovan said.

A 10% tax on each wager would be paid by casinos, with the bulk of the revenue funding the Colorado Water Plan. Some revenue would be directed to administrative costs, a hold harmless fund and a gambling crisis hotline.

The Colorado Water Plan outlines a number of actions such as conserving more water used by cities and industry, storing more water, establishing plans to protect critical watersheds and increasing public awareness of water issues. The Yampa-White-Green River Basin Roundtable would implement the plan locally.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis requested $30 million to fund the plan and statewide drought planning. The legislature granted $8.3 million to fund the water plan and $1.7 million for drought planning…

Using new technology to trade water rights in real-time

Another law, passed earlier this year, establishes an advisory group to study possible uses of blockchain technology within agriculture.

Blockchain is a way to track transactions, and it uses the same record-keeping technology as bitcoin. Each transaction within the network, whether the blockchain network is trading water or money, is recorded in a block and includes data about transactions under a unique signature, sort of like a username. Each transaction is verified by the network of computers in the blockchain.

Evan Thomas, director of the Mortensen Center in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, presented on possible applications of blockchain in the world of water rights. Blockchain could create a system to trade water by using sensors that track how much water is used or conserved to create “water credits.”

“(Those water credits are) entered into the blockchain,” Thomas said. “Somebody requests a transaction. They say ‘I need to buy more water this month, so I want to buy somebody else’s water credits.’ You enter in that transactionm, and they buy and sell points. The sensor identifies water use and water consumption, (and) turns that into a blockchain node.”

Thomas said this is a worthwhile tool to study in its applications for water rights, but that it is one part of a “suite of tools” that should be examined to update how water is traded.

A feverish stream, a legion of volunteers, a $1.7 million grant. Is it enough to help the Yampa River keep its cool? — @WaterEdCO

The headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Here’s a report Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith). Click through for the photos and the graphics:

Could something as simple and natural as a ragged corridor of expansive, towering shade trees help a river arm itself against a world in which temperatures are rising?

In northwestern Colorado’s Yampa River Basin, a 300-person-strong army of volunteers is banking on it.

The Yampa River historically has produced so much abundant, clear, cool water that its fish, kayakers, and the farmers along its banks were rarely left wanting.

But climate change is altering that dynamic. Last summer the river’s flows shrank sharply, and its formerly cool waters became dangerously warm, threatening the fish. Its high fever prompted the City of Steamboat Springs to close the popular stretch through town to fisherman and boaters on multiple occasions to avoid further stressing the mountain white fish, which is found in few other Colorado regions.

The shut-down was a huge blow to the city and to local rafting and tubing companies who rely on the river for their livelihoods.

The disturbing heat added urgency to a small program that has been gaining supporters and clout in the Yampa River Basin. The Yampa Sustainability Council (YSC), aided by $175,000 from local donors and some state grants, has ramped up a broad-based tree planting program along the river’s banks known as ReTree. Additional funding from a new $1.7 million Nature Conservancy water fund will add even more muscle to the effort.

On a hot Friday afternoon in late June, Sarah Jones, executive director of the YSC, parks at a trailhead just east of town, slathers herself in sunscreen, and loads a white plastic bucket with small calipers, a measuring stick, a GPS device and wooden stakes to take down to the river’s edge. These are the tools she and others will use to carefully locate and measure the progress of trees planted in recent years.

The reforesting work is conducted with a careful, slow precision. Each tree that is planted along the banks, and there are hundreds, is assessed, measured and located each season, even as more are placed in the ground.

The trend of warming rivers is creating a need for new science and reams of field data. “This is a new, not well-understood problem,” Jones said.

She and her partners, including the Colorado State Forest Service and the City of Steamboat, are taking the long view, carefully evaluating each year what has worked, discarding practices that have failed, and boosting those that have succeeded.

They once used elaborate planting protocols for placing the young saplings in the ground, but the trees respond much better when their small root balls are poked into the side of the bank, almost casually, supported by simple twigs. The starter trees also like being planted in the fall, they’ve learned, not the spring.

The Yampa River, in some ways, is a blessed stream, with more water than most Western rivers, and a community of hard-working, often wealthy, advocates.

This year The Nature Conservancy announced it had raised $1.7 million in a long-term water fund to restore and protect the Yampa River. The goal is to raise another $4.3 million to protect the watershed.

It is an unheard-of sum in this remote, northwestern corner of the state.

But those who know the Yampa understand the significance of protecting it, not just for the sake of this region, but for the state of Colorado and even for the greater American Southwest.

The river sits near the headwaters of the drought-stressed Colorado River system and is one of its last, mostly free-flowing tributaries. Because it is relatively unhindered, with only a few small reservoirs high on its mainstem, it serves as a kind of benchmark for scientists seeking to understand natural river dynamics and mimic them elsewhere.

Keeping the Yampa healthy also helps a much broader effort in the West to bring the Colorado River system back from the edge of a crisis precipitated by population growth, a nearly 20-year drought, and rising temperatures.

