Increasing salinity loading in the Colorado River has become a major concern for agricultural and municipal water supplies. The Colorado Salinity Control Act was implemented in 1974 to protect and enhance the quality of water in the Colorado River Basin. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado River Salinity Control Forum, summarized salinity reductions in the McElmo Creek basin in southwest Colorado as a result of salinity-control modifications and flow-regime changes that result from the Dolores Project, which consists of the construction of McPhee reservoir on the Dolores River and salinity control modifications along the irrigation water delivery system. Flow-adjusted salinity trends using S-LOADEST estimations for a streamgage on McElmo Creek (site 1), that represents outflow from the basin, indicates a decrease in salinity load by 39,800 tons from water year 1978 through water year 2006, which is an average decrease of 1,370 tons per year for the 29-year period. Annual-load calculations for a streamgage on Mud Creek (site 6), that represents outflow from a tributary basin, indicate a decrease of 7,300 tons from water year 1982 through water year 2006, which is an average decrease of 292 tons per year for the 25-year period. The streamgage Dolores River at Dolores, CO (site 17) was chosen to represent a background site that is not affected by the Dolores Project. Annual load calculations for site 17 estimated a decrease of about 8,600 tons from water year 1978 through water year 2006, which is an average decrease of 297 tons per year for the 29-year period. The trend in salinity load at site 17 was considered to be representative of a natural trend in the region. Typically, salinity concentrations at outflow sites decreased from the pre-Dolores Project period (water years 1978-1984) to the post-Dolores Project period (water years 2000-2006). The median salinity concentration for site 1 (main basin outflow) decreased from 2,210 milligrams per liter per day in the preperiod to 2,110 milligrams per liter per day in the postperiod. The median salinity concentration for site 6 (tributary outflow) increased from 3,370 milligrams per liter per day in the preperiod to 3,710 milligrams per liter per day in the postperiod. Salinity concentrations typically increased at inflow sites from the preperiod to the postperiod. Salinity concentrations increased from 178 milligrams per liter per day during the preperiod at Main Canal #1 (site 16) to 227 milligrams per liter per day during the postperiod at the Dolores Tunnel Outlet near Dolores, CO (site 15). Calculation of the historical flow regime in McElmo Creek was done using a water-budget analysis of the basin. During water years 2000-2006, an estimated 845,000 acre-feet of water was consumed by crops and did not return to the creek as streamflow. The remaining 76,000 acre-feet, or 10,900 acre-feet per year for the 7-year postperiod, was assumed to represent a historical flow condition. The historical flow of 10,900 acre-feet per year is equivalent to 15.1 cubic feet per second. Average total dissolved solids concentrations for water in each type of sedimentary rock were used to estimate natural salinity loads. Most surface-water sites used to fit the criteria needed to achieve a natural TDS concentration were springs. An average spring TDS value for sandstones geology in the basin was 350 milligrams per liter, and the average value for Mancos Shale geology was 4,000 milligrams per liter. The natural salinity loads in McElmo Creek were estimated to be 29,100 tons per year, which is 43 percent of the salinity load that was calculated for the postperiod.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Characterization of hydrology and salinity in the Dolores project area, McElmo Creek Region, southwest Colorado, 1978-2006