Guest Opinion: Report shows that our rivers need attention
It’s not possible to overstate the value of water in the parched American West. As the headwaters for several major Western rivers, the way we manage our water has a ripple effect on the rest of the region. Here on the Western Slope, our rivers also play a huge role in our own backyard.
The Colorado River and its tributaries are a particularly vital part of our community, providing recreation opportunities and drinking water. Grizzly Creek and No Name Creek, two tributaries of the Colorado River, provide vital water to Glenwood Springs, and Grand Junction also gets its water from Colorado River tributaries.
The Colorado River and its tributaries also support our critical agriculture and tourism economies. Agriculture contributes $22 million to Garfield County annually, while tourism brings in more than $200 million to Glenwood Springs annually. The Western Slope is one of the fastest-growing agrotourism destinations in the U.S.
All of this requires clean and sustainable water resources. Finding solutions for Colorado’s water starts here, in the places where it’s easy to recognize the value of a healthy river.
This month, my organization, Conservation Colorado, released its first-ever “rivers report card.” We analyzed eight major rivers across Colorado based on four main factors: flow, water diverted out of basin, water quality and major dams. Unfortunately, only one of the eight rivers assessed got an “A” grade, while four received grades of “C” or worse.
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Our own Colorado River received a “D.” There are several reasons why we graded the river so low.
First, the Colorado River is one of the nation’s hardest-working rivers, providing drinking water to 35 million people and supplying more water for Coloradans than any other river in the state. The enormous demand for the Colorado River’s water has severely altered the flow of the river. As just one example, Colorado River tributaries such as the Blue, Frying Pan and Fraser rivers have up to 60 percent of their water diverted out of them to be consumed and used for other purposes.
Several other issues plague the Colorado River. Its water quality is low due to high levels of salt and agricultural runoff. Dams are abundant on the river, and contribute to an unsustainable increase in demand for water. And, a huge amount of the Colorado River’s water is diverted from the Western Slope to the Front Range. These pipelines, dams and reservoirs are causing significant damage to both the Colorado River’s ecology and Western Slope communities.
Finally, climate change is another imminent threat to the Colorado River. Higher temperatures lead to more evaporation, while diminishing snowpack leads to lower flows. This increases the gap between supply and demand for this already overused river. Water temperatures rising also poses a threat to water quality for fisheries.
Together, these issues make it clear that the current path of the Colorado River is not sustainable. We must work together to ease the pressure on this river and the communities that rely on it. A “D” grade wouldn’t pass in our schools, so we shouldn’t let it pass for the Colorado River.
We have a tremendous opportunity to take action to restore and conserve our rivers. It is critical that we continue to work together to focus on healthy flowing rivers and maintain clean and safe drinking water. We must also ensure that there is enough water to meet the needs of Colorado’s agriculture industry and recreational economies.
We can resolve many of these challenges in the future with greater attention, funding, and resources from state decision makers. Investing in the health of the Colorado River is investing in the health of Western Slope communities.
Brien Webster is a field organizer for Conservation Colorado in Grand Junction. He is an avid angler and hunter.
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