The Story Behind the Numbers

As the Stewardship Manager for Colorado Water Trust, I am lucky to have several interesting jobs outside of developing new projects. I write a monthly forecasting memo that helps our staff plan for the upcoming season’s operations. I travel around the state and visit our projects to ensure they are still operating as designed. I collect streamflow and water temperature data to inform project design. It’s all great work but there is one job that is arguably the most important; I maintain and update (read the next words in an important sounding voice) The Master Dashboard Accounting Spreadsheet.

This spreadsheet tallies the streamflow volumes and the number of river miles with improved flows. Volume and miles restored are the primary metrics that describe our impact. We must report accurate records to the Division of Water Resources, and our funders like to see our volume and mileage metrics, as well. Heck, the first thing you see on our website is a cool animation tallying up our volumes and stream miles. Just looking at the site now, I see that we have restored 73,242 acre-feet of water to 612 miles of Colorado’s rivers, which is very impressive… or is it? Honestly what do those numbers mean? Is our work important? Impactful? Let’s dig a little deeper to find a better way to highlight the benefits our work.

Let’s start with terms. Acre-feet is a weird one—it’s a very important term in the water world but doesn’t translate well to a general audience. Us water nerds often try to better explain the term. “An acre-foot of water is enough water to supply two average households for one year” we will say in a very serious tone. Great, so now we can visualize how many showers and toilet flushes the Water Trust has restored. Hmm… perhaps if we convert it to gallons it will make more sense. I see that we have restored 22.6 billion gallons—that sounds impressive! Let’s convert it to metric tablespoons to get a truly enormous number. Unfortunately, the human brain is epically bad at comprehending large numbers so perhaps we should look at this another way.

Rivers and streams are not simple units easily counted and categorized. Rivers are homes for fish, drinking water for towns, irrigation water for farmers, places of recreation, and focal points for communities in the arid west. Rivers are local and personal. Our Yampa River Project is a great example for examining the alternative metrics we can use to measure our impact on the river and the community that depends on it. Low summertime flows on the Yampa lead to high water temperatures that are unhealthy or even deadly to the trout who call the river home. To help protect the trout, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) is often forced to close the river to extremely popular recreational activities like angling and tubing. While the closures help keep fish alive, they severely impact summer tourism and the local economy. Since 2012, the Water Trust has partnered with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, Colorado Water Conservation Board, City of Steamboat Springs, and the Yampa River Fund to release additional water from Stagecoach Reservoir 18 miles upstream of Steamboat. These releases help cool temperatures for the fish and keep the river open for recreation. Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the metrics that tell the story of our impacts to the Yampa and the Steamboat community.

Take a look at the plot below, which shows the flows in the Yampa River in Steamboat during the late summer of 2023. The blue shading shows the flows that the Water Trust released. Last summer, Water Resources Specialist, Blake Mamich, saw that dropping flows and high river temperatures were exceeding regulatory thresholds (which lead to river closures) so he acted quickly, coordinating releases to boost stream flows and keep the river cool.

Let’s look at some of the metrics that help tell the story of this successful project. In 2023, the Yampa River Project:

  • Released water for 60 days, keeping the river cool to keep the city compliant with regulations.
  • Boosted flows for fish for nearly two months.
  • Averted 38 days of river closures, keeping the river open when it would have otherwise been closed for over a month during the busy tourism season.
  • Water Trust releases often accounted for over 30% of the entire flow in the Yampa River, and has accounted for over half of the flow in years past.

Now there are some metrics that show the impact of our work a little better than 3,288 acre-feet or one billion gallons. Let’s look beyond the flow numbers to see how the project is providing benefits to the upper Yampa community. A 2019 study by the Steamboat Chamber of Commerce found that summer tourism has a $166 million-dollar impact on the city which supports over 2,000 jobs. While I am not an economist, it’s not unrealistic to imagine that a 38-day closure of the river flowing through the heart of town would reduce those numbers. It’s also interesting to note that less than 2% of the economic benefits would easily pay for this project to run in perpetuity. Looking beyond the tourism impacts, the water continues to flow downstream of Steamboat where it is available to agricultural users along the length of the river. This project is also a long-term investment in sustainable river health as the Water Trust has operated this project in 10 of the last 12 years, providing a decade of benefits.

Digging more deeply into the impact of our projects really shows why our work is so important. They go beyond just putting flows into the river—they make tangible and long-term impacts on the habitats and communities that rely on healthy rivers across the state.

I will keep updating the Master Dashboard Accounting Spreadsheet and reporting our volume numbers since they are still very important to our work, but I promise to chime in here on occasion to highlight all of the benefits that our projects generate. So next year when you are reading the annual report and you see we have restored enough water to cover Manhattan Island to a depth of 5 feet*, know that there is a story behind the numbers.

*That is true by the way.

tony lagrecaTony LaGreca
Stewardship Manager
720.570.2897 ext 4