Sasha Nelson: Fate and summer fishing camp
Endangered animals, endangered fish, endangered plants and endangered rivers — one of these things is not like the others yet with the naming by American Rivers of the White and the Upper Colorado Rivers as endangered, all of these things now exist in Northwest Colorado. When I think of the Upper Colorado and White Rivers my memories are full of warm summers spent at high altitude fishing camps. Trout on my line and the endless hunt for worms when my jar of fireballs ran out. It’s alarming to suddenly consider a river as something that could, like the Black Footed Ferret and California Condor be at risk of extinction.
Unlike with endangered critters and plants the quantity of water doesn’t determine a river’s status. For almost 30 years, American Rivers’ report of America’s Most Endangered Rivers has called attention to key waterways that are, as the 2014 report describes, “at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates.”
According to the report, of the 10 most endangered rivers, the Upper Colorado ranks second due to the threat of major water diversions that put the river’s health and recreational opportunities at risk. Coming in at seventh is the White River whose fish, wildlife and drinking water quality are all considered to be threatened by oil and gas development. The fate of the Upper Colorado could well be decided through Gov. John Hickenlooper’s current Colorado Water Plan process. While the White River’s future is one of the key considerations the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will examine as they complete an oil and gas plan for that area.
Last May, recognizing the impending gap between our water needs and our available water resources, Hickenlooper released an executive order directing the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to “commence work on the Colorado Water Plan.” As our state’s communities grow, our rivers are becoming increasingly strained. That means we need to change the status quo. We need our rivers to be clean and flowing — to support our fish and wildlife, tourism, recreation and future generations.
Colorado’s Water Plan has the potential to chart an innovative path forward for our state. It should stand up for measures to protect and restore our rivers, with an emphasis on conservation. It should help agriculture modernize and increase efficiency, while maintaining working landscapes. It should support water-smart urban growth to sustain burgeoning communities. The hope is that Colorado’s Water Plan uses our state’s ingenuity to ensure we enjoy a water-secure future.
The BLM manages approximately 1.5 million acres in the White River Field Office and are currently updating their Resource Management Plan (RMP) with an Oil and Gas Amendment. The BLM’s draft plan amendment — funded entirely by the oil and gas industry — calls for roughly 15,000 new oil and gas wells in the area.
The White River RMP Amendment represents a 15-fold increase in the number of oil and gas wells and allows for a 30 percent decline in mule deer populations over the life of the plan. The likely impacts of this scale of development include significant impacts for the White River watershed including; pollution and dewatering of surface and groundwater supplies, the conversion of agricultural lands to industrial uses, degradation of air quality, long-term socioeconomic impacts to local communities, and the destruction of wildlife habitat including the imperiled greater sage grouse, Colorado cutthroat trout, deer and elk. The final plan is due out later this year and it’s important that BLM strike a better balance between our energy needs and the health of the environment, including its lifeblood the White River.
Fate is a funny thing — it can seem capricious and random like ripples in the river. Many would believe that people can change the course of fate just like we have changed the course of many a river. The fate and ultimate protection of our rivers is something, I hope we can all contemplate while we take in the views and wait for the fish to bite. This year the fate of many of our endangered species, rivers, and heritage hang in the balance.
Sasha Nelson is the Craig field organizer for Conservation Colorado.