Rivers of Colorado


upper colorado river

Upper Colorado River | Credit: Ken Neubecker

Many people associate the Colorado River with images of magnificent canyons, giant reservoirs, and terrifying rapids.  For me, I  think of a small trout rising to eat a Royal Wulff fly on a creek not much wider than my office.  I grew up fishing on the headwaters of our nation’s seventh longest river just west of Rocky Mountain National Park.  The river rises in the park and flows 1450 miles to its delta near Yuma, AZ.

Unfortunately, the Colorado’s headwaters will likely not look the same for my son when he is ready to cast a fly rod.  Currently, 60 percent of the river’s flow is diverted across the continental divide  to provide  water for irrigation.  A proposed expansion of this diversion project would further divert another 15 to 20 percent, leaving just a small trickle of our state’s namesake river headwaters for fish, wildlife and people.  American Rivers and our partners are advocating for smarter, more cost-effective solutions that ensure we have enough clean water for generations to come.

Across the continental divide, the Arkansas River, the Mississippi River’s second longest tributary (1460 miles)  rises near the town of Leadville. For years the river was hammered by unchecked mining that polluted its water and killed fish.  As mines shut down and mining companies improved their operations, the health of the Arkansas has rebounded. 

It currently supports a world class trout fishery and one of the most prolific Mothers Day caddis hatches anywhere .  It is also one of the most popular and exciting whitewater rivers in the country supporting a multi- million dollar rafting industry.  If you are a boater and have never been, you have to check out the Royal Gorge or Browns Canyon sections. 

The Arkansas River is certainly not without its threats. Recently the Bureau of Land Management approved an Environmental Impact Statement for a massive art project called Over The River.  The project plans call for 5.9 miles of silver plastic panels to be suspended over the river between Salida and Canyon City. The project may impact the fishery, cause serious traffic problems, and harm Bighorn Sheep habitat.  Denver Post writer Scott Willoughby recently wrote an article about the proposed project. He made a good point suggesting that it is a grave mistake if we confuse art for beauty.

Clearly, the issues facing rivers in Colorado are diverse and far-reaching. But in my six months as the Colorado conservation director for American Rivers,  I have encountered great support from our members and partners – support that will drive us in our bold effort to protect and restore the state’s rivers for future generations.