The Arkansas River

Arkansas River Maps, Waterflow and Snowpack

Arkansas River Water Resources

State Parks water flow site
- Year round Wellsville station, which is the official station for the Upper Arkansas River.

USGS water flow site

- Seasonal data - April 1st to September 30th - for Granite (the Numbers) Nathrop (Browns Canyon) and Parkdale (Bighorn Canyon & Royal Gorge)

Snowpack site
- Snowpack readings are based on a 30-year average on a specific date.

There’s an old saying in Colorado; "Whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’"

On the Arkansas River in Colorado, water is typically over-allocated. This means there is less water available than the annual demand from all those who "own" and manage water resources. The Arkansas River and Colorado in general allocates most water for agriculture or producing food. Close to 90% of all water in the Arkansas River is earmarked for "ag" uses. This leaves around 10% for all other uses including municipal. If you live in Colorado Springs or Pueblo (or many places in Colorado!) you are likely aware that water in Colorado is, or can be, more complicated than simply turning on your faucet or hose. All of this water comes to Colorado in the form of precipitation, most notably snow. Snowpack levels are monitored daily at a vast number of snow and water content measuring stations in every major river basin in the State. Many people think the largest body of water and reservoir in Colorado is Blue Mesa reservoir. However, the Colorado Rocky Mountains by April 1st each year are a massive, frozen reservoir that serves the water needs of millions of people in many western states and large cities in Colorado and also Phoenix, Los Angeles to Las Vegas among many others.

According to Colorado water law, when there is less water available than has been allocated to users, there is a system of priority. Without getting too technical, the basic philosophy is – “First in time, first in right”. This means the oldest water right by decree are the first to get water.

There are several reservoirs near Leadville, Colorado, high in the Rocky Mountains. These “storage vessels” hold water that all belongs to someone or some entity. Natural or “native” flows are released into the river, along with water from many tributaries downstream of these reservoirs, keeping the river flowing year-round. Just west of Pueblo, Colorado is a large lake the serves as another storage facility and is also designed for flood control. Water is also imported to the Arkansas River from the western slope of the Rocky Mountains on the other side of the Continental Divide. This west slope or imported water comes via a system of pump stations and tunnels built for what is known as the “Frying Pan-Arkansas Project”, named for the two rivers involved, the Frying Pan River, which is part of or a tributary to the Colorado River, and of course, the Arkansas River.

Much of the native flow from the Arkansas River and the Colorado River must pass through Colorado to other western states where water is, or can be at times, even scarcer than it is in Colorado.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency, manages the reservoirs on the Arkansas River and determines when to release water into the river and how much. This is often accomplished with much input from those that are the owners and municipal managers of water and water rights. There is a component of the Fry-Ark project that provides for recreational uses of water. On the Arkansas River the fishery and biology that makes up aquatic life in the river is a priority in this regard. Another important component is river recreation. Having enough water each year to operate our rafting trips, as well as the many other rafting company operators in the valley, is key to not only the ability of all of us to survive as businesses, but also to serve the public demand for recreation – river rafting trips – on the Arkansas River. The many communities along the Arkansas River depend on tourism to remain economically viable. Many people don’t realize how important and impactful tourism is on them and the communities in which they live in the Arkansas valley. The Arkansas River and the visitors it attracts are literally the lifeblood of the people that live in the Arkansas River valley and the many small communities in the area.

 

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Voluntary Flow Management Program

 

Unlike any other river in Colorado, or in the entire western United States, the Arkansas River is fortunate to have what is known as the Voluntary Flow Management Program. (VFMP) The VFMP was first implemented in the early 1990’s as a means to keep the Arkansas River running at a flow conducive to a reasonable recreational experience for both commercial outfitters (rafting companies) and private boaters – defined as kayakers & those who own their own rafts – during the most popular period for recreational whitewater boating. From July 1st to August 15th each summer the VFMP provides for a flow of at least 700 cubic feet per second (CFS) at a place called Wellsville, which is the official measuring station for flows on the Arkansas River.

Other than flows for river rafting, the VFMP is also a wildlife management tool in the spring and fall months. The Arkansas River, which is the most popular river for rafting in the western U.S., is also one of the few fisheries in Colorado that supports a "native" Brown Trout population and is extremely popular with fly-fishermen. The largest component of the VFMP provides flows that support a healthy fishery and overall biomass for this incredible Brown Trout fishery. Operations most of the year, when possible, are such that that the spawn, incubation and hatch of fry and insects occur under optimal conditions relative to the flow of the Arkansas River. The weather can sometimes prohibit optimal operations for these purposes.

The VFMP is a cooperative agreement between Colorado State Parks, The Colorado Division of Wildlife, Colorado Trout Unlimited (TU), the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (SECWCD), the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Arkansas River Outfitters Association (AROA). The United States Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) plays a key role in the operation of the VFMP, although they are not a signatory to the agreement. The BOR operates the reservoirs in Colorado and are responsible for the actual releasing of water that makes it all work. What makes this program possible is the cooperation, understanding and mutual respect between all these agencies and entities. The willingness of those involved to work together toward a mutual goal that involves a very divergent group of water owners, water providers, water users, municipalities and government agencies, has created a model for all rivers in the west that Colorado can be very proud of.

This unique management technique on the Arkansas River is only possible due to the fact that there are reservoirs upstream, near the actual headwaters of the Arkansas River, and a large reservoir downstream of where all river rafting occurs. Lake Pueblo is a very large storage facility, making it possible to capture the water that is released from the upper reservoirs to be used for municipal or agricultural purposes at a later date. Therefore, other than “transit losses” or evaporative losses of actual water, the VFMP is what is considered a non-consumptive use of water.

The annual operation the VFMP during the summer component in July and the first couple of weeks in August benefits not only rafting companies and private boaters, the VFMP helps to support the many communities and tax-collecting municipalities that not only benefit from a tourism based economy, but depend on tourism for their very survival. Possibly the most important benefit of the VFMP is the opportunity to serve the tourists/vacationers and local Colorado residents who flock to the Arkansas River and the many communities in its path to enjoy the scenic beauty, whitewater thrills, excellent family class rafting trips suitable for nearly anyone, and a world-class fishery for those inclined to dip a line and attempt to catch a trout.