Luke Runyon | KUER 90.1

Luke Runyon

I report on the Colorado River basin and water issues affecting the Western U.S. for KUNC and a network of public media stations in the southwest.

I came to KUNC in March 2013, after spending about two years as a reporter with Aspen Public Radio in Aspen, Colorado. Until September 2017, I was the Colorado reporter for Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food issues in the Midwest and Great Plains. 

My reports are frequently featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Here & Now and APM's Marketplace.

Before moving to Colorado I spent a year covering local and state government for Illinois Public Radio in the state's capital. I have a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield.

A warming climate is already causing river flows in the Southwest’s largest watershed to decline, according to a new study from federal scientists. And it finds that as warming continues it’s likely to get worse. 

Every time thick, dark rain clouds move over the deserts that surround Las Vegas, there's an anticipatory buzz. Flora and fauna alike begin preparing for the rare event, lying in wait for the first few drops.

Todd Esque is usually waiting for them too from his office in Henderson, Nevada. He knows how much desert life depends on their arrival. So when they do come, he's smiling.

The West’s water security is wrapped up in snow. When it melts, it becomes drinking and irrigation water for millions throughout the region. A high snowpack lets farmers, skiers and water managers breathe a sigh of relief, while a low one can spell long-term trouble.

Earlier this year, Arizona -- one of seven southwestern states that rely on the Colorado River -- was in the midst of a heated discussion about water.

“It’s time to protect Lake Mead and Arizona,” the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, said in his state of the state address in January 2019. He spoke to lawmakers in the midst of uncomfortable, emotional discussions at the statehouse in Phoenix about who gets access to water in the arid West, and who doesn’t. 

Climate change has been called the new normal. But residents in some parts of the Southwest say after living through the last two years, there’s nothing normal about it. 

Communities in the Four Corners -- where the borders of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet -- have been bouncing between desperately dry and record-breaking moisture since the winter of 2017, forcing people dependent on the reliability and predictability of water to adapt.

Finding a river in the West that still behaves like a Western river -- one that rises and falls with the annual rush of melting snow -- is tough. 

Many of the region’s major streams are controlled by dams. Their flows come at the push of a button. Instead of experiencing dynamic flows, dammed rivers are evened out. Floods are mitigated and managed, seen as a natural disaster rather than an ecological necessity. 

One hundred and fifty years ago, a group of explorers led by Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell set out to document the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. It was the first trip of its kind. To commemorate the journey, a group of scientists, artists and graduate students from the University of Wyoming called the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition has been retracing his steps this summer. 

Nara Bopp was working at a thrift store in Moab, Utah the morning of March 4 when her desk started moving. 

“I immediately assumed that it was a garbage truck,” Bopp said.

Groundwater pumping is causing rivers and small streams throughout the country to decline, according to a new study from researchers at the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Arizona.

The Colorado River is short on water. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at a slate of proposed water projects in the river’s Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

The river and its tributaries provide water for 40 million people in the Southwest. For about the last 20 years, demand for water has outstripped the supply, causing its largest reservoirs to decline.

On an unseasonably warm February day, Travis Kauffman headed out around noon for a run in the foothills outside Fort Collins, wearing shorts and a fleece pullover.

Within two hours, he'd emerge from the woods — clothes tattered, body blood-smeared, but alive.

The story of how he came face-to-face with a juvenile mountain lion and not only survived, but killed the animal that attacked him, soon became the stuff of legend. It's the type of story that feeds the impulses of internet commenters and quickly embeds itself in local folklore, like a Wild West tall tale come to life.

Each winter, anxious water managers, farmers and city leaders in the American Southwest turn their eyes toward the snowy peaks of the southern Rocky Mountains.

The piling snow is a massive frozen reservoir, and its depth and weight can foreshadow the year ahead. Millions of dollars are spent divining what a heavy or light snowpack means for the region's reservoirs, for its booming cities, for its arid farmland.

On stage in a conference room at Las Vegas's Caesars Palace, Keith Moses said coming to terms with the limits of the Colorado River is like losing a loved one.

"It reminds me of the seven stages of grief," Moses said. "Because I think we've been in denial for a long time."

Moses is vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, a group of four tribes near Parker, Arizona. He was speaking at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association meeting.

LAS VEGAS -- Water leaders throughout the West now have a hard deadline to finish deals that would keep the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs from dropping to deadpool levels.

The nation’s top water official is giving leaders of the seven states that rely on the Colorado River until January 31, 2019 to finalize a Drought Contingency Plan. The combination of multi-state agreements would change how reservoirs are operated and force earlier water cutbacks within the river’s lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada as reservoirs drop.

