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Water Quality Watch

December 2023

If you do not see the photos below, please click the link above that says, 

"View it in your browser."

Welcome to Grand County Water Information Network's (GCWIN)'s Water Quality Watch newsletter where we keep you updated on the most pressing issues related to water quality and conservation. Grab a cup of your favorite beverage, settle in, and explore GCWIN's latest news and updates.

This edition of Water Quality Watch newsletter contains the following sections: 

2023 - Year in Review - overview of 2023 activities and accomplishments

From the Field - 2023 monitoring programs

Education Corner - 2023 education programs

Partner Updates - Colorado Connectivity Channel sees first flows

The More You Know - look at snowpack so far this winter - PLUS 3 month drought outlook

IMPORTANT: Make sure your browser is displaying photos as the majority of this newsletter is inclusive of photos.  

2023 - Year in Review

2023 was an exciting year for GCWIN.  For the first time in many years, GCWIN was fully staffed with one full-time Executive Director and five part-time staff.  This allowed the organization to expand its monitoring programs, work on its database, and reestablish its full slate of educational field trips for local students.  

GCWIN Mission: To coordinate, manage and consolidate the comprehensive water quality monitoring, information and educational programs in Grand County, Colorado.​

GCWIN Objectives:
1. Maintain and ensure that the monitoring program is watershed-based, scientifically sound, and meets member needs.​
2. Work collaboratively to manage water quality data in Grand County and maintain these data in an updated and centralized database.​
3. Database is available to all members and the public.​
4. Fund and implement for growth.​
5. Conduct public education and outreach activities.

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From the Field

2023 Monitoring Programs

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Education Corner

2023 Education Programs

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 GCWIN celebrates outdoor education

September 21, 2023

GRAND COUNTY, CO - September was a busy month for Grand County Water Information Network (GCWIN) and its partner agencies. For over a decade, GCWIN has been hosting outdoor education field trips for local youth. By offering these environmental education opportunities, GCWIN helps students gain an appreciation for the natural resources that make our county grand. GCWIN hopes that students will become better stewards of public and private lands by increasing their knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

When COVID hit in 2020, GCWIN was forced to take a break from its annual educational programs. Thus, GCWIN was very excited to bring back its full spread of watershed field trips in 2023. From September 5th – 21st, GCWIN facilitated seven field trips that got 512 students out of the classroom and into nature. Field trips were for West and East Grand 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8thgraders. Six local homeschool students also joined in on the fun.

The 5th grade field trip involved eight different stations taught by a host of Grand County environmental partners. Highlights included touching wildlife pelts and skulls, practicing casting using flyfishing rods, Smokey the Bear, Hug-A-Tree survival basics, Leave No Trace principles, learning about forest ecology and native trees, pH testing using red cabbage water, and an exhilarating water rescue relay game.

West Grand 6th – 8th grade field trips featured a trip to Pumphouse Boat Launch, a hike in Gore Canyon, tours of Henderson Mill and Williams Fork Dam, and discoveries of local fish, macroinvertebrates, soils, and water quality on a ranch near Kremmling.

East Grand 6th – 8th grade field trips showcased a trip to Grand Lake and Rocky Mountain National Park, a hike up Jim Creek, and a tour of the Headwaters River Journey in Winter Park. Activities included macroinvertebrate sampling, electrofishing, water quality testing, and several outdoor games.

GCWIN sends a big shoutout to West and East Grand schools, teachers, chaperones, and students. Without teacher, student, and admin support, there would be no GCWIN field trips at all. GCWIN also thanks its partner agencies and volunteers for the success of these trips. GCWIN partners include the Bruchez Family, Bureau of Land Management Kremmling Field Office, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado State Forest Service, Denver Water, Grand County Government, Grand County Search and Rescue, Headwaters Center, Headwaters Trails Alliance, Henderson Mill (Freeport-McMoRan), National Sports Center for the Disabled, Northern Water, Rocky Mountain National Park, Sulphur Ranger District of the US Forest Service, and the Towns of Granby and Grand Lake.

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7th grade students looking at fish sampled out the Fraser River by CPW fishery biologist Jon Ewert.

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6th grade students assessing water clarity in Grand Lake using secchi disks.

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5th grade students learning about pH and the differences between acids and bases.

Upcoming Field Trips

GCWIN’s next field trip will be in May 2024 for Grand County 2nd graders.

Partner Updates

Northern Water

Click image to watch video about Colorado Connectivity Channel

Click image to watch video about Colorado Connectivity Channel

First Water Flows in Colorado River Connectivity Channel

In what’s been described as “the largest aquatic habitat connectivity project ever undertaken in state history,” crews successfully tested the new Colorado River Connectivity Channel at the end of October. The new channel around a slightly smaller Windy Gap Reservoir now reconnects two segments of the Colorado River hydrologically and ecologically for the first time in approximately 40 years.

Northern Water staff were joined by Grand County officials, Windy Gap Project participants, Colorado Parks and Wildlife representatives and others to watch the first water flow through the long-awaited channel. This new video captures the historic day and includes comments from the project participants and stakeholders who were present to witness the occasion.

While water is now running through the new channel, there is still construction work to be done. Crews will continue putting the finishing touches on the project's new dam embankment, diversion structure and other elements before winter weather brings activity to a stop in the upcoming weeks. Construction is expected to resume next spring and wrap up later in 2024. Vegetation establishment along the channel will continue into 2025 and 2026, before the area is anticipated to open for public recreation in future years.

The new channel will enable fish and other wildlife to move freely upstream and downstream around what is now a smaller Windy Gap Reservoir. Meanwhile, the reservoir will continue providing a diversion point on the Colorado River for the Windy Gap Project during the high flows of spring and early summer.

