Andersen: Oh, dam it all! | AspenTimes.com

Andersen: Oh, dam it all!

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Jet skis and motor boats would add a nice touch to the lakeside atmosphere at the future Maroon Lake Reservoir. I can see the brochures now: “Welcome to wilderness — and wakeboarding!”

Retaining rights for dams at Maroon Lake and Castle Creek is a bold ploy by the city of Aspen to retain water rights, even though everyone knows that it would take Donald Trump elected as mayor to condone dams in any of our valleys.

Think of the uproar if future town councils decided to implement those dams. Live bodies would form human speed bumps in front of every bulldozer. Shrill declarations would be issued by tearful local tree-huggers.

The strident detractors of Aspen’s hydropower plans for Castle Creek would go apoplectic over much larger dams than those of any hydro-plant scheme. The power and influence behind their war chests would take it to the Supreme Court, possibly even to the pope.

Things were different in 1886 when a dam on Castle Creek funneled water into stick-built Aspen at a time when pressurized hydrants became the city’s chief insurance policy against a catastrophic fire. Other Aspen dams provided hydropower that turned on the lights in 1885 and kept them on through 1958.

Then again, plenty of folks love dams and reservoirs. Where else can they launch their SS Minnows and cruise, Gilligan-like, over what Ed Abbey termed the “cemented backsides of our temporarily stopped and mutilated rivers”?

Abbey witnessed such an ecological insult firsthand when he saw Lake Powell after the Sierra Club cut a deal with the Bureau of Reclamation sacrificing Glen Canyon for Echo Park. David Brower never lived it down.

These iconic canyons should never have been compromised, as Abbey shouted out in his radical novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Here he portrayed a lunatic band of eco-warriors led by misfit Vietnam veteran Hayduke, whose grandiose vision was blowing up Glen Canyon Dam to free the trapped waters of the Colorado.

I boated Lake Powell once, all the while cringing at this dreadful homage to industrial imperialism. What many consider a paradise for motorized recreationists has become a blemish. Lake Powell (oh, how John Wesley would shudder) is today a vast mud puddle in a highly evaporative climate.

Aspen’s nearest man-made “lake,” Ruedi Reservoir, is open to watercraft that ply the stilled surface of the stagnated Frying Pan River where it once snaked in serpentine meanders through one of the most beautiful riparian ecosystems in Colorado — a true fisherman’s paradise. Gone in the flood, like Atlantis.

Bureau of Reclamation “improvements” are tragic where dams inundate valleys and lay waste to delicate riverine ecology. Many Western reservoirs feed flood irrigation that wastefully spreads the lifeblood of the West across desert climates to nurture crops of questionable value — like sugar beets in Eastern Colorado that, in the 1930s, began sucking half the Roaring River under the Continental Divide.

Today, instead of beets, the tapped-out Roaring Fork irrigates green, grass lawns in sprawling subdivisions spreading like cancer across the Front Range. Our defiled watershed fills taps in Pueblo housing complexes and flushes toilets in Denver high rises.

Holding on to what remains is the city of Aspen’s hope by keeping current the damming rights to Castle and Maroon creeks. As if premeditating a venial sin atones for an inherent mortal sin.

If we had just let the beavers do their work, none of this would be necessary. Biologists speculate that a full population of beavers throughout the Upper Colorado River system would have obviated the need for dams that impede our rivers. Nature’s conservationists would have done it for us, free of charge, instead of adorning fashionable heads in the capitals of Europe.

So, we’re left with two far-fetched proposals for dams in our most scenic valleys, places where people come to feel the majesty of mountains that furnish the free flow of water rushing over aggregates of glacial till.

Water in these scenarios is valued not as the fluid progenitor of all life, but as a bargaining chip, a cash commodity, that is ours to direct, channel, divide and impound through the diversions and perversions of industrial convenience.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at andersen@rof.net.


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