The concluding article in a 4-part series
By R. Gary Raham
“I enjoy helping people understand the relationship between ecology and economy (same Greek root word…oikos = home!) This is especially important in ‘attractive’ places like Colorado, where ‘extractive’ activities such as oil and gas exploration, and water damming and diversion, threaten the attractive things.”
Photographer John Fielder
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How do we, as Coloradans, reconcile the ecology and economy of water issues in our state in order to preserve the beauty and health of our chosen home? This article will offer some things to think about and sources to consult so that we can individually and collectively make sound decisions about the use of the Poudre River and other water resources in our communities.
Responsible citizens can pursue four things: Humility, knowledge, preparedness and advocacy. Be humble and realize that human beings represent only part of a living network that we all depend upon. Seek to understand all the facets of a problem before aligning blindly to a course of action. As the old saying goes, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. And finally, don’t be afraid to advocate well-researched and important viewpoints. Be a “pain-in-the-ass,” if necessary—just not an ignorant one.
Humans are just one species among billions on our planet, yet we co-opt far more than our share of resources. Our impact on the planet is a function of three factors: How many of us there are (population), how “high on the hog” we think we must live (affluence), and how quickly and to what degree we embrace technology and the resources it utilizes.
Colorado originally grew because of a gold rush, people’s admiration of the state’s natural beauty, and because her “fruited plains” offered a new start for families looking for opportunity in the wide open West. Early explorers thought lack of water would be a limiting factor to growth, but underestimated human ingenuity. The naturalist Edward Abbey became known for his comment that “There is no lack of water here (Fill in whatever Western megalopolis you want, including Denver and Fort Collins), unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” Water expert Peter Gleick once responded with, “Wiser practices in managing western water will not be a matter of ‘taking down Las Vegas or Los Angeles or Albuquerque or Phoenix and building them back somewhere where there’s water. That horse has left the barn.’”
Northern Colorado continues to grow. We can’t significantly change that, so we have to deal with it. Nevertheless, maintaining Colorado’s natural beauty can serve both environmental and economic functions. A 2014 study shows that outdoor recreation brings in $35 billion in revenue, as opposed to $20 billion from oil and gas and $13 billion from agriculture. Making decisions that preserve our environmental health become key drivers preserving our economic health.
Consider, too, that sustainable agriculture and recreation are renewable resources, whereas oil and gas reserves, once exploited, are gone—at least on any time scales that human beings can relate to.
It’s fine to live the American Dream and pursue affluence, as long as we do it responsibly by knowing what our impact will be from, say, trying to grow a huge water-hogging lawn of bluegrass vs. a xeriscaped landscape that reflects the near desert we live in. If we know that bottled water uses far more energy and resources than planning ahead to carry tap water in reusable containers, shouldn’t we act on that knowledge? It’s not only okay to know and learn about water issues and other necessities of modern life, it’s crucial to living on a planet crowded with people. We simply need to find out who is providing truths, and who is providing only what we want to hear or what will profit (usually in the short term) the dispenser of information. We have to know the facts in order to act responsibly.
Many conservationists say conserve first and don’t penalize those who conserve water by using those gains to simply augment growth. Balance GNP (Gross National Product) indices with some similar indicator that places a monetary value on the services healthy environments provide.
We have to know history to learn how not to repeat past mistakes. That includes both short-term history, measured in decades and centuries, as well as long-term history, measured in millennia, eons and eras—the history of deep time. The latter knowledge, provided by scientific studies, gives us insights on past climate variations and how those compare to the real, and highly significant, human-sparked climate changes. Looking at the evolution of ecological systems over deep time provides vital clues as to how living communities might respond to shifting climates and variable water supplies.
The scientific approach to learning things is not perfect because it is a human endeavor, but science yields information that can be double-checked against the real world of nature. We need to know what questions science can—and cannot—answer. Science suffers from the same human foibles as other political institutions like business, government and religion.
It is our duty as citizens to tell what we know, not just what we believe, to those in a position to make decisions. However, we also desperately need to relearn civility. Most people want to do the right thing, but are more apt to respond to arguments delivered by reasonable peers rather than commands shouted by aggressive ideologues. Unlike the TV show Survivor, we have to ensure that there is not just one winner in the reality we inhabit, but as many winners as possible, when it comes to responsible water use—not only in Colorado, but everywhere people build their homes and lives. Otherwise, island Earth will make us all pay a heavy price.
This author appreciates the opportunity provided by writing this series for the North Forty News to learn more about Northern Colorado water issues. Here are some sites I discovered that readers might choose to visit and ponder:
Cache la Poudre River National Heritage Area: www.PoudreHeritage.org
“The Heritage Area commemorates the Cache la Poudre River’s significant contribution to the development of water law in the western United States, the evolution of the river’s complex water delivery systems and its cultural heritage.”
Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed (CPRW): www.poudrewatershed.org
The Coalition’s mission “is to improve and maintain the ecological health of the Poudre River Watershed through community collaboration.”
NOAA Climate.gov: https://www.climate.gov
“Provides science and information for a climate-smart nation.” Their goals include promoting public understanding of climate issues to provide informational tools to promote better decisions about public actions that may be impacted by climate.
Northern Water Water Quality Program: www.northernwater.org
Northern Water is a public agency created in 1937 to contract with the federal government to build the Colorado-Big Thompson Project and now advocates the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP).
Save the Poudre.org: www.savethepoudre.org
The organization’s mission is “To protect and restore the Cache la Poudre River.” It opposes NISP along with expansion of Halligan and Seaman Reservoirs.
The Colorado Water Institute: http://waterliteratereaders.colostate.edu/
A colloquium targeting those who “hold or aspire to political office, or other roles, including boards and commissions, which can impact regional water policy.”
The Poudre Runs Through It (PRTI): http://prti.colostate.edu
PRTI hosts the Poudre River Forum each year, bringing together a variety of people who use, and are concerned about, the fate of the Poudre River.
Water Horse Resources, LLC: https://www.waterhorseresourcesllc.com/flaming-gorge-project
Aaron Million’s Flaming Gorge Project that would divert water from the Flaming Gorge/Green River System into the Front Range of Colorado.