The Upper Colorado River watershed spans almost 2,000 square miles in north central Colorado and is the headwaters for the mighty Colorado River – one of the most iconic rivers in North America. The waters that flow almost 1,500 miles through seven states and two countries begin the journey high along the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, where snow melt from long, cold winters feed the rivers and streams that make up our watershed. Annual flow varies widely depending on snowfall and time of year, with anywhere from under 100 cubic feet to over 10,000 cubic feet flowing through the watershed. Flows are highest in the spring and early summer, when that year’s snowfall melts under the hot Colorado summer sun, and lowest in the fall, after snow in the mountains has melted but before winter has begun.
Nearly 40 million people depend on water from the Colorado river along its journey from the mountains to the sea, with over two million people in the Colorado front range alone depend on water from the Upper Colorado River watershed. Two major water diversions – Adams tunnel and Moffat Tunnel – and nine reservoirs (Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Lake Granby, Willow Creek Reservoir, Monarch Lake, Meadow Creek Reservoir, Windy Gap Reservoir, Williams Fork Reservoir, Wolford Mountain Reservoir) channeling water for human use. Annual diversions through the Moffat Tunnel collection system alone average just over 45,000 acre feet, moving water that used to flow west into the Colorado River and on to the Pacific Ocean to east of the divide.
The health of the Colorado river starts in its headwaters. The quality and quantity of water in a river is intrinsically bound up with what happens on the land surrounding its shores, in what is known as its watershed. A watershed is the area of land where runoff from rainfall and snowmelt feed into a larger body of water, such as a lake or river. The target watershed for the Upper Colorado River can be divided into nine sub-watersheds:
- Blue River
- Gore Canyon/Colorado River
- Fraser River
- Middle Upper Colorado River
- Muddy Creek
- Troublesome Creek
- Upper Colorado River
- Williams Fork
- Willow Creek
Land uses throughout the watershed vary, with human activity impacting water quality and quantity. Human uses of the land ranges from rural to urban, with ranching, logging, and development all impacting the flow of our rivers and streams. The Upper Colorado River also serves as an outdoor playground for thousands throughout the year, with skiing and snowmobiling in the winter and golf courses, rafting, and fishing in the summer all closely tied to the health of the watershed.
The water that flows is also the life blood for the plants and animals that call the High Rockies home, with a number of high altitude terrestrial and aquatic species dependent on the waters of the Upper Colorado River. Streams and rivers are home to a variety of trout, sculpin, and dace, while the presence of mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis flies indicate healthy water.