LIKE RUST SLOWLY consuming the body of a car, drought has spread upstream on the Colorado River.
The river’s Upper Basin – generally north of Lake Powell – has been largely insulated from the 19-year drought afflicting the giant watershed, thanks to the region’s relatively small water demand and heavy snows that bury Colorado’s 14,000ft peaks each winter. But this year, there was no salvation in the snowpack.
Several major Colorado River tributaries – the Dolores, San Juan and Gunnison rivers – saw record-low snowpack this winter. Others, including the Yampa River and the headwaters of the Colorado itself, did not break records but saw snowpack shrink to 70 percent or less of average.
As a result, many reservoirs on the west slope of the Rocky Mountains have shrunk to mud puddles. In August, the resort city of Aspen, Colorado, imposed mandatory watering restrictions on its residents and visitors for the first time in its history. And in another first, the state of Colorado curtailed water rights on the Yampa River – which flows through Steamboat Springs – forcing some water users to stop extracting water to protect higher-priority users and aquatic life in the river.