Early season snowfall in some parts of the Colorado River Basin have raised hopes of a drought recovery. But that optimism is likely premature.

In Colorado, higher than average snowfall in October and early November has allowed ski resorts to open early after a dismal start to last year’s season.

Water managers along the Colorado River are trying to figure out how to live with less.

Climate change is growing the gap between the river’s supply, and the demands in the communities that rely on it, including seven western U.S. states and Mexico. The federal government recently released proposals called Drought Contingency Plans designed to keep the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs from falling to levels where water is unable to be sent through the dams that hold up Lakes Powell and Mead.

In 2007, years into a record-breaking drought throughout the southwestern U.S., officials along the Colorado River finally came to an agreement on how they’d deal with future water shortages -- and then quietly hoped that wet weather would return.

But it didn’t.

One Sunday morning several years ago Dave Huhn got a call. He’s usually off work that day, but it was the height of irrigation season and decided to answer. The woman on the other end was frantic, screaming as she watched her 82-year-old husband from the window.

Their 86-year-old neighbor was beating him with a shovel.

Throughout the western U.S., water conservation is in the toilet.

And that's a good thing.

Since the 1990s, a strange phenomenon has played out in arid western urban areas. Populations are booming while overall water use is staying the same or going down. The trend is clear in Denver, Albuquerque, N.M., Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix: Cities are growing and using less water in the process.

In early August three years ago, Barb Horn stood along the banks of the Animas River in the city of Durango, Colorado. Word had spread of a mine waste spill upstream near Silverton. She waited, alongside hundreds of others, for the waste to appear. But the plume took longer than expected and eventually arrived at night.

The next morning, she saw the change.

“It was absolutely surreal,” Horn says. “And I think that's why it went viral. It’s like somebody photoshopped the river orange.”

Warming temperatures are sapping the Colorado River, the water source for more than 40 million people in the southwest. A new study finds over the last 100 years the river’s flow has decreased by more than 15 percent.

The Colorado River is running low on water. The lifeline that slakes the thirst of 40 million southwestern residents is projected to hit a historic low mark within two years, forcing mandatory cuts to water deliveries in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.   

Facing exceptional drought conditions, cities throughout the watershed this summer have imposed mandatory water restrictions, ranchers have begun selling off cows they’re unable to feed, and the river’s reservoirs are headed toward levels not seen since they filled decades ago.

Stand near a river and you’ll hear a symphony of sounds: birds chirping, frogs croaking and water flowing. But what would it sound like if the stream itself could be transformed into classical music?

David Merritt, a Colorado-based researcher and musician, is helping answer that question by turning river data into music to hear how we’ve changed rivers throughout the West.

Throughout the Western U.S., water conservation is in the toilet.

And that’s a good thing.

Few species manipulate their surroundings enough to make big ecological changes. Humans are one. Beavers are another.

At one point, the rodents numbered in the hundreds of millions in North America, changing the ecological workings of countless streams and rivers. As settlers moved West, they hunted and trapped them to near extinction. Now there are new efforts across the Western U.S. to understand what makes them tick, mimic their engineering skills, boost their numbers, and in turn, get us more comfortable with the way they transform rivers and streams.

Reservoirs that store water along the Colorado River are projected to be less than half full later this year, potentially marking a historic low mark for the river system that supplies water to seven U.S. states and Mexico.

Forecasters with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expect the river’s reservoirs -- Lakes Mead and Powell among them -- to be at a combined 48 percent of capacity by the end of September. That would be one of the lowest points ever for the combined water storage.

The effects of climate change are already being felt at the headwaters of the West’s most important river system, according to a study released earlier this year.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization compiled the latest science on climate change in the Colorado River headwaters in a report titled Climate Change in the Headwater: Water and Snow Impacts (PDF), presented to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments in February.

A new study from NASA reinforces the idea that droughts are getting worse and could become more frequent in the Western U.S.

The culprit is human-caused climate change.

The federal agency that oversees water in the West says southwestern states are facing an increasing risk of water shortages. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is now adding pressure to stalled talks over the Colorado River’s future.

Without action from states that rely on the river, there’s a 52 percent chance the Colorado River will be in an official shortage in 2020, according to figures compiled last month. Arizona and Nevada would be among the first to take cutbacks during a shortage. An extended drought and chronic overuse have sapped the river’s largest reservoirs.

A quiet, rising tension over water in the southwest has burst into the public square.

Agencies that manage and dole out the Colorado River’s water in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are attempting to publicly shame an increasingly isolated water agency in Arizona. The feud has the potential to either upset, or reignite, negotiations over the river’s future.

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