September 3, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Evan Rao | Photo by Isaac Yee
My last day on campus this summer, I decided to take a walk on the Tiger Trail to get some fresh air. After just a few minutes, though, I knew something was wrong. My lungs burned in a way I had never felt before. The air was filled with a thick haze, and looking west I was shocked to realize that I could barely make out the contours of Pikes Peak. Checking the weather app, I saw an air quality value of 153: unhealthy for sensitive groups.
This summer, the American West has been plagued by record-setting heat, and with that, record-setting wildfires and persistent drought. Here in the arid Southwest, we are reminded that water is scarce and running out.
A flurry of recent articles published in the New York Times and Washington Post have pointed to something that should have every resident of Colorado concerned: the Colorado River, as well as many other western watersheds, is drying up. Some estimates place its water level decline at a staggering 20 percent since the 1990s, projecting a 50 percent decline by the end of the century if current trends of warming continue.
This is a problem that will not only have immense consequences for the western United States as a whole, but specifically on the Colorado Springs community, as well as our own Colorado College. It’s a complicated, daunting issue. Examining various aspects of the problem, as well as looking into what our community is doing to address it, can provide a framework for how to move forward.
Of course, most of the recent headlines are focused on the Colorado River, which begins in Rocky Mountain National Park and flows 1,450 miles through various western states before emptying into the Gulf of California. Hotter temperatures and dryer conditions caused by climate change are causing the Colorado River to lose more and more water each year due to evaporation and lack of snowpack melt.
On top of this, The Colorado River Compact, or “Law of the River,” agreed upon by western states in 1922, is structured in such a way that a greater amount of water is allocated to each state than the river can actually provide. In the coming years, states like Colorado and Arizona will have to drastically reimagine where their water comes from, which inevitably will put strain on millions of people living across the west.
Colorado Springs, the welfare of which is inextricably tied to that of CC, will face significant challenges in the coming decades. Roughly 80 percent of the Springs’ water is pumped from reservoirs 200 miles north in the Western Slope, while a large portion of the remaining water is sourced from the Fountain Creek Watershed.
However, as seen with the Colorado River, northern sources of water are becoming less and less reliable. On top of this, the Fountain Creek Watershed is described by Colorado Springs Utilities as “one of the most erratic watersheds in the nation,” since water conditions are constantly affected by wildfires, snowfall, and development.
Recently, as reported by The Colorado Sun, Aurora and Colorado Springs have proposed the construction of the Whitney Reservoir in Eagle County to store water from the Homestake Creek. Project managers frame the proposal as a way to meet the cities’ booming population growth.
In response to this, Gary Wockner, director of the conservation group Save the Colorado, told the Sun that “The Front Range water providers are obsessed with getting every drop of new water they can before the spigot gets shut off. And as we all know, the Colorado River system is collapsing.”
The proposal is already a contentious one, pitting short term attempts to provide water security to Colorado Springs against concerns about the long-term health of Colorado watersheds.
Colorado Springs Utilities suggests that residents of the city adhere to six “water wise rules,” including limiting water use on lawns to three days a week and repairing leaky sprinklers. Such individual actions are important in working toward reaching sustainable levels of water use. However, when considering the scale of the issue, institutional and political changes would likely effectuate more change.
Colorado College is one such institution working to confront our ongoing water crisis. Through its “Water Recovery and Reuse Initiative,” the college has worked to irrigate campus with water provided from a local reservoir and treated wastewater, built more efficient water fixtures in some of the older buildings, and installed smart sprinkler systems.
These changes, as well as many others, led the college to report in 2019 a 47% reduction in total water use for vegetated grounds when compared to use in 2008. In recognition of this progress, CC earned a top spot in water conservation from the 2019 Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Sustainable Campus Index.
Confronting issues like the drying of the Colorado River requires hope and optimism. The many efforts made by people at CC to minimize water use on campus can serve as reason for such hope and provide a framework for how to move forward in the coming decades.