Salinity Control in the Gunnison and Colorado River Basins

Elevated salinity (or total dissolved solids) concentrations can cause adverse impacts to users of the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers.

Salinity inhibits a plant’s ability to uptake water, causing stress and negatively affecting plant growth; without costly treatment, salinity also decreases usability for drinking and industrial purposes.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates that excessive salinity causes approximately $454 million in damages per year.

To protect against increasing concentration of salts in surface and groundwaters within the Colorado River Basin, the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act was passed in 1974.

Since that time significant progress has been made through this via regional investments in water use infrastructure (conversion to pipelines and sprinklers) with notable reductions in salinity concentrations.


The Lower Stewart Ditch Salinity Control Project – Paonia, CO


The Colorado River Basin Salinity Forum, the organization that helps implement parts of the Salinity Control Act of 1974, help produce the following video to illustrate the importance of and issues associated with the salinity control:



Every three years, the Forum publishes a formal review the Colorado River Water Quality Standards for Salinity; most recently the 2017 Review of Water Quality Standards for Salinity in the Colorado River System, was adopted.

While lengthy and detailed, the first dozen pages serves as an excellent primer on salinity in the Colorado River Basin. The balance of the report further describe current and future salinity control efforts and data.


From the 2017 Review


More reports, records, and funding opportunities can be found at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program (CRBSCP) page. For historical reference specific to the Gunnison, the CRBSCP considered mitigating increases in salinity increases due to the increased irrigation from the Uncompahgre Project of the early 1900’s. Ken Leib of the USGS has published a number of papers on salinity and selenium control specific to the Gunnison Watershed that could be worth diving into.

The 2018 Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program Briefing Document is another great introduction to salinity in our watershed and beyond.

US Bureau of Reclamation salinity info

This High Country News article is a great primer to water salinity, referencing land, projects, and people throughout the Gunnison River Basin:

Almost 40 million people rely on the Colorado for some or all of their drinking water. The river also supports millions of acres of irrigated farmland in the West, a handful of wildlife refuges and recreation areas, and nearly two-dozen tribal nations as well as farms and cities in Mexico. But its tributaries carry an unwelcome stowaway: salt. So much salt collects in the Colorado that the U.S. sustains hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses, corroded pipes and other infrastructure woes every year. – Emily Benson, High Country News