Luke Runyon

I report on the Colorado River basin and water issues affecting the Western U.S. for KUNC and a network of public media stations in the southwest.

I came to KUNC in March 2013, after spending about two years as a reporter with Aspen Public Radio in Aspen, Colorado. Until September 2017, I was the Colorado reporter for Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food issues in the Midwest and Great Plains. 

My reports are frequently featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Here & Now and APM's Marketplace.

Before moving to Colorado I spent a year covering local and state government for Illinois Public Radio in the state's capital. I have a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield.

With short-term drought plans finished, water managers from across the Southwest recently gathered in Las Vegas to figure out what's next.

The Colorado River Water Users Association annual conference brings together nearly every municipal water agency, irrigation district, Native American tribe and environmental group that relies on the Colorado River.

As climate change continues to sap the Colorado River’s water, some users face serious legal risks to their supplies, according to a new analysis by researchers in Colorado and New Mexico. 

Declining flows could force Southwest water managers to confront long-standing legal uncertainties, and threaten the water security of Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Earlier this year, Arizona -- one of seven southwestern states that rely on the Colorado River -- was in the midst of a heated discussion about water.

“It’s time to protect Lake Mead and Arizona,” the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, said in his state of the state address in January 2019. He spoke to lawmakers in the midst of uncomfortable, emotional discussions at the statehouse in Phoenix about who gets access to water in the arid West, and who doesn’t. 

Music is blaring and grills are firing up at a parking lot awash in navy blue and orange outside Empower Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver.

Todd Endicott of Lafayette stands outside an ambulance turned Broncos fan-mobile. He outfitted this orange and blue rig for tailgates. It’s plastered in life-size stickers of players, and the football team’s logos, vintage and new. 

One hundred and fifty years ago, a group of explorers led by Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell set out to document the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. It was the first trip of its kind. To commemorate the journey, a group of scientists, artists and graduate students from the University of Wyoming called the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition has been retracing his steps this summer. 

Wells built to bring underground water supplies to the surface are being dug deeper to tap into dwindling aquifers, according to a new study.  

Water managers on the Colorado River are facing a unique moment. With a temporary fix to the river’s scarcity problem recently completed, talk has begun to turn toward future agreements to manage the water source for 40 million people in the southwestern U.S. 

Groundwater pumping is causing rivers and small streams throughout the country to decline, according to a new study from researchers at the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Arizona.

One morning in mid-February, David Herz went to turn on the faucet in his farmhouse outside the small western Colorado town of Paonia, and nothing came out.

“I thought, ‘Oh, f---. We got a problem,’” Herz said.

Colorado experienced three natural disasters that each caused more than a billion dollars in damages in 2018.

Each winter, anxious water managers, farmers and city leaders in the American Southwest turn their eyes toward the snowy peaks of the southern Rocky Mountains.

The piling snow is a massive frozen reservoir, and its depth and weight can foreshadow the year ahead. Millions of dollars are spent divining what a heavy or light snowpack means for the region's reservoirs, for its booming cities, for its arid farmland.

Following one of the hottest and driest years on record, the Colorado River and its tributaries throughout the western U.S. are likely headed for another year of low water.

That’s according to an analysis by the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado Boulder. Researcher Jeff Lukas, who authored the briefing, says water managers throughout the Colorado River watershed should brace themselves for diminished streams and the decreasing likelihood of filling the reservoirs left depleted at the end of 2018.

The briefing relies on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Natural Resources Conservation Service among others.

Following one of the hottest and driest years on record, the Colorado River and its tributaries throughout the western U.S. are likely headed for another year of low water.

That’s according to an analysis by the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado Boulder. Researcher Jeff Lukas, who authored the briefing, says water managers throughout the Colorado River watershed should brace themselves for diminished streams and the decreasing likelihood of filling the reservoirs left depleted at the end of 2018.

The briefing relies on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Natural Resources Conservation Service among others.

The effects of climate change are not far off problems for future generations. They are existential problems for everyone alive today.

That’s one big takeaway from the U.S. federal government’s latest roundup of climate science, the National Climate Assessment, now in its fourth iteration.

Early season snowfall in some parts of the Colorado River Basin have raised hopes of a drought recovery. But that optimism is likely premature.

In Colorado, higher than average snowfall in October and early November has allowed ski resorts to open early after a dismal start to last year’s season.

In 2007, years into a record-breaking drought throughout the southwestern U.S., officials along the Colorado River finally came to an agreement on how they’d deal with future water shortages -- and then quietly hoped that wet weather would return.

