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Colorado drought watch: Poudre River goes dry

Shut-off at Long Draw Reservoir cuts flows in Fort Collins; river expected to rise again Saturday afternoon

Flows in the Poudre River on Fort Collins dropped from about 100 cfs to under 2 cfs overnight, leaving the river nearly dry as it flows through Fort Collins. PHOTO COURTESY GARY WOCKNER.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — In a scene that will likely be repeated many times this summer, Fort Collins residents woke up Saturday morning to find their cherished Poudre River flowing at a mere trickle, with hardly enough water to keep fish alive in some sections.

A dry winter followed by a record early snowmelt and months of above normal temperatures have all of Colorado in drought conditions, and the Poudre River Basin wasn’t even the hardest hit, after early winter brought significant snows to the northern Front Range.

State officials said the river dried up because they shut off flows from Long Draw Reservoir as they managed competing demands for irrigation water.

“It puts a big gap in the river … that works its way down though Fort Collins,” said Mark Simpson, assistant water commissioner for the Poudre River. Simpson said he anticipates the flows will return by Saturday afternoon.

Water Commissioner George Varra said he tries to manage cutbacks and diversions to avoid impacts to the downtown stretch of the river during peak recreation periods, but that it’s very difficult, especially during low-flow years.

The Poudre River in Fort Collins. PHOTO COURTESY GARY WOCKNER.

The problem for the Poudre through Fort Collins is that there are no minimum instream flows to protect the environmental and recreational values of the river, according to Gary Wockner, director of Save The Poudre: Poudre Waterkeeper.

So as much as state water officials and traditional water users — collectively known as the water buffaloes — like to say that Colorado’s prior appropriations water law system works just fine, today’s unfolding events in the Poudre River show otherwise.

A USGS streamflow gage shows the sudden drop in flows in the Poudre River. Click on the image to visit the USGS page.

Wockner, who rode his bike along the riverside bike path Saturday morning, said he estimates that about a half-mile to one-mile reach is flowing below 2 cfs. Most of the Poudre’s water diversions go to agricultural uses, and this weekend’s drop in flows comes during the month that usually delivers almost 40 percent of the river’s annual flows.

The Poudre’s native flows are supplemented with transmountain diversions from the west side of the Continental Divide. Most of the diversions are for agriculture. Learn more about the Poudre in this power point presentation.

Monthly average Poudre River flows.

“It’s absolutely pathetic,” said George Speer, an angling enthusiast and Save the Poudre boardmember. “What amazes me is, the trout can survive this kind of thing. The take-home message for me is, if we had reasonable flows consistently in the river through town, our trout fishery would be comparable to Steamboat and Basalt. We would be a destination fishery … It’s really a tragic loss to this community,” Speer said.

Rafters on the Cache la Poudre River

Rafters on the Cache la Poudre River (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Cache la Poudre River following the P...

English: Cache la Poudre River following the Poudre Canyon in the Larimer County in Colorado, USA Deutsch: Cache la Poudre River im Poudre Canyon, im Larimer County in Colorado, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2 Responses

  1. I am not a water expert nor a lawyer, but if people cannot look at this and view it as a man-made disaster caused by bad politics and worse law, then what conclusion can be drawn? This is the first time in my 55 years in the state of Colorado that I have seen a wild river reduced to a dry gully, and the people of the communities affected by this tragedy should be demanding the heads of those who allowed it to occur. Nature is not the culprit, the water thieves and their lawyers are to blame.

  2. I really can’t wait to see the stream flows in 2050. In my short time on planet, Colorado population has grown to over triple what it was when I was born in Steamboat in 1957. If we can’t address population growth nothing else matters.

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