Rivers mean more than plumbing
The drought continues. Snow pack levels are better than they were last year and the year before, but they are still below normal for the Upper Colorado River Watershed. While we may get heavy snows later this month and April to help relieve the situation, forecasts are not encouraging. Even so, it would not break the drought. Water continues to be our most precious resource.
The drought has also served as a loud wake-up call for those agencies that provide water to us. Water providers on both sides of the divide are deep into plans that will secure and expand their water supplies. The state is also involved through the Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI), actively seeking new water storage projects and priorities.
There has also been an increase in efforts to educate the public about Colorado’s water. Water law and history, storage projects and the vast network of pipes, diversions, exchanges and augmentation plans have been laid out, explained and explored. We have been inundated with volumes of information, maps and projected needs. River flows and volumes are expressed in cubic feet per second and acre-feet, minimum in-stream flows and recreational in-channel diversions. Water court monthly resumes read as much like a technical manual for water use as they do a legal treatise full of obscure water language.
All of this is good and necessary. The public needs to know the history and the workings of water use in our dry land home.
Yet something is missing from all the discussion and flood of information that has come out. Rarely, if ever, have the rivers – the Colorado, the Eagle, Blue, Fraser and the Roaring Fork – been talked about as rivers.
The drought and the concerns over water supply have created a general perception of Colorado’s rivers, streams and watersheds as plumbing, nothing more. Rivers become conduits for the storage and transport of water. Watersheds become basins for the collection of water. The plumbing becomes something to engineer, argue and litigate. Where do we need the greenest lawns, the most new toilets, and on which side of the divide will the limited water go.
Rivers are far more than just plumbing. They are the life of this dry country. Combined with time, seasons and climate they become a remarkable foundation that all life in the watershed depends on. Snow gently melting in the spring creates the floods that flush the sediment built over the low water months. The riparian and wetland meadows are rejuvenated; plants flower and wildlife babies are born in this surge of life. With this annual renewal the land and its inhabitants are fortified for the difficult dry months ahead. The spring flood is also the time when our water supplies are renewed as well, when all those acre-feet come rushing in cubic feet per second to fill the reservoirs.
Each river is unique and has its own character, each being the sum of its unique tributary parts. The personality of the river changes as each tributary stream contributes its flow to the whole. The water is different and its chemistry, like blood, reflects the body of land that is drained. The rocks and gravels that floor the stream are different, allowing for a different diversity of insects and other small animals from stream to stream. The trout populations differ from stream to stream, from reach to reach, depending on the flowing personality and temper of the water. The rivers are different within themselves as they flow from the alpine headwater to the sagebrush hills at their feet. Rivers are living things, as varied and vibrant as the lands and life that they support.
We forget this at our peril. The world we inhabit is not a machine, nor is it nearly a collection of parts that we can rearrange to suit our needs with impunity. There are limits.
That we need the water and have a certain “right” to it for our concepts of “beneficial use” is undeniable. But so do the river, land and the wildlife that make this arid place so attractive to so many of us.
It is during times of drought, more than ever, when we truly need to see the river as a river, and not just as plumbing. Hopefully the drought will end in time. We will have heavy snow packs again, followed by high flooding runoffs that fill all the reservoirs and diversion channels beyond capacity.
We will then have the luxury of seeing the river as a river without concern, but only if we have learned to see the same during times of drought. A dry rocky channel looses its life, a life that will never quite return no matter how much water is allowed in it later.
The river ceases to live, ceases to be a river, and becomes simply plumbing. The rivers and streams of the West deserve more from us than that.
Ken Neubecker of Eagle is active with Trout Unlimited and the Eagle River Watershed Council.