The channel is part of a package of environmental measures, valued at $90 million, associated with construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir, which is ultimately where a significant portion of Windy Gap Project water will be stored once reservoir construction is completed.

The More You Know

Colorado’s winter is off to an uninspiring start

Article by Shannon Mullane and featured in The Colorado Sun on November 29, 2023. Updated on 12/23/23 to reflect current snowpack data.

See Current Snowpack Data HERE

The statewide snowpack stands at just 71% of normal (as of 12/23/23). Some areas of the state might have a hard time recovering from this early dry spell.

Coloradans are getting their first glimpse of this year’s snow season, and according to climate experts, it’s off to a lackluster start, measuring just 71% of normal.

Snow in the mountains is a sign it’s time to bundle up or break out the winter sports gear. But Colorado’s mountain snowpack also provides water to millions of people across the country. This season is starting at a deficit: Snowpack is below normal, soils are too dry and drought conditions are creeping into more areas of the state.

“Overall, we don’t like starting off slow. It makes it harder to make up these early deficits that we see,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist, during a state Water Conditions Monitoring meeting Tuesday. “But it’s also a reminder that it is still early in the cold season, and we have a lot of season left.”

As of this week, Colorado’s statewide snowpack was about 71% of the median from 1991 to 2020, based on data collected by SNOTEL stations managed by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Colorado Headwaters River Basin is at 76% of normal as of 12/23/23.  Although data is sparse this early in the season, this network of 114 stations across Colorado offers reliable annual estimates of snowpack between about 9,000 feet and 11,600 feet in elevation from October to August. Last year at this time, snowpack stood at about 89% of the median.

This year, Colorado’s winter and spring will be impacted by strong El Niño climate patterns in the Pacific Ocean. Usually, an El Niño year brings wetter conditions to much of the state in September, October and November. But that didn’t happen this fall, Bolinger said.

“Which is just a reminder that this isn’t a perfect relationship,” she said.

Typically the El Niño also leads to drier conditions in the northern and central mountains, like the Steamboat Springs area, and wetter conditions through the Eastern Plains and southern Colorado, like around Purgatory Resort.

Last winter, Purgatory Resort had its longest ski season ever and saw more than 31 feet of snow, which was more than fell in 2019, the last big El Niño year. Last weekend, 14 inches of snow dumped on the resort in four days.

“It was dry up until that point, so we’re pretty happy about that,” spokesperson Theresa Graven said. “We’re definitely hopeful and excited about the prospect of a strong El Niño. … But Mother Nature can do what she wants.”

Over the next three months, winter temperatures are expected to be normal, with short warm and cold snaps, and there’s a slight chance that Colorado could see above-average precipitation, especially in the southern areas of the state, Bolinger said.

Take that with a grain of salt, she said, because it could still go either way. “I have no doubt that we’re going to get some big storms. I have no doubt that we’re going to have decent ski conditions at a lot of places,” she said. “I also think that we will see drought worsen in some spots.”

Without precipitation, the moisture in soils starts to dry. Data showing drier soils is popping up throughout Western Colorado and the Eastern Plains. Southern areas of the state might get enough moisture from the El Niño weather patterns to recover, but drying conditions in northwestern Colorado could deepen, she said.

It doesn’t help that the atmosphere is sucking up more moisture than usual at this time of the year. A higher evaporative demand — which combines temperature, wind, sunshine and humidity — typically means that snow might melt more quickly and, in areas without snow, the vegetation dries out faster, Bolinger said.

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As of Dec. 19th, about 35% of the state was completely drought free, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s better than this time last year, when only 16% of the state’s landscapes were free of drought.

This year, most of the areas experiencing drought are on the Western Slope, but Eastern Plains counties are abnormally dry and could fall into drought conditions. About 26% of the state is in moderate, severe or extreme drought. Note: Most of Grand County is "Abnormally Dry".

Parts of Conejos, Rio Grande and Alamosa counties are the only areas of the state experiencing extreme drought conditions. Historically, these conditions come with larger wildfires, limited ski seasons, fish kills, less water for crops, low water storage in reservoirs and other impacts.

Dry conditions now can also impact the water supply next year. Drier-than-normal soil conditions get sealed in over the winter as the snowpack accumulates, said Brian Domonkos, Colorado snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lakewood. When the snow melts in the spring, part of the runoff goes to thirsty soils before it reaches the streams, canals and reservoirs that deliver it to more ecosystems, farms, cities and industries across Colorado and the West.

The western portion of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, for example, are going to see dry soils. “Even if we do have a decent snowpack accumulation this year … I’m thinking these deficient soil moistures and stream flows will need to be recharged and will eat up some of that, hopefully, positive, above-normal snowpack,” Domonkos said. “But we will be starting off at a deficit, would be my guess, based on these below-normal soil moistures.”

Fortunately, Colorado’s reservoirs are in good shape thanks in large part to the above-average snow and rain the state received last year. The state’s water storage was at 100% of its median from 1991 to 2020. Many reservoirs, like Blue Mesa, Colorado’s largest reservoir, were at or above their normal storage for this time of year. Lake Dillon, which provides water to the city of Denver, was below its normal water storage as of November 1.

Water storage was also below normal — but above recent historical lows in 2021 and 2022 — in the Gunnison River Basin and the San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan combined river basin in southwestern Colorado. “I don’t expect that we’re going to have the stellar, magical year like we had last year,” Bolinger said. “But we do still have a lot of season to go, so we still have a lot of opportunities to get in some more snowpack.”

Grand County Water Information Network
610 Center Dr | Grand Lake | CO 80447 | USA

(970) 627-8162


The content of this newsletter is for Educational Purposes ONLY. In some cases, we highlight newsworthy articles from outside sources. Opinions stated in these articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, or viewpoints of the Grand County Water Information Network or its Board of Directors/Employees.

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