But it didn’t.

Throughout the western U.S., water conservation is in the toilet.

And that's a good thing.

Since the 1990s, a strange phenomenon has played out in arid western urban areas. Populations are booming while overall water use is staying the same or going down. The trend is clear in Denver, Albuquerque, N.M., Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix: Cities are growing and using less water in the process.

Few species manipulate their surroundings enough to make big ecological changes. Humans are one. Beavers are another.

At one point, the rodents numbered in the hundreds of millions in North America, changing the ecological workings of countless streams and rivers. As settlers moved West, they hunted and trapped them to near extinction. Now there are new efforts across the Western U.S. to understand what makes them tick, mimic their engineering skills, boost their numbers, and in turn, get us more comfortable with the way they transform rivers and streams.

The Western U.S. is just starting to recover after a prolonged, 16-year drought. A lack of water can force people to take a hard look at how they use it, and make big changes. That's what happened in southern Colorado, where farmers have tried a bold experiment: They're taxing themselves to boost conservation.

Colorado's San Luis Valley is a desperately dry stretch of land, about the same size as New Jersey.

The online retail giant Amazon announced a deal in June that showed its latest ambition: to completely change how America gets its food.

The latest step toward that goal is a proposed merger with Whole Foods Market, worth nearly $14 billion. The deal recently passed a key hurdle after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission decided the sale  would not hamper competition or provide an unfair advantage.

Farms and ranches throughout the country won’t see their labor shortages solved by a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

In a call with reporters while visiting Mexico ahead of the trade talks, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said labor issues likely wouldn’t be addressed during formal negotiations among the United States, Mexico and Canada, set to begin August 16th.

Streams and rivers in Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska and other parts of the central Great Plains are vanishing as farmers continue to pump groundwater to irrigate their crops.

Groundwater is the lifeblood of Great Plains agriculture. But as farmers pump more, it’s turning nearby creeks into dry riverbeds.

Kurt Fausch, a Colorado State University professor, says in a 60-year span about 350 miles of stream disappeared in eastern Colorado, southwest Nebraska and northwest Kansas. And if farmers keep pumping, another 180 miles could vanish by 2060.

The federal government is proposing refiners use slightly less ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply next year. However, the cut would not be a blow to corn farmers.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the annual mandate for renewable fuel and is suggesting a 2 percent decrease for 2018, down to just over 19 billion gallons.

Brandon Biesemeier climbs up a small ladder into a John Deere sprayer, takes a seat in the enclosed cab, closes the door, and blocks out most of the machine’s loud engine hum. It is a familiar perch to the fourth-generation farmer on Colorado’s eastern plains.

He turns onto a country road, heading south to spray an herbicide on his cornfields, an early growing season task his genetically engineered crops demand if he is to unlock their value. In the cab, a computer screen shows a little pixelated tractor moving across digital fields, logging his work.

People that live in rural areas are more connected to the internet than they’ve ever been, but they still lag well-behind their urban and suburban counterparts in access to high-speed Internet, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Roughly two-thirds of rural Americans have a broadband internet connection at home, Pew suggests. That’s a much higher rate than just ten years ago, when only one-third of rural Americans had broadband at home. Rural residents, however, are still 10 percentage points less likely to have broadband access at home than people in cities and suburbs.

ABBIE FENTRESS SWANSON / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

As the Trump administration takes the initial steps toward renegotiating one of the country’s most influential and controversial trade deals, groups that represent farmers and ranchers are already waving a caution sign.

Farmers and ranchers, with their livelihoods intimately tied to weather and the environment, may not be able to depend on research conducted by the government to help them adapt to climate change if the Trump Administration follows through on campaign promises to shift federal resources away from studying the climate.

This story is part of the special series United And Divided, which explores the links and rifts between rural and urban America.

Farm and rural advocacy groups say cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would harm rural communities, at a time when many of them need an infusion of cash.

In what’s being called a “skinny budget” because it sets an outline and contains scant details, Trump’s proposal calls for a 21 percent reduction in the USDA’s annual discretionary spending, and lays out rationales for why some programs are either eliminated or scaled back, calling some “duplicative,” or “underperforming.”

Blink while driving on Highway 34 east of Greeley, Colorado, and you might miss the former Great Plains town of Dearfield.

Abandoned towns from the early 20th century are far from unique on this stretch of plains. Withered storefronts and collapsed false-front homes are common. Boom and bust economics and harsh weather made it tough for turn of the century settlers to succeed long-term.

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