Colorado College students tend to be conscious of their water and electricity usage. What many students don’t realize, however, is that a full 80 percent of Colorado Springs’ water comes from the Colorado River, according to the “Expedition Down the Colorado” presentation given on Tuesday by alumni David Spiegel, Will Stauffer-Norris, and Zak Podmore.
The trio of CC grads, plus Carson McMurray, spent most of last summer floating down the Colorado River from Rocky Mountain National Park to Lee’s Ferry in Arizona. The idea blossomed during Stauffer-Norris’ and Podmore’s junior year at CC, when Podmore got a permit to run the Grand Canyon. This spurred the idea to follow the Colorado River from source to sea, a journey that ended up lasting 113 days and inspiring a second trip.
Stauffer-Norris explained the idea for the first trip by saying, “Why spend three and a half weeks in the Grand Canyon when you could spend three and a half months on the Colorado River?”
The first trip was purely recreational, but as they neared the finish they met a woman who told them that running the entire river was a special opportunity and accomplishment. She suggested that the pair become advocates for the river and share the story of their journey. To do this, they organized a second expedition down the Colorado, from June 14 to Aug. 25, 2012.
The second expedition, sponsored by the State of the Rockies, aimed to interview stakeholders, create an interactive map of the route, and collect water quality information along the way in order to share the whole story of the Colorado River.
The presenters repeatedly doled out startling statistics, some of which surprised sophomore Kang-Min Kim who attended the event.
“I learned a lot about water use, and I know it’s pretty cliché to say, but students and staff should try to watch the videos [from the presentation], which takes about 20 minutes overall,” Kim said. “[They] give a pretty good sense of why we should conserve water.”
60 percent of the flow of the Colorado River is currently diverted to Denver and other Front Range population centers, leaving barren channels and canals to eventually trickle through wastewater swamps in Mexico, barely reaching the Sea of Cortez. Plans are in place to increase that 60 percent diversion to 80 percent, which would further reduce the amount of water flowing through the Southwest.
Although the population of Denver will likely continue to grow, the flow of the Colorado River is decreasing due to climate change. It doesn’t matter how many people move to Denver; there is only so much water.
Unfortunately, a major challenge to reducing water usage lies in how water rights are set up. Currently, the “use it or lose it” system encourages waste by forcing water rights holders to use all the water they have rights to, or risk losing the rights to that water in future years. The presenters pointed out that even reduced water usage might not necessarily help the Colorado River because chances are those water rights will just be resold if people upstream don’t take full advantage of them.
Water banking was introduced to the Colorado River last year, allowing farmers to sell water during low-flow years for more than they would make by putting it towards crops. The farmers make more money and the water usage is reduced. This is important in combating the “use it or lose it” policy.
As Rosa Brey, a woman interviewed in one of the movies shown, said, “The Colorado is a mighty river… but it’s not that big.”
Agriculture and conservation are constantly at odds. It is undeniable that water, and the food it helps produce, is indispensable to human populations. Only eight percent of the extensive wetlands once found in Mexico and California remain and although riparian zones only account for three percent of Colorado, they are imperative to ninety percent of the state’s animal life. The presentation emphasized how citizens of the Front Range often overlook these ecological concerns when watering their Denver bluegrass lawn.
One human use of the Colorado River that does not diminish its flow is recreation, which helps foster love for the river. Recreation related to the Colorado River produces 9.6 billion dollars in revenue for Colorado. The political pressure of people who love the river is the best bet for changing policies such as “use it or lose it” and saving the Colorado. As demonstrated by the trips, research, and outreach of these alumni, it is difficult to recreationally use the river without becoming inspired to protect it.