For the more information about water resources in the National Park Service, please visit http://www.nature.nps.gov/water/.


National Parklands of the Colorado River: Working Towards More Coordinated Management

Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon
View of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park from Nankoweap in Marble Canyon, Photo by Mike Quinn, NPS.

The National Park Service administers nine parks, recreation areas and monuments along the Colorado River and its key tributaries (Green, Yampa, and Gunnison Rivers). These parks and monuments comprise over 5 million acres of land and over 1,000 miles of mainstream river corridor, posses a magnificent array of natural and cultural resources, and offer an enormous variety of recreational opportunities. The Colorado River is well known as one of the most developed and regulated major rivers in the world. Although less well known, it is also the most protected major river corridor in the world. The nine park units in four states have annual visitation of nearly 16 million people. The direct economic benefits to regional economies from recreation within Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park are estimated at nearly $1 billion.

Parks include: Rocky Mountain NP, Dinosaur NM, Curecanti NRA, Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, Canyonlands NP, Arches NP, Glen Canyon NRA, Grand Canyon National Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area

The sometimes conflicting missions of water delivery, hydropower generation, flood control, endangered species protection, recreation, and park resource protection result in enormous challenges to managers of park natural, cultural and recreational resources along the river corridor. In particular, the health of park river and reservoir-dependent resources are greatly influenced by the operation of seven major hydropower dams and water storage in two enormous reservoirs.

To better enable the National Park Service (NPS) to address the complex resource preservation issues stemming from dam operations, the National Park Service Colorado River Basin Parks Program was established. This program strives to understand river operations issues and more effectively advise fellow agencies to adjust those operations, where discretion permits, to better protect park resources. Recent drought across the Colorado River watershed has heightened awareness of all stakeholders to potential economic, social, and political tradeoffs in river management.

The Colorado River Basin Parks Program includes the Steering Committee comprised of park superintendents, two NPS Regional Directors (Pacific West Region; Intermountain Region) and the Chief of the NPS Water Resources. A Technical Committee comprised of chief Colorado River park resource managers and selected subject matter specialists was also established, and a Colorado River Coordinator has been created to help coordinate communication both among parks and with other agencies and external stakeholders. Priorities of the NPS Colorado River Basin Parks Program include:

  • Improve the use of scientific information about Colorado River resources and operations
  • Increase NPS visibility and influence on key river system operation decisions
  • Improve internal efficiencies in setting priorities
  • Prepare coordinated strategy to identify and address high-priority issues
  • Establish effective relationships with other agencies and stakeholders
  • Maintain NPS leadership awareness and understanding of key river issues

The Steering Committee meets twice yearly, with conference calls between meetings. Under committee direction, the program participates in several Colorado River operations managed by BOR that affect park resources downstream, and a forum was established whereby the Regional Directors of the Bureau of Reclamation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and US Geological Survey meet regularly to discuss Colorado River management issues. A basin-wide economic value study of the parks’ river resources is under way to equate their value to traditional managed uses on the river (agriculture, flood control and hydropower). The Colorado River Basin Parks Program has focused NPS efforts to influence river management for the good of the parks’ resources in these ways:

  • Formal recognition in key river operations documents of the NPS authorities that should influence Colorado River operations
  • Correct interpretation of the Colorado River Storage Project Act to include fish, wildlife and recreation among the act’s primary purposes
  • Inclusion of the parks’ operational needs (bypass flows, water rights, monthly release volumes, daily fluctuations) in river operation programs
  • Meaningful participation by NPS in operational decision-making for the river

Current issues being addressed include: significant proposals for water withdrawals upstream from Dinosaur NM on both the Green and Yampa Rivers; implementation of the recently decreed park water right for Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP; maintaining seasonal water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead to accommodate recreation uses; the effectiveness of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program as part of the implementation of the Grand Canyon Protection Act; and the establishment of more integrated river-system wide natural resource research and monitoring programs.

Last Updated: May 13, 2013