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Owning up to the shortage of snowflakes

In the high country, the earth is emerging from its winter blanket of snow. Buds appear on the cottonwood and willows along the riverbanks. The days are brilliant and sunny and rivulets of crystal clear water run down the mountainsides to the river below. All winter, as I skied and hiked and snowshoed the Roaring Fork Valley, I told my sometimes puzzled companions, “Look around you. You see all of this snow? Every snowflake is owned.” Especially for East Coast visitors, this was a very dubious proposition. How can every snowflake be owned? But as anyone who has spent time in the arid West knows, every drop of water created by snowmelt is owned. In fact, in many places in Colorado and the Southwest, more than one person has legal claims on every drop. As they say in water rights parlance, the rivers are “over-appropriated.”In the summer of 2002, the drought in Aspen was so bad that the Roaring Fork was reduced to a trickle as it made its way through town. Large trout were stranded in disconnected pools. Some died as the temperature of the water rose and the oxygen levels plummeted. The Roaring Fork was not roaring; it was whimpering. The year 2002 was the height of a five-year drought. Although the snowfall in the Roaring Fork Valley was above normal this year, the arid southwest is still in the grip of this same drought. It is not over, yet. Tree ring studies by the University of Arizona show that the years 1800 to 2000 were the wettest period in the southwest in the last 2,200 years. Some droughts during the past two millennia have lasted more than 200 years. The years 1980-2000 were the wettest 20-years in the wettest 200 years in the past 2200 years. What do these statistics tell us? All of the tremendous growth and development in the western United States has occurred within a period when water was not a limiting factor. Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas and, of course, the Denver metroplex were all developed when water was relatively abundant and cheap. The drought of 1999 to 2005 showed us that climate can change and fast. Immediately before the drought started in 1997, Lake Powell was 97 percent full. By 2005, its level had dropped by two thirds. Whether or not human factors contributed to these conditions or may do so in the future is really beside the point. Mother Nature herself has the power to undo the best laid plans of mice and men.Fortunately, we do have a chance, now – a small window of opportunity as a state and as a society to take a hard look at appropriate stewardship of our water resources. We need to look at how humans use the water that is available today and, in the future, how much is going to be left for the mice. Of course, for more years than humans have inhabited the earth, the mice (and other of God’s creatures) have also planned on water being available in the rivers and streams for their use. In addition to sharing the quantity of water better, we must also re-examine the ways we impact the habitats required to keep the rivers and streams healthy and sustainable. One example is river setbacks and how development impacts riparian willow and cottonwood. Eighty percent of all wildlife in Colorado spends some portion of its lifecycle in this all-important, riparian zone. We must recognize that, as more and more water is withdrawn from our rivers and streams, the quality of what is left is worse and worse. Water left in the rivers and streams is not only necessary for anglers and kayakers (and God’s non-human critters), but it is necessary to dilute human wastes discharged at municipal sewage treatment plants and to keep water quality for drinking water sufficient, without extraordinarily expensive treatment.As Jared Diamond documents in his recent bestseller “Collapse,” humans know well how to destroy their ecosystem safety net. Will we find the right path to sustain our human needs, allow inevitable economic and population growth to occur, without collapsing natural support systems? If we are to do so, we must become better educated about these all-important issues. Second, we must let our elected officials know that sustainability – sustainability in Aspen, in the Roaring Fork watershed, in Colorado and in the United States is a top priority. Finally, we must get involved at the local level in efforts to be better stewards of the watershed and all of our natural systems. Failing to do this, we will inevitably kill the “goose that lays the golden egg,” as has happened in so many environments at home and throughout the world.Albert J. Slap is an Aspen resident and director of the Colorado River Headwaters Project for The Nature Conservancy.


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