Paul Andersen: Rivers run through all of it |

Paul Andersen: Rivers run through all of it

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

“Painful” was the word used to describe the challenging agreement reached last week between the city of Aspen and five parties opposing Aspen’s specious water-storage scenarios in Maroon and Castle creeks.

The pain of water politics is just beginning. Serious drought conditions rippling throughout the seven states comprising the Colorado River watershed make us feel the pain of scarcity.

The Aspen settlement represents a necessary compromise over absurd dam scenarios that would have flooded portions of Aspen’s two most scenic, iconic valleys. The proposal was beyond propriety, but it revealed how water shortages drive us to desperate measures.

Last week, while mountain biking the Hunter Creek Valley, I sat in a meadow that, in most years, is so lush that the ground squishes with runoff water.

This year the grasses crackled underfoot, the ground was hardpan. Hunter Creek was running clear and modest, which is typical for late summer. All knowing water uses realize that this is going to be a tough summer, starting with residents on Missouri Heights who saw their ditches turned off two weeks ago.

Our water crisis pales compared to the acute water crisis hitting Cape Town, South Africa, where the shutdown of domestic taps has been delayed due to extreme water conservation efforts. Still, the problem looms, and not just for Cape Town, as was reported last week:

“Cape Town caught the world’s attention earlier this year with dramatic headlines that it could become the world’s first major city to run out of water, joining an ever-growing lineup of major cities facing comparable threats, including Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Barcelona, Bengaluru, Nairobi, California, and Australia and large parts of West Asia and North Africa.

“A tough water-saving regime helped push back Day Zero for dry taps in Cape Town to 2019. But the crises around the world have surfaced deep patterns of disconnect in our relationships with water. At the same time, at a local scale, water has emerged as a lens through which to view the complex dynamics of politics, governance, privilege and agency in one the world’s most unequal societies.”

Water, far more than oil, will soon become the lens through which we view our dependence on vital natural resources. Peak Oil is now Peak Water, and the Southwestern U.S. feels the parching.

Aspen’s guarding of valuable water rights prompted the city to propose reservoirs in Castle and Maroon creeks, an idea no sane person would contemplate. But protecting water rights requires storage plans, and the city reacted by establishing the most shocking storage sites it could latch onto.

Now that cooler heads have weighed in, thanks to strong public pressure, those storage sites may be located in less pristine, less scenic, less popular places. The “painful” resolution achieved last week reveals the heightened contention that water shortages engender. As the saying goes: In the West, whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’.

The gravel pit at Woody Creek is the best of the alternatives, and one can imagine a new water recreation feature developing next door to the Woody Creek Tavern and trailer park, both of which would become beachfront properties.

Future tourist brochures could promote Lake Jaffee, where the summer shoreline will be festooned with colorful umbrellas and the lake dotted with SUPs, windsailers, kite boards, bass boats and sailing regattas. The Aspen Yacht Club could open its Woody Creek annex and provide the maritime atmosphere for which many landlocked Aspenites long.

Water shortages are going define us, not only ecologically, but socially and culturally by how we cooperate, if we do. Water will define our broader community through shared scarcity and by the voluntary limits we impose on our individual water use in respect for downstream neighbors.

This year’s brilliant bloom of springtime flowers and shrubs belies a deep thirst that may not be quenched by summer rains. We may enjoy a bounty of fruit, but tall grasses may lead to unprecedented fire dangers for which water is the determining factor in the security of our homes and properties.

Water is our lifeblood, but there are no transfusions for our beleaguered rivers and streams. Every drop counts.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at