Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

“Each day I face/the barren waste/without the taste/of water … cool water”

The Sons of the Pioneers, an iconic cowboy singing group from the last century, were prescient in their forecast for water in the West. The song they sang so famously, “Cool, Clear Water,” could become a dirge for Western water woes given the readings from 21 centuries of tree-ring data.

If you live on Missouri Heights and are seeing mud in your tap water, or if your well has gone dry, those tree-ring studies should be taken seriously. According to Ken Ransford, a water expert with the Colorado Basin Roundtable, wells are apparently drying up in Missouri Heights because the water table is dropping.

That’s because traditional flood irrigation on ranchland has diminished. And that’s because ranchland has diminished where subdivisions have spread over former pastureland and hay meadows.

Agricultural irrigation has raised water tables for decades, and those water levels are what we consider normal. Now that more efficient irrigation techniques are being practiced in an effort to ease water consumption, water tables are dropping, wells are failing, and cool, clear water is valued more than ever.

Missouri Heights is a microcosm for what’s been happening on the High Plains, where farmers and municipalities have been “mining water” for decades from underground aquifers by drawing down on those supplies more quickly than they can naturally recharge.

All of this leads to an alarming trend that Ransford described at the Basalt Library last week in a graphic 10-minute PowerPoint presentation, the first slide of which revealed the predicted doubling of Colorado’s population by 2050. Instead of the 5 million residents we have today, the state is forecast to swell to 10 million – all of them needing plenty of cool, clear water.

The state is already challenged to provide enough water for current residents and also provide for new growth and development in Front Range cities. Urban planners are now beginning to look long term at water consumption by requiring developers to ensure water supplies a century or more into the future.

“I think they should guarantee 200 years worth of water,” says Ransford, who believes that the availability of water is a critical issue if Colorado is to have a sustainable future. Ransford is looking that far ahead because of sobering tree ring studies that forecast a dry future.

The New York Times published a bold headline on August 12: “Hundred-Year Forecast: Drought.” The article describes how tree ring evidence in the American West reveals fluctuating patterns of rain and snowfall.

Since about 1980 the West has seen high moisture levels. According to tree rings, this is a spike that hasn’t been seen since the age of Christ 2000 years ago. The West has been enjoying a very wet 30 years, at least compared with historic droughts, but all that is sure to change if the tree rings speak the truth.

“How will we adapt to a rise in population and a drop of water levels?” asks Ransford. Not only have Westerners become habituated to having plenty of water, we have not looked very seriously at the eventuality of considerable shortfalls.

One solution is to dewater farms and ranches in favor of other, higher paying water users, like subdivisions in urban growth areas where developers are better able to afford high water prices than farmers and ranchers.

The implications are dire if water becomes extremely expensive and agriculture is unable to compete with other water customers. Food production will become more distant and more likely done by agribusiness.

Cool, clear water will become one of our most precious commodities, as it certainly has for some Missouri Heights homeowners. This most essential element of life will be channeled more and more into large population areas, dewatering our rivers and streams on the Western Slope.

Ransford advocates for water efficiency rather than dewatering traditional agriculture and riparian ecosystems, but political support and vision for that option is lacking. It will be up to the public, he says, to come up to speed on water issues and support the least disruptive solutions to reduced supplies in the future.

Perhaps we water users should all start singing “Cool, Clear Water” in a plaintive Western chorus.

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