USGS Partnership Implements Advanced Monitoring and Warning Systems in Colorado River Basin

For almost 30 years, the Colorado River District has been cooperating with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to collect, analyze, and publish water quality and quantity data across the Colorado River Basin. The data generated by the USGS is subject to rigorous, quality-controlled, science-based protocols and is therefore highly valued by water resource managers and water users across the basin. 

At the River District’s July board meeting, Acting Colorado Water Science Center Director Ken Leib and Western Colorado Office Hydrologist Cory Williams presented exciting new developments within the partnership program. 

In 2020, the River District entered into a joint funding agreement with USGS for stream gaging, water quality sampling, and monitoring programs. From this partnership, expanded stream gauge systems were developed throughout the Colorado River Basin. Water quality data points such as pH, turbidity, and temperature were added to several crucial gauging stations, focusing on those which were downstream from wildfire burn scars.  

In 2021, that agreement was amended to increase funding and add specific research focal points regarding wildfire and algae impacts. This support helped the USGS to launch a new program called the Next Generation Water Observing System (NGWOS). According to Leib, “The NGWOS provides high-fidelity, real-time data on water quantity, quality, and use to support predictions and decision making for water managers daily and during water emergencies.” The development of this system stems from national interest in improving regional water prediction in snowmelt driven systems. 

Across the country, NGWOS has only been implemented in three medium-sized river basins, one of which is the Colorado-Gunnison River Watershed. The multi-faceted data gathered from this program will be especially crucial in the current era of drought and intense wildfires in order to evaluate water quality and quantity. Data from this extensive network is widely available to the public and has become a cornerstone for research quantifying the effects of climate change at various institutions. 

Within the Colorado River District’s boundaries, Hydrologist Cory Williams honed in on two specific water quality research topics – algal blooms in the White River Basin and wildfire impacts from the 2020 blazes.  

The USGS and the Colorado River District are currently collaborating with the White River Conservation District and the State of Colorado on a multi-year study on algae in the White River Basin. Algae buildup is observed on streambeds when the flows are low enough to allow the water temperature to increase. Once enough algae is present, it can affect water quality, choke irrigation intakes, and deter recreationalists.  

Williams also described the impact of the 2020 wildfires on the Upper Colorado Basin watersheds as one of the single greatest threats to water quality on the West Slope. The Grizzly Creek Fire, East Troublesome Fire, and the Pine Gulch Fire all burned adjacent to or spanned crucial main stem watersheds. 

Williams explained that these fires scorched soils deeply enough to destroy root structures and organic matter. As fire seasons lengthen due to aridification, data from downstream gauges below these burn scars will be critical in further understanding the impacts of wildfires on streamflow, as well as advancing early warning systems for public safety.  

The Colorado River District’s Community Funding Partnership program recently funded $50,000 to support a project initiated by the Middle Colorado Watershed Council along with a broad range of stakeholders either impacted by 2020 fires in the watershed or who could be impacted by post-fire events in burn scar areas of the Grizzly Creek and Pine Gulch fires. This grant award addresses Year 1 Phase 1 of urgent water quality monitoring equipment and data collection in response to the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire in Glenwood Canyon.

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