Records show the Animas River recently broke the all-time low flow set on the water gauge behind the Powerhouse Science Center, which has collected data for 109 years.
The previous record low flow at the U.S. Geological Survey’s water gauge was set March 2, 1913, when the Animas River was running at 94 cubic feet per second.
For reference, 1 cfs equals about 7.5 gallons flowing by a particular point in one second.
But that record was broken in the past few weeks.
On Dec. 21, flows on the Animas dipped below 94 cfs and continued to fall. At its lowest point, the river was running at 79.6 cfs on Christmas Day, as well as the day after.
As of Tuesday, the Animas was running around 120 cfs, nearly half the historic average on the more than century-old water gauge.
“It’s one of the oldest gauges in Southwest Colorado,” said Steve Harris, with Harris Water Engineering.
Gauges were placed on waterways throughout the West in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a way for the federal government to begin studying the potential of water projects, such as reservoirs and dams, Harris said.
“In order for them to make any plans for irrigation projects, they needed records,” he said.
Two gauges on the La Plata River, one near Hesperus and the other at the New Mexico line, also helped inform the 1922 La Plata River Compact between Colorado and New Mexico.
The gauges have been updated with newer technology over the years, and are now used by a variety of people – rafters, kayakers and anglers, as well as water managers administering water rights.
A few years ago, the USGS, looking to cut costs, floated the idea of decommissioning the gauge by the Powerhouse Science Center. In response, local stakeholders banded together to form a partnership to help with funding.
“It’s critically important because it does have such a long history of data we maintained,” said Russ Howard, manager of the Animas-La Plata Operations and Maintenance Association, which manages Lake Nighthorse.
The fact the Animas recorded an all-time record low in 109 years of records is a testament to the prolonged drought hitting the region.
As of Tuesday, the U.S. Drought Monitor had Southwest Colorado listed in an “exceptional” drought – the highest category of drought.
In Colorado, what’s known as “water years” start Oct. 1 and run through Sept. 30, a time period that covers the cycle of snow falling in the high country in fall and winter, melting snowpack in spring and then a summer of use.
Becky Bollinger, a research associate with the Colorado Climate Center, said in a previous interview that 2020’s water year was the third-driest on record, behind only the infamous drought years of 2002 and 2018.
“It has not been a good year,” she said.
And snowpack, so far, in Southwest Colorado is behind – federal records show snowpack is just 74% of historic averages as of Tuesday.
Multiple requests for comment to the USGS were not returned for this story.