Op-Ed: Happy Birthday, Colorado River – long may you live!

No room for mistakes in the Colorado River Basin.

Conservation has to be the centerpiece of local, state and regional water planning efforts

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — When Congress 93 years ago formally renamed the Grand River as the Colorado, it probably didn’t have any inkling about what the mightiest river in the West would be subjected too early in the 21st century.

Now far removed from that era of hopeful development, the river is over-exploited from beginning to end. Headwater streams are diverted to water acres of bluegrass lawns in Denver, and mountain resorts mindlessly draw down tributaries for snowmaking during the low-flow season, just when trout most need the water.

Just this week, scientists said they’ve documented an astounding rate of water loss in the basin from groundwater pumping alone, which may turn out to be a worse problem than we think, groundwater development is state-regulated, therefore not as closely tracked as the diversions and storage related to major reservoir operations.

And all the pressures have intensified in recent years: More population growth, more development, more demand for food and irrigation, a 14-year dry spell across the West and a warming climate. Even without manmade global warming, ancient trees tell us that the region has seen longer and more intense droughts in the past few thousand years.

The Colorado is tapped out.

There’s not enough water left to meet all the terms of all the confusing legal, political and financial deals that have been made in the past few decades, not to mention enough water for fish and streamside ecosystems.

We’ve already used its waters far beyond the edge of sustainability, based on rationales and decisions that are far from supportable on the basis of any of the acceptable morals or ethics that should guide our interactions with the natural world, not to mention our obligations to future generations, who have every right to expect to be able to find the Colorado in at least as good a shape as it’s in now, if not better.

Sadly, the driving forces seem to include greed, still represented by speculative land developers who really know better, but continue to build neighborhoods without truly knowing if there’s enough water to sustain them. I know that’s an over-simplification, but it is the bottom line. In a region where critical resources are finite, you can’t just build and hope for the best. If we’re honest, most of us are part of that to some extent. We want our slice of heaven, with a patch of green ground. We all want to be able buy fresh produce year-round, and play golf, and ski and swim …

Part of it is simple sloth by water users, as in, “We’ve always done it this way. Change is hard, it’s work and it costs money and we don’t want to change.”

Then there’s ignorance of both the blissful and willful kind. Some people really don’t want to know how their actions affect the environment, preferring to live in a cocoon of consumption that insulates them from any connection with nature. And other people really just don’t have the resources or access to information that would keep them in the loop.

But without change, the river is doomed.

That’s why it’s been encouraging the past few years to see an emerging coalition of progressive, conservation oriented people and groups focusing on the Colorado, and celebrating the river’s “birthday” with Colorado River Day celebrations in Denver, Flagstaff, Silver City and Las Vegas.

Of course we all know the river is really eons old, and has shaped the geology and culture of the Southwest, as well as the collective psyche of the region’s people, starting with the Navajo — for them, the Little Colorado River in Arizona is the key portal in their transcendent myth of creation.

The collective Colorado River conservation movement wants to build grassroots support around the region for policies that will help sustain landscapes, economies and communities around the region for the long-term.

Along with panel discussions and political outreach efforts, it’s a good day to just ponder the river and what it means for our future. The more you think about it, the more you’ll come to realize that any talk of more diversions and bigger reservoirs is folly. When it comes to the Colorado River, the only correct path from here on is to use less water.

It’s probably not as hard as we think, especially if you start with the perspective that we’ve been using it with excessive and reckless abandon the last few decades— that way, it’s more like cutting back instead of quitting cold turkey.

We need a razor-sharp focus on conservation right now, from the Colorado Front Range to the mountain resort regions and on downstream to sprawling desert cities and the irrigated fields of Southern California.

And we need to go well beyond general principles of conservation. By now, it’s well known that water efficiency pays off in many ways. It’s time to set specific targets for conservation with the long term goal of not only protecting what’s left of the Colorado, but finding ways to restore ecosystems that we’ve crushed to near oblivion.

It’s time to bring the Colorado River back from the brink and treat it with the respect that this iconic resource deserves!


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