“Dirty Water" The Story of the Uncompahgre River

Many people who call this valley home may already realize the benefits of the Uncompahgre River, thanks to our abundance of recreational opportunities, but the importance of the river extends far beyond recreation. If we take a moment to internalize the role water plays in our day-to-day lives, it becomes apparent that water - specifically for those living in the Uncompahgre Valley - should be revered like gold.

Photo by Jason Hatfield

The Uncompahgre River's headwaters originate from two prominent drainages: Red Mountain Creek and Canyon Creek, joining at Box Canyon Falls in Ouray. The "Unc," as it's often slangily referred to, cascades north where it meets the Gunnison River.


In that 75-mile stretch, the Uncompahgre River goes to work every day to serve its community.

Come spring, the river displays a greenish-yellow to a reddish-yellow coloration. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a recent phenomenon or something caused solely by historic mining in the headwaters. Seasonal shifts in color is caused by the increase in metals concentration, particularly iron and zinc, entrained with spring snowmelt.



In fact, the Ute Indians dubbed this river the Uncompahgre, which has been variously translated to dirty water or red water among other translations, which suggest that the river has, for time immemorial, been off color so to speak. It isn’t a huge leap to come to the conclusion that Red Mountain Creek and the upper reaches of the Uncompahgre are influenced more by natural geology than the impacts of historic land use.


This is not to say the headwaters of the Uncompahgre are not imperiled by the onslaught of mining for precious metals such as gold and silver, but the distinction is important. Red Mountain is aptly named due to the weathering of predominantly iron pyrite, which stains orange as it oxidizes. So, while restoration of degraded landscapes in the headwaters is important, the natural weathering and deposition of sediment from Red Mountain also contribute to the environmental conditions.


In the mid-nineteen hundreds, the mining industry took the upper Uncompahgre watershed and its surrounding areas by storm. Thanks to the mighty river, the upper reaches of the Uncompahgre Valley bustled with people who dreamed of striking gold. Flash forward to today, and the Unc's headwater streams serve less as the heartbeat for hard rock mining and more as an artery that guides visitors to the unmatched beauty of the northern San Juan's high alpine landscapes.


Locals and keen tourists may notice the Uncompahgre changes from dirty and off-color to a relatively clear river around Ridgway. Tributaries streaming from the face of the Dallas Divide and the Cimarron Range add clean water and the influence of Red Mountain Creek on the Uncompahgre's water quality diminishes. Ridgway Reservoir, constructed in 1987, further dilutes and sequesters what metals may persist beyond the town of Ridgway.


We can think of the reservoir as a massive sink that improves downstream water quality and creates new economic opportunities for the region. It's not uncommon to see the reservoir margins teaming with large inflatable surfboards and gatherings of families and friends enjoying beach-side festivities.

Ridgway Reservoir also supports Colorado Parks and Wildlife's annual Smallmouth Bass Fishing Tournament. The month-long event was developed to help control various fish populations in the reservoir.


All rivers flow downhill and in the path of least resistance. Of course, human intervention would challenge that theory, but in the case of the Uncompahgre River's course toward the Gunnison River, the path of least resistance is where the valley widens – somewhere in the vicinity of Colona. Unsurprisingly, as the valley broadens, agriculture becomes the predominant land use.


This is where the Uncompahgre's water goes to work. Water out of the Uncompahgre is primarily taken up by the East and West Canals, with the Uncompahgre River serving as the central axis. Canals deliver water across the valley bottom to predominantly grow corn, grain, alfalfa, and root vegetables.


The Uncompahgre River is the lifeblood of agriculture in this valley, and agriculture is the lifeblood of the Uncompahgre Valley.

The point is that water is of utmost importance, and without it, the world as we know it would cease to exist. Yet this often goes under the radar in our day-to-day life. Farmers rely upon its timely delivery, boaters rely on its seasonal surges, power administrators depend on it to generate electricity. The list could go on.


Ultimately, we rely on water to tell our stories. Maybe the next time you are walking near the Uncompahgre River, take a minute to sit on the bank and recognize that it never takes a day off.


Learn more at Uncompahgrewatershed.org