Voice for the river | VailDaily.com

Voice for the river

Cassie Pence
Daily Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Jon Waterman

Adventure writer and photographer Jon Waterman has something to tell you: About 12 years ago, the iconic Colorado River, the same mighty river that carved the Grand Canyon, stopped making it to the sea.

Waterman experienced the river’s stunted flow first-hand during a never-done-before journey where he paddled the entire length of the Colorado River, from the headwaters in the Rocky Mountain National Park all the way to the Gulf of California, where he had to walk for a week carrying his boat along a dry, cracked riverbed because there was no water.

Waterman chronicles his trip in “Running Dry,” but the book is also a cautionary tale. Weaved between adventure is research and expert interviews revealing water shortages, damage to the river and evidence of the increasing demands on the river that could eventually suck the resource dry.

“Our river is heading for a train wreck,” he says.

He paddled all 1,450 miles to learn about what’s at stake. Not only what’s already been damaged, but also what we might lose in the future without proper solutions or conservation.

“What sparked my concern is I have young children,” Waterman says. “I don’t know that they will have this resource left and intact when they grow up, and I wanted to go out and find out what’s left of it. My primary motivation is to report what I’ve seen, give a report on the state of the Colorado River.”

On Wednesday, Waterman visits the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa to discuss his book and the health of the Colorado River from 6 to 8 p.m. The event is part of Eagle River Watershed Council’s “Waterwise Wednesdays” and the 5th annual Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference. It will include water simulations and a book signing.

Tremendous water robber

As voice for the river, Waterman says that no matter how well educated or how literate, people are still shocked to hear the Colorado River no longer flows to the sea. The confusion is understandable, Waterman says, especially among people who live in the mountains at the headwaters, like Vail, where precipitation and rainfall seem plentiful, but it’s not enough to affect downstream. What appears to be a lot of snow is not making a difference, Waterman says. The river is still so heavily used. And that red dust that fell last winter is a tremendous water robber, he says. Five percent of the river was lost through that dust.

“It seems fine here. It even floods. It’s raging. People routinely drown because the water is so high,” says Waterman, who lives in Carbondale. “That is essentially taking the resource for granted. We look at the river run through our backyard and because it looks OK, we assume it’s fine. It’s what we don’t know, it’s an innocent taking it for granted.”

A living resource

What many of us don’t know is that we are in a long drought, something that wasn’t accounted for when the river’s path was blocked and diverted through pipelines and canals to accommodate farmers and their crops and to create new cities, like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Thirty million people depend on the Colorado River for drinking water.

Population growth was also not accounted for, Waterman says, and the growing number of people along the Front Range should be of particular interest to people on the Western Slope. Senior water rights allow 12 tunnels to divert water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, and the area continues to take more and more to accommodate its people.

“The Front Range takes nearly half of the Roaring Fork River, water that would otherwise funnel into the Colorado River,” Waterman says. “That’s true for Vail and Aspen and even Grand Junction. Front Range needs more water than they have, and they are close to draining their ground water, their aquifers, that’s a very real looming threat now.”

Waterman says we are likely to see shortages in our lifetime, within the next decade, and shortage guidelines will have to be enacted. The Western Slope, for example, will have to start Xeriscaping and enact more “Draconian water conservation measures,” he says.

“We also have to leave water for the fish’s sake in the river itself. It’s a living resource, not just a pile supply of water,” he says.

Waterman is surprisingly optimistic about the fate of the Colorado River, but he wants to make clear there is no “silver bullet” solution.

“I am trying to build awareness,” Waterman says. “I want people to learn that the river is not reaching the sea.”

Cassie Pence is a freelance writer based in Vail. E-mail comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.

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