John Colson: ‘Super grim’ news for the Colorado river |

John Colson: ‘Super grim’ news for the Colorado river

John Colson
Hit & Run

We here in western Colorado have known for years that we were looking at severe water shortages in our not-too-distant future.

I recall reading a news story some 40 years ago, I think it was published by The Associated Press back in the early 1980s, that said the ongoing, human-caused trend then known as “global warming” would soon seriously diminish our annual snowfall in the central Colorado Rockies.

The term “global warming” has since morphed into a new descriptive phrase, “climate change,” because the energy industry and its supporters rejected any implication that human-caused emissions of greenhouse gasses were warming the Earth at globally unprecedented rates.

Such linguistic parsing aside, however, the warning I was reading about seems to be coming true, as changes to our global climate have undeniably warmed the globe and our state’s seasonal weather, and we are seeing a concomitant reduction in the amounts of our annual snowfalls.

And naturally, along with the reduction in our snow loads, we are witnessing the drying up of our local rivers and streams, no matter how much noise the climate-change deniers make in their desperation to ignore reality.

In addition to the scary desiccation of our rivers, of course, is the seeming drop in what are known as water tables; the subsurface water flows that move along beneath our feet, in concert with the flows of rivers and streams on the surface.

A story in a the Dec. 16-22 edition of The Sopris Sun, a nonprofit weekly newspaper in Carbondale (where I live), brought this alarming trend to light by telling the story of the Crystal View Heights subdivision, a neighborhood of 10 homes which in 2018 saw its wells go dry.

According to the story, by correspondent Olivia Emmer working under a fellowship from the Colorado Media Project, the residents of Crystal View Heights were able to dig deeper and reach water, but at almost the same time as their faucets went dry the also learned that their 1971 water rights to draw from the Crystal River were seriously “out of priority” compared to other, older water rights held by anyone from ranchers to towns and cities to Native American tribes in the region.

Under the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which governs who gets access to the Colorado River water system and how that water is used, use of the river is managed as a “priority” system tied to the date that a water right was issued. Earlier rights are “senior” to any water rights granter later.

That means that, if the rivers drop much further, the more “senior” rights holders will be able to place a “call” on the state’s rivers and supersede the uses of the rivers by such neighborhoods as Crystal View Heights.

And it’s certainly not only the one neighborhood that is in peril of losing its water. A friend of mine in Missouri Heights, for instance, earlier this year informed me that the ditches in their neighborhood — from which they get irrigation water for their property — had been cut off because of dwindling water levels.

In fact, concerns about the precarious state of that area’s water supplies made up a significant portion of a recent land-use battle to prevent a non-profit agency known as Ascendigo Autism Services from building a relatively large “camp” facility in the neighborhood.

The opposition won that fight, but observers noted that in all likelihood the 126-acre site of the proposed facility will now be occupied by a dozen or so new homes, which also will draw on the area’s dwindling water resources.

If one realizes that similar stories are playing out over the vast region fed by the Colorado River and its tributaries — which includes the states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California in the U.S., as well as old Mexico — the problem quickly becomes apparent. Roughly 40 million people depend on the waters of the Colorado River, which reportedly have declined by 20 percent over the last two decades, and the fights over the diminishing resource are already gotten heated.

For instance, Utah recently was advised that it may be using more Colorado River water than it has rights to under the 1922 Compact, according to stories in the Deseret News out of Salt Lake City.

If that turns out to be true (some say the data is flawed and Utah actually still has a surplus of available water from the river) Utah may find itself forced to trim its use of Colorado River water, which unknowable consequences for development, growth and the future of the state.

Mexico has complained for years that the Colorado River, which once supported a large and healthy estuary at the northern end of the Sea of Cortez, now does not have adequate flows to even reach the estuary, which has nearly dried up completely.

All of this, I should note, is not news to anybody who has been paying attention. But there remain those who say climate change is either a lie or an exaggeration, though at least one expert earlier this month told the Colorado River Water Users Association that the river’s situation is “super grim.”

And I view that assessment as a deliberate understatement.

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