Serving at least 35 million users along its path from the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of California, the river is plagued with growing consumer demand, silt, pollutants and, some would argue, too much love in terms of recreational users.
No one really knows the carrying capacity of the river or the aquifers in the West. Water rights on paper may not add up to the questionable supply. User demand grows, the weather becomes more uncertain, and conservation groups wring their hands.
It’s hard to imagine that we could run the taps until they’re dry, but I can’t help but wonder if that day will come. The environmental organization American Rivers last summer dubbed the Colorado the most endangered river in America, and that announcement generated some new awareness about the river’s plight. There was talk about how users can become more efficient about water consumption, growing only the most essential crops and limiting future development and water grabs from regions the river doesn’t naturally supply. But as much as these worries are bandied about, I’m not aware of development projects that are stopped or towns that have to be abandoned because the pipes are empty. Perhaps a calamity of that magnitude would be the wake-up call.
We oddly see natural disasters around the globe that are caused by too much water – typhoons, hurricanes, tidal waves – while the West’s environmental crisis is likely to be just the opposite: some combination of drought and over-allocation of water. Several centuries ago the Anasazi, who had built colonies all over the Colorado Plateau housing hundreds of thousands of people, suddenly left the region, probably because the weather gods stopped making it rain on them. Will that happen to us?
Another local concern is the seasonally high levels of selenium in the river where it flows from the Colorado border to the confluence of the Green River in the heart of Canyonlands National Park. The concentration of selenium, which increases as the flow of the river decreases, is harmful to the endangered fish here.
Where does the selenium come from? Mancos shale, the dusty, alkali mud-beds of the Cisco Desert that are as powdery as talc during dry conditions and as gooey as gumbo when wet. It’s all over southeastern Utah and western Colorado, and it’s what makes I-70 from the inside of a car sometimes feel like a roller-coaster because of its changing nature. It’s sort of elastic, causing the ground to buckle and heave because the shale can change so much from wet to dry. And while it makes for decent farmland when cultivated and tended, it doesn’t host much native vegetation in its natural state. It’s what gives the desert its gray, barren look. When it’s disturbed by storm, irrigation, landscaping, farming or urban growth, the soil is airborne or river-bound.
Now I’ve never seen a humpback chub or a razorback sucker (the names alone are almost enough to wonder why we should protect them in the first place), but I do believe they are barometers of the river’s health. While we may be a little farther up the food chain than these funny-sounding fish, we need to pay attention to what is happening with them. It’s a red flag for the river’s health and ultimately the health of the West.
I’m worried about the river. I get tired of think-tank headlines that sound alarms about the environmental resources of the West, because it seems there is a lot of talk and no plan for a solution. But as I look at the Colorado this time of year, and enjoy that Coke-bottle green before it ices over, I offer a hope that we as a population group can preserve it, enjoy it, rely on it, and use it sustainably forever.