Lessons, if not water, flow
Watching the sluggish current break into skinny riffles through dry. mud-caked rocks wrenches the soul like nothing else. The life of the river itself seems dry, shallow and fading.
October could see only a memory of the river that once flowed. All the rivers in Colorado are suffering from this drought, the worst in over 400 years. But the Eagle seems to be suffering more than most.
The severe drought is only partly to blame for the current crisis of our rivers. Water use and the water users are the flip side of the low flow coin. We need the water. The people, the fish and the wildlife.
The fish and wildlife of Colorado have adapted to sometimes severe droughts. They may not all survive such times, but they can and do come back.
People in Colorado have not adapted and while we will survive, our way of life may not. We cling to what we know, the past and the cultural habits developed over millennia in wetter climates. Ours is a tradition of green lawns, gardens and forests, bountiful harvests and fat herds as far as the eye can see and the skies can quench.
To this we have added a host of water-borne recreational traditions, from fishing and rafting to sailing and backyard swimming pools. Unfortunately the reality that is Colorado and the West often conflicts with these ingrained expectations and demands. As our population and “needs” grow, the conflict becomes more acute.
William Gilpin, the first territorial governor of Colorado, declared that the plains along the Front Range could support a population of 20 million. All that was needed was some engineering and the plow. He and many others believed in a theory at the time that “rain follows the plow,” that all the land needed was cultivation and the rain would come, transforming Colorado into the lush farmland of Indiana. That particular notion finally lost all credibility in the Dust Bowl years.
Engineering aridity out of existence has yet to lose its appeal and this current drought has caused calls for even grander feats and perhaps another round of the great dam building days. Why adapt when we can “fix” the problem with our technology and resources? That is the American way! We just need more dams and pipes. A big straw at the Utah line, as well.
If more storage is the need than why are all the reservoirs we already have so painfully empty? As for the Big Straw, that would open an interstate can of worms, taking years to settle, if ever, before any actual construction could begin, not to mention the host of other questions and problems such a scheme would engender.
The real situation is that there just is not very much precipitation in the West. There never has been, nor will there be for the future as we humans see it. This is arid country. The real problem here is that we do not accept that reality.
The heirs of Gov. Gilpin are with us today. The water suppliers are over reluctant to publicly admit or deal with the situation. Privately they are terrified. With few exceptions, any water use restrictions have been slow and grudgingly applied. Many are still “voluntary,” and in some cases there still are none.
As the situation worsens, the restrictions are getting tougher, and the language stronger. With 65 percent of the upper Eagle Valley water use being in landscaping, the authorities still find it hard to cut it out.
They are waiting to see if the “normal” monsoon rains appear. I am surprised that they think this way, as this has been anything but a “normal” year. Even if the monsoons come with their average force, that is still, literally, only a drop in the bucket.
The rains will help for the short term, a couple weeks at best, and maybe let us refill the tanks once. Unless we get snow, and lots of it, the monsoons are only a brief interlude that let us forget the gravity of our real dilemma.
There is also strong evidence that our climate is changing and that we may not get the snowfalls that we are accustomed to. While there is always room for debate on such evidence and projections, let’s suppose they might just be right.
The past five years have had decreasing amounts of precipitation and long periods of drought are not uncommon in the West. It might just be prudent to act as if the monsoons will not appear as they normally do, or that maybe this winter might be another dry one. If we don’t, next year might make this year look like a party at the water park.
It is time that we started to adapt to the reality of the West, to our arid home. Engineering has done some wonderful, as well as awful things to our life and land. Conservation is a great thing, but like a reservoir, will only go so far.
We need to get used to browns and grays in the landscape as much as green and bright color. We need to develop a part of our conscience that sees water as something more than just a commodity.
To take for granted the one thing that makes life on this planet possible, that makes our way of life and economy possible in an area where water is scarce to begin with, is nothing less than sacrilege.
As I watch the river get lower and the bodies of dead trout collect in the shrinking eddies, I wonder if it has ever actually run dry. Maybe it has, but never with as much help as it is getting now.
Ken Neubecker is the chairman of the Eagle River Watershed Council and a regional vice president for Colorado Trout Unlimited.