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The Colorado

T

Our Namesake Working River By George Sibley

To the casual observer, the Colorado River in Colorado looks like a natural river for the most part, tumbling noisily down mountain slopes and through canyons, or meandering quietly in open park-like floodplains. Looking more closely, however, one begins to see that it is a very hard-working river. It may be as much a waterworks as a natural river today—a waterworks whose many tasks include continuing to look and function as much like a natural river as possible while carrying out a growing list of other responsibilities.

Peter McBride (2)

Some perceive this negatively as a crime against nature; others view it positively as a great human achievement in making much from a little. Strong arguments are made both ways today. Probably no other river in America so reflects the stresses inherent in the contradictory demands placed on finite resources. The Colorado mainstem itself and four of its larger headwaters tributaries—the Fraser, Williams Fork, Blue and Eagle rivers—have carved an eastward bulge in the Continental Divide that makes them accessible to the state’s drier and more populous eastern side, so even the highest waters are put to work, carried from collection canals to tunnels and out of the basin to satisfy needs on Colorado’s East Slope. A little lower down in the headwaters tributaries, the mountain streams open into floodplains where the waterworks are more subtle. Modest irrigation systems spread water over hay fields, much of which makes its way back to the river as return flows. Similarly, headwaters towns like Breckenridge, Fraser, Granby or Kremmling take water from the river or its water table at one end of town and

put 50 to 90 percent of it—treated, but not pristine—back in the river at the other end. Some of the headwaters tributaries are interrupted by dams, creating reservoirs either to collect water for tunnels to the East Slope—in Shadow Mountain and Granby on the Colorado, Dillon on the Blue, and Ruedi on the Fryingpan—or to store it for late-summer irrigation on the West Slope—in Green Mountain on the Blue, Wolford Mountain on Muddy Creek, and Williams Fork Reservoir on the Williams Fork. These reservoirs also provide boating and fishing opportunities that have become substantial parts of the river basin’s economy. From Kremmling to Glenwood Springs, the Colorado mainstem flows through mountains so rugged that most settlement has occurred south in the Eagle River Valley. There, a mixed heritage of mining and agricultural communities—Minturn, Eagle, Gypsum— have witnessed the more recent development of recreational meccas like Vail and Beaver Creek-Avon. The Eagle joins the mainstem just above the spectacular

Water from the Colorado River’s headwaters is moved east from Willow Creek Reservoir (bottom left) through a canal to Granby Reservoir (top left). From there it is pumped to Shadow Mountain Reservoir, flows by gravity into Grand Lake and crosses the Continental Divide through the 13.1-mile Adams Tunnel to the East Slope. Above, a rainbow trout is caught and released in the Roaring Fork River. Headwaters | Summer 2011

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Profile for Water Education Colorado

Headwaters Summer 2011: The Mighty Colorado  

As the Colorado River flows through its seven-state, canyon carving traverse, it is tapped and retapped-- supporting acres of irrigated agri...

Headwaters Summer 2011: The Mighty Colorado  

As the Colorado River flows through its seven-state, canyon carving traverse, it is tapped and retapped-- supporting acres of irrigated agri...

Profile for cfwe