Jones and her colleague Caroline Manriquez, assistant district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, walk slowly along a public stretch of the river. Each of them notes the young trees planted two or three years ago that are outgrowing the metal cages put in place to protect them from beavers, who are both a curse and a blessing on the river.

“On the one hand we want them,” said Manriquez, because their work on the river creates natural dams and habitats. “But on the other hand, they’re cutting the trees we want to preserve.”

Each tree that outgrows its anti-beaver cage will need to be visited, its protective metal enclosure cut off and a bigger one put in place.

The re-treeing effort anticipates a Johnny-Appleseed kind of longevity, with some 200 shade trees planted annually over the next 20 years.

“This is a huge project, and we are planting very small trees,” Manriquez said. “But given the water issues climate change is creating, we decided we had better start now.”

Like other river basins around the state, the Yampa Basin has developed a state-funded management plan for the river. Some of that funding went toward several years of studies and planning to develop the science to support the reforestation effort, said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for Steamboat Springs.

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of modeling to look at what this river will look like in the future,” Romero-Heaney said.

Just downstream of the work zone, on the opposite bank from the workers, is a nursery which houses hundreds of delicate, young willow, cottonwood, and box elder trees. These varieties are known for growing tall and spreading a generous shade canopy.

The young seedlings have been sprouted in a nursery in Fort Collins, then transferred up to the Steamboat nursery early in the summer, all in preparation for the fall planting season.

These seedlings will be planted in the public stretches of the river, but reforesting there alone won’t be enough.

Jones and Manriquez know that the key to success for the project will be to bring the private landowners who control most of the land on the river’s banks into the program.

And that’s not easy. Western ranchers are notoriously government-averse, skittish about letting federal and state environmental officials onto their property, they said.

Rancher Steve Williams is an exception. He owns 200 acres of land along a critical reach of the Yampa east of Steamboat Springs, one that has been degraded by heavy cattle grazing, its cottonwood canopy gone, its streambed wide and much shallower than it once was.

As a result the water temperature here each summer threatens to exceed the state’s standard for the stream. If Williams can cool down his reach of the river, it will help everyone farther down and closer to Steamboat Springs.

To achieve this, he has partnered with federal agencies to shore up the river’s banks, deepening it as it curves, snakelike, through the wetlands and pastures above Lake Catamount.

This land hasn’t been grazed in 10 years, Williams said, and he’s hopeful the bank restoration work, as well as the re-treeing effort, will give this stretch of the river the assistance it needs to heal.

Williams understands the magnitude of the work that lies ahead and the challenges, the discrepancy in scale between young trees and a sprawling Western river, and the global dilemma of warming. “We will see how this goes,” Williams said. “It is a Band-aid, but it’s one I think will last at least through my lifetime.”

Romero-Heaney and other river advocates know that they will likely never see the final results of this reforestation effort, but based on the preliminary studies, they see it as an important tool for helping this playful, powerhouse of a river flourish in a very different world than it has inhabited up until now.

“I have to believe that if any river can persist through climate change, it will be the Yampa,” Romero-Heaney said.

This story is made possible, in part, by The Water Desk, an initiative of the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Interview: To Commemorate Powell’s Colorado River Expedition, Research Team Retraces His Steps — KUNC #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

John Wesley Powell’s recommendation for political boundaries in the west by watershed

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

One hundred and fifty years ago, a group of explorers led by Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell set out to document the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. It was the first trip of its kind. To commemorate the journey, a group of scientists, artists and graduate students from the University of Wyoming called the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition has been retracing his steps this summer.

Minckley’s group launched in late May in the same spot and on the same day John Wesley Powell and his crew of nine men launched in 1869. Along the way, more than 60 people — including fellow scientists, environmentalists, tribal leaders and water managers — joined Minckley’s crew.

“We’ve been rowing and most recently motoring down the same route he took looking at the conditions of the river, talking to people about the future of the West, water supplies, natural resources,” Minckley said, in between the sounds of passing motorboats on Lake Powell. “(We’re) trying to examine the system in a similar way that John Wesley Powell did through a systematic look at how it’s being used.”

In the time since Powell’s journey, vast infrastructure projects fundamentally changed how the Green and Colorado Rivers function, and what they look like. Unlike Powell, Minckley’s group had to portage around large dams, like Flaming Gorge in Utah and Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona. Part of Powell’s legacy, he says, is that he warned lawmakers in Washington D.C. not to overuse the river, and to plan for scarcity.

But, Minckley says, even as Powell remains as an oracle-like figure in the West’s mythology, much of what’s been built in the basin is well within his vision for the region…

On John Wesley Powell

“Powell was the first European to row down the Green and Colorado Rivers and through the Grand Canyon. He coined the term The Great Unknown as parts of that system were known from mountain man days, but there were parts that had never been seen by European eyes. He connected the upper river to what was known down in the area that is now Lake Mead… He was a Civil War hero who lost his arm in battle and he went on to become one of the United States’ great explorer heroes. One of the last great explorations of the lower 48 states was Powell’s trip down the Green and Colorado rivers. He was instrumental in developing the West and opening up the West to settlement and largely also envisioning some of the infrastructure we depend on for our water supplies and power supplies.”