Climate Change impacts to a Western River

Creative essay pondering the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River from the perspective of an elder river guide.

Methodically untying the boat from an old-growth cottonwood along the Colorado River, muscle memory deeming it an easy task despite aching, pre-arthritic fingers; Susette, a long-retired river guide, gazed upstream. She is recounting how much the river corridor has changed since she started guiding rafting clients down this river thirty years ago. Spring runoff is happening earlier, meaning by late summer there is rarely enough water to go around. Great Blue Herons, once a common sight, now appear to be migrating north. …

Western Water Security Act of 2019

Last year was one of the worst droughts on record in the desert Southwest. Smoke from unprecedented wildfires across the country blanketed nearby vistas, and the sun’s refracted orange rays created a darkly-beautiful apocalyptic ambiance. Farmers waited for monsoon rains that never came, and reservoir levels plummeted to make up for the hydrologic deficit from pitiful winter snow pack. This is the new normal.

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2018 fire north of Walden, Colorado

As climate change and aridification continue to plague the Southwest, water resources are being impacted at a far more rapid rate than legislation is passed. In today’s vitriolic political climate, bi-partisan support for any environmental-leaning legislation has a narrow window for success. …

Background into Tribal Water Rights in the Colorado River Basin

In honor of National Indigenous Day, we must educate, and give space to native peoples. This essay will help in understanding how tribes are allocated water on arid desert Reservations.

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Howard Dennis, Squash Clan Chief of the Hopi Tribe, reminded an intimate crowd in Moab, Utah last weekend that the headwaters of a river are not in the mountains of an upstream state, but rather in the clouds.

As children from Second Mesa danced to vibrations of song and drum beats, they were asking the creator to bring rain down to all people in the region. Howard explained the ceremony, and how they dance for everyone on Mother Earth, regardless of race or religion. Intricate details on headdresses and leather moccasins symbolize rain, and the life water provides to corn, and people. …

Proposed West Fork Dam illuminates outdated water development processes in the state

Few places actually feel like the “wild west” portrayed in movies, but much of Wyoming still does with wide-open spaces, and frontier communities. The first time I walked into the Buckhorn Bar in downtown Laramie, the bullet-ridden mirror and hodgepodge of taxidermy neck mounts felt so authentic, I wasn’t sure if the red stain on the off-camber pool table was blood, or just red wine. When you drive north out of Laramie the only movement in the endless plains is either roaming pronghorn herds, or oil pumpjacks bobbing up and down.

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South Pass, Wyoming — the transition area between the Wind River Mountains and the Red Desert

One summer, I was lucky enough to work for Anna, a great friend of mine and PhD student from the University of Wyoming studying mule deer migration in the Red Desert and Upper Green River Basin. Each day, we’d follow the small digital arrow on our GPS unit across remote swaths of rabbitbrush and lupine, through howling winds, always seeing elk and cows, but never any people. One afternoon, we spotted a wolf through the binoculars and spent an hour watching it lie in the shade of a tree; king of the forest. …

Early Season Packrafting Trip Report for the Dolores River

Words by Rica Fulton & Photos by Cody Perry of Rig to Flip

On Monday March 4th, 2019, a 4.5-magnitude earthquake was recorded in Southwest Colorado, its epicenter three miles south of Bedrock along the Dolores River. For such a remote area, an astounding 695 people reported feeling the quake. One resident of Paradox Valley described the event as sounding like a train rumbling underneath the ground, vibrating through her house causing cans to fall from shelves.

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With the epicenter so close to our treasured Dolores River, we wanted to paddle through Slickrock Canyon and see if any new sandstone slabs tumbled into the water as a result of the quake. It certainly had the potential to create new whitewater features, and we wanted to scope it out. Remnants from the vibrant 2017 boating season also drove our curiosity towards an early season float, after the river saw a break from rafters in 2018 as a result of the horrific dry year. Lucky for us, winter in the Southwest has been phenomenal — the current aggregate snowpack for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan Basin is sitting at 157 percent of normal, and 440 percent of last year. As we carefully monitored flows at the Slickrock gage, the first weekend of April produced close to 400 cfs–more than enough water to take our fleet of Alpacka Rafts into the canyon. …

Who decides how the Green River flows?

A river’s hydrograph is equivalent to the waves on the screen of a heart monitor displaying cardiovascular rhythms, representing the overall condition of a human body. In both cases, an extended flat line is a sign of disconnect and can often signify life-threatening problems.

Rivers are living entities that thrive on perpetual change — water levels are constantly fluctuating based on available precipitation, each stage of flow provides different ecosystem services that sustain biodiversity. High flows in the West generally occur in the spring when snow melts, and moves sediment to create beaches and inundate floodplains for fish to spawn in. Channel scouring is critical to transport nutrients and clear the bed of the river. …

Rugged individualism is preventing equality in the Colorado River Basin

The sun was setting on a crisp day in May, air moist from an afternoon rain, the purple-hued river gurgling calmly by. I was sitting on the grassy banks of the Little Snake River, a wild tributary to the Yampa in the headwaters of the Colorado River Basin system. Across the river, the faint outline of an old barn was visible with a dilapidated fence tracing the steep high-water mark clearly delineating the boundary between the riparian area and the antiquated ranching operation.

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The next day, we packed up the raft and floated around the bend to find a large diversion structure — pipes audibly sucking the murky water up the bank, out of the river, and onto the pasture to nourish thirsty cows. Many popular recreational river trips in the Colorado River Basin (the Little Snake is not in this category) flow through national parks and recreation areas where these crude delivery systems are less abundant, this one a remnant of the “rugged individualism” that shaped the settlement of the west as we know it. …

Saving the Dolores requires humble perseverance from us all

The Dolores River in Southwest Colorado is one of those places that demands reverence. Towering canyons painted with desert varnish rise above old-growth ponderosa pines; a distinct humming of past human civilizations is undeniable. Imposing canyons have barred humanity from settling right on the river banks in many sections of the lower Dolores so fish, bighorn sheep, birds, deer, bears, and a panoply of other creatures pretty much get the riparian kingdom to themselves; emulating true wilderness characteristics. Last year enough snow fell in the San Juan Mountains to produce what’s becoming a rare event for the Dolores — enough water to restore the river’s function, habitat and recreational opportunities. 2018 has been quite the opposite. What has this dismal snowpack meant for the Dolores? …

A small agency with a vital role — and how you can get involved

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees ten percent of the nation’s lands — the commons — the wild spaces that all Americans have the right to occupy. Sustaining “the health, diversity and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations” is no small feat in a country founded on colonialism, commodification and free-markets. The BLM, in effect, is the barrier preventing Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons from playing out on shared landscapes, and ensuring policies favoring relatively unregulated capitalism don’t destroy the world for our children.

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Little Snake River Drainage, Routt County Colorado: Ecoflight May 2018

Compared to other public land designations, say in National Forests and National Parks, the BLM has a high multi-use standard and mandates comparatively minimal environmental protections. The agency relies on modest procedural policy tools rather than substantive federal regulation to achieve its mission statement; the lofty task borne by a bare-bones employee base. The BLM employs around10,000 people nationwide, meaning that the per capita ratio of employee to BLM acre is roughly 1:24,500. The National Park Service (NPS) is responsible for managing only over three percent of the nation’s lands and employs twice as many employees as the BLM; a ratio of around 1:3,800 acres. …


Rica Fulton

Desert river-rat, writer, and river advocate passionate about establishing grassroots, collaborative solutions to western water issues. All views my own.

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