Written by: Hannah Holm, Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University
Lately, I’ve been savoring clear skies like never before. My appreciation was magnified by days of feeling trapped in the smoke from California fires, even as our own Pine Gulch fire calmed down. Meanwhile, friends and family in Washington and Oregon choked on airborne soup thicker than anything we’ve had to deal with this summer.
I felt vaguely guilty that the same weather system that finally brought us rain, cooler temperatures and clear air also fanned the heart-breakingly destructive flames farther west. We share the air, and that gives us in western Colorado a direct, tangible connection to the fate of West Coast forests an
Water connects us, too, even if the connections aren’t as immediate and visible as wildfire smoke. Most of the water that flows into the Colorado River comes from Colorado’s mountains, so a bad snow year (or decade, or two) for us means less water for the 40ish million people that depend on the river, from Denver to Phoenix, Los Angeles and Mexico. Likewise, more snow in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and the eastern side of the Rockies reduces the draw on the river by giving Los Angeles and Denver more source water closer to home. Conservation actions in those cities benefit the river, and the whole river community, for the same reason.
Downstream conditions affect the headwaters in other ways, too, as desiccated,
beat-up rangeland in the four-corners area sends dust to the mountains that melts the snowpack earlier and reduces the amount of water that runs off into our streams.
Food also connects us, and food is very directly connected to water. If you like to eat salad in January, you need to keep water flowing to the Southern California farms that produce it.
To bring us back to where we started, fire and water are also connected, just as both fire and water connect far-flung communities. When the Pine Gulch fire was at its most active, incident managers reported that the moisture content of the
vegetation in the fire area was less than what you would typically find in a (perfectly flammable) piece of paper. That was a direct consequence of the same high temperatures and precipitation deficit that have diminished our streamflows and runoff into Lake Powell. Post-fire, we can expect ash and naked soil to run off into waterways, fouling fish habitat and drinking water intakes.
All of these connections are important to keep in mind as the states that share the Colorado River prepare to embark on a new round of neg
otiations over how to manage it. Representatives from all the states will face pressure to focus narrowly on enabling local water users to secure access to as much of the shrinking river as they can. That’s fair enough – no one wants to diminish their own future just to be the nice guy. But over the long-term, it will help all of us to pursue actions that benefit the Colorado River system as a whole. That includes reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the atmosphere and intensifying both drought and wildfire.
Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center .