Our state Legislature outlined a path for Colorado to take bold moves to address the aridification within our state. The Colorado River Drought Task Force, created by the new law, has been discussing new ideas and enhancements of existing tools to build greater resilience to drought.
Creating greater flexibility has been held up as a goal of the task force’s effort, yet creates concern about potential impacts to other water users. Flexibility can create unintended consequences in the future, while also allowing for resilience in the face of the unknown that future provides. The river illustrates the paradox well.
The Colorado River, creator of canyons from Gore to Grand, cut through millions of years of rock, focused on creating its path. As the river digs, however, it is quick to change course when obstacles impede its flow. Those lucky enough to know a river intimately understand how water flowing downstream is constantly interrupted by the dynamics of an ever-shifting eddy or surging hydraulic. The river knows how to adapt. Anyone who interacts with her must also learn that lesson.
Healthy, flowing rivers are innately woven into the fabric of our family. Jonathan is an outfitter and Hattie is a nonprofit river recreation and conservation advocate. We depend on our rivers for our livelihood. Rivers are what initially brought us together and we return to the river as a place to heal, connect and be inspired to find the flexibility to navigate the future.
After multiple low-water years, our outfitting company, Downstream Adventures, sought a variety of flexible solutions to stay afloat. We sought permits on a variety of rivers to diversify available water and bought smaller crafts to accommodate lower flows. We are heartened that the work of the Drought Task Force can help to identify ways that water users like us can stay in business.
We are encouraged to hear some of the ideas put forth thus far, such as allowing the industrial water rights holders to maintain their historic water rights for the duration of the transition to clean energy, while allowing for that water to be used to the benefit of the river itself. As the task force digs into additional issues, we encourage them to find more multi-beneficial solutions.
For example, as water is being sent down river to meet interstate legal obligations, require that it is done in a manner that benefits the environment and supports the recreation economy. This water could provide enhanced flows during low-water years and serve as a way to create assurances that river-based businesses can survive and thrive. In looking ahead to more dry years in the future, we have reason to believe that drought will result in shortened seasons that push our businesses past the brink of viability.
We are encouraged by the work the task force has done to date. The people of Colorado are cheering on the efforts of this group, and will continue to encourage strong and bold recommendations that support all of us. The river will continue to chart its path downstream, bending its way around all we put in its path. We have to do the same.
If we let fear stiffen us at the top of the rapid, we’ll likely end up upside down at the bottom. But that same fear can help us find multiple lines through the tumult and end up smiling in an eddy together.
Hattie Johnson is the Southern Rockies Restoration Director for American Whitewater and Jonathan Snodgrass is the co-owner of Downstream Adventures LLC.