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Rivers of Doubt

As “The Year of Water” wound down, a trip to the Cache la Poudre made me realize how much work remains if we truly want to save our waterways.

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The kids in the river were collecting bugs and testing pH balances and measuring turbidity. I was there last fall as a parent volunteer to help with “River Week,” which at first consisted of yelling at kids to quit throwing rocks and telling them that yes, they were supposed to have worn shoes that could get wet.

But once they were all busy filling up their buckets and measuring temperatures, I had a moment to stop and take in the preteens stepping on black-encrusted rocks as they waded through the silty Cache la Poudre River. Still murky from the fires and low because of drought, it looked about as unbeautiful as a river can, and I was struck by how 2012—formally declared “The Year of Water” by Governor John Hickenlooper—had gone so poorly. In many respects, it had become the year of troubled waters—and in all likelihood, things will only get worse.

Like many Coloradans, I’m in love with our state’s rivers, from the Yampa to the Arkansas to the Cache. They’re easy to love in the concrete, if a bit more difficult in the abstract. I adore the sandy beaches and pebbles, the glinting sun and birds and minnows. I don’t love water law and acre-feet, or prior appropriations and the Water Commission Act, or the often homeworklike effort of trying to understand what to do to improve any of these qualities and measures.

That’s why, when the governor issued his proclamation, I took it upon myself to try to love those things about it—or at least, to learn more about them. To begin my quest, I went to Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute (CWI) at Colorado State University, whose mission is to provide the information that determines the course of Colorado’s rivers and our state’s water future. Humble and unassuming, Waskom is widely known for his extensive knowledge about rivers and for his deft and frank navigation of the often-contentious political landscape surrounding water issues.

When I expressed my own disappointment and concerns about what The Year of Water had accomplished, Waskom proved to be equally worried. “The designation turned out to be ironic, a year of not much water, with all of Colorado and the Great Plains in drought,” he says. “Our rivers and watersheds were stressed, not just by drought but also by the unusual heat. We got through it by draining our reservoirs, so 2013 will be challenging if we do not get at least an average snowpack”—which will be needed to refill the reservoirs. Indeed, many Coloradans may not even be aware that we’re currently experiencing a drought, in part because watering restrictions haven’t been ordered. Failing a normal-to-heavy winter of snowfall, reservoirs will be low and wildfires will burn when spring and summer roll around again.

This fragile balance means that right now, there simply isn’t enough water to meet all rivers’ uses and demands—a situation complicated, Waskom says, by Colorado laws that allow us to take water from our rivers for other purposes. For example, construction will soon begin on the Thornton pipeline, and since Thornton owns water rights in the Poudre, the community will eventually exercise them.

To address this challenging future, Waskom says, the most obvious thing to do is to collect the best minds, think creatively about options and alternatives, and come up with ideas that are feasible—a word he uses frequently. One such possibility would be for municipalities to enable their citizens to vote for a tax to buy water rights, like the way taxes are used to pay for open space, which would funnel more money toward water conservation. Another idea would be to put a box on utility bills that individuals could check to divert some of their fees toward improving water rights and usage—something that would only be effective (or acceptable) once people are better educated about these issues.

Regardless of which path we choose, something must change. “If Western water law stays the same, and we further dewater our rivers, new solutions will be needed,” Waskom says. His hope is that Colorado can be “macro enough to see the whole river, but micro enough to have discreet options for restoration.”

One benefit of last year’s string of wildfires, Waskom says, is that they finally drew much-needed attention to the plight of our rivers and watersheds. “When folks saw the Poudre running dark molasses brown and the black mess fouling the stream banks, it got their attention,” he says, even though “it will take time to restore the watershed and the aquatic environment.”

In addition to just hoping for a return to a more average snowpack and a wet spring in the lowlands, there are other things we humans need to do. It’s clear that big changes are ahead for Colorado’s rivers. We’re going to have to tackle every issue that impacts them, not just water law and property rights, but tangential concerns such as growing populations that strain water supplies, fracking operations that are largely reliant upon massive water usage, and of course, the ongoing debate over climate change and what we can do about it. We need institutional courage, and it will be up to us regular Joes to educate ourselves, become more engaged in the policy process, and insist that our political players address these problems by coming up with feasible solutions and innovative ideas.

Frankly, I’d rather ignore all this and hang out by the river, fishing and splashing and swimming. But it is possible that, somewhere down the line, such activities will no longer be possible—either for me or, especially, for these middle school kids wading through the silty Cache la Poudre. That’s why I’m going to do my best in 2013 to understand what I love, dry topics and all. Maybe efforts like these eventually will make The Year of Water designations unnecessary, because we’ll be focusing on saving our rivers all year, every year.

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