Water Quality

slow moving water in a creek



The Continental Divide runs the length of the park, north to south, and divides the park hydrologically. Waters on the park's west side form the headwaters of the Colorado River, while east side streams and rivers are part of the Mississippi drainage.

Prevailing winds drop most of their moisture on the western slope. The eastern slope in comparison is relatively dry. The exceptions to this pattern are heavy spring snows and summer thunderstorms, both driven by upslope winds from the south and east.

Real time river discharge and height data is available from two United States Geological Survey (USGS) streams gauges in the park.

Here's a sampling of water sources and resources we have in the park.
The Pool, Spirit Lake, Chasm Falls
Rivers and Streams wind
their way 450 miles through
the park.
Lakes dotting the landscape
number around 147.
Waterfalls and cascades
can be found in the
forests or running down
rocky cliff faces.

Big Meadow pond, Andrew's glacier, Snow near The Loch
Ground water seeps
through the ground
creating habitat for
all forms of life.
Glaciers are few in Rocky,
but sculpted this landscape
long ago.
Precipitation falls in the
form of snow in the winter
and thunderstorms in
the summer.

The Loch in winter
The Loch in winter


Water Quality

Although water quality is high in Rocky compared to much of the country, threats do exist. Nitrogen deposition is a factor influencing soils and waters in the park. The impacts of nitrogen deposition in lakes and streams grow worse over time as the natural buffering capability of the soil and rock is used up. Eventually, chronic acidification can lead to the loss of many aquatic organisms and entire fish populations. As experience in the northeastern U.S., Canada, and Europe has shown, these changes can be almost impossible to reverse.

On an international scale, recent research is demonstrating that volatile chemicals, such as pesticides, can be transported long distances to remote lakes. Because mountains are year-round cold environments, deposited compounds seldom move back into the atmosphere. Such lakes become "sinks" for pesticides, mercury, and various organic compounds. Over time concentrations can become deadly to lake and stream organisms.

The Loch Vale Watershed

The Loch Vale Watershed includes Sky Pond, Lake of Glass, the Loch, Icy Brook, and adjoining mountainside streams. It is one of the most studied watersheds in the world. Scientists have been monitoring chemical inputs to the watershed from wind and precipitation for well over twenty years. They have also studied the "background" chemistry of the local rocks, soils, and vegetation. This work helps distinguish between human impacts and natural processes that occur in this type of alpine and sub-alpine environment.

Much of what we know about air and water quality trends in the park comes from this long-term project. These scientists have given us the information necessary to make informed decisions. It is, however, up to society to act on this information. Each of us who enjoys the park has an obligation to take actions in our daily lives that will protect the blue skies and sparkling waters of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Link to the USGS web page on research at Loch Vale.

Thanks to Dr. Jill Baron, of the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University and USGS, and Dr. Donald Campbell, USGS, for contributing to this page.

Last updated: April 22, 2015

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1000 US Hwy 36
Estes Park, CO 80517


(970) 586-1206
Through winter, the Information Office is open 8:00 am–4:30 pm Mon–Fri. Recorded Trail Ridge Road status: (970) 586-1222.

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