Utah and the Headwaters of the Colorado River System

In the summer of 2008 I traveled to my research field area in Utah. For the past four years my students and I have been conducting research in the vicinity of the Uinta Mountains in northeastern Utah. It is one of the most beautiful regions of the United States and has some of the friendliest people one could hope to meet. These include many dedicated members of the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management with whom we have had a chance to work. Our work in this spectacular region is aimed at understanding long-term patterns of climate variability and drought. The answers to these questions have importance within Utah and far beyond its borders.

Water resources are a central issue in the State of Utah. Irrigation waters are essential for agriculture and the growing population of the Provo-Salt Lake City-Ogden corridor or other areas like the burgeoning St. George area in the far south of Utah. These regions experienced population growth rates of 2 to 3% in 2007. Utah also is an important player in extra-regional water issues. The state, along with Wyoming and Colorado, sits at the very headwaters of the Colorado River system. The Green River is a main tributary of the Colorado, while Flaming Gorge reservoir in the north and Lake Powell in the south are critical storage facilities for Colorado River waters. The Colorado River is essential to water resource needs in Utah, but is also critical to other basin states extending to California and finally to northern Mexico. The melt-water from the snows of the Uintas sustains the brilliant alpine wildflowers, but is also an important component of the Colorado River flow.

Since the beginning of this century the headwaters regions of the Colorado River have experienced a number of years of sequential drought. This September most of the basins in eastern Utah are in states of Drought Stage I and II according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. As in much of southwestern North America, Utah has been grappling with a new century typified by water resource issues. How long might dry conditions persist on a year-to-year basis in Utah and adjacent portions of the Colorado headwaters? A difficult, but important question.

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