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.
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.”