Four Rivers (and what they mean for the mighty Colorado River)

This past week in southwest Colorado, the Mesa County Conservation Forum hosted a symposium made up of six experienced panelists to weigh in on and field questions about the “Value of the Colorado River to Western Colorado Economies.” 

The lay-of-the-land is mind-blowing:

  • Thirty million people in seven western states rely on the Colorado River and its tributaries to provide some, if not all, of their municipal water needs. Many of these states and communities are among the fastest growing in the country.
  • That same water source irrigates almost 4 million acres of land in the U.S., producing 15 percent of the nation’s crops and 13 percent of its livestock.
  • The Colorado River is considered the lifeblood of at least 15 Native American tribes and communities, dozens of parcels of the National Conservation Lands, seven National Wildlife Refuges, four National Recreation Areas and 11 National Parks.
  • The river supports agriculture in the Mexicali Valley and supplies municipal water supplies for Mexican communities as far away as Tijuana.
  • A recent study has found that the Colorado River is a $26 billion dollar recreation resource that employs 250,000 people. The study makes the comparison, “if the Colorado River were a company, it would rank number 155 in the 2011 Fortune 500, and be the 19th largest employer.”

And the list can go on. As the panelists clearly explained, practically everyone living in the western U.S. has, at one time or another, sipped from a Colorado River straw.  And equally significant is the rate at which we “slurp” from the many tributaries that feed into it.  No one, they all agreed, can ignore the Colorado River nor fail to “do their part” to conserve it.

The Conservation Lands Foundation, with a mission to protect, restore and expand the Conservation Lands through education, advocacy, and partnerships, is focusing its efforts on four rivers that supply water to the Colorado. More specifically, the Conservation Lands Foundation is giving financial and training resources to people and non-profit community organizations who advocate for these rivers and for the National Conservation Lands that surround them.

The goal is not to jostle over water rights or allocations. Rather, the Foundation’s goal is to engage people and local organizations that will result in dedicated, effective constituencies—groups of people who know what’s at stake, have the will, and know what action to take—for the conservation of these rivers and the watersheds that sustain them. The Conservation Lands Foundation’s intention is to help land and water advocates coordinate their stewardship, which will in turn maximize community-based work to restore and protect these tributaries—and therefore positively impact the Colorado River.  It’s a tall order, but the communities and people living near these four rivers are poised to succeed.  Here’s more information about them:

Bird watchers in the San Pedro River corridor

Friends of the San Pedro River

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is a 57,000-acre desert river area in southern Arizona that is an incredibly important place for wildlife, especially migrating and wintering birds. The San Pedro River basin is culturally vibrant; Apache were early inhabitants of the region, and the area also has intact remains of the Spanish Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenante, a 1770s Spanish fortress marking the northern extension of New Spain. The river is the last, major free-flowing undammed river in the American southwest. It flows north from its headwaters in Mexico and joins the Gila River, which flows west to the Colorado. With more people settling in the area and new development, however, people are tapping into and depleting underground aquifers that supply the river.

To address the complex issue of how water functions in the river and basin, the group recently completed “Hydrology of the San Pedro River,” a video that will be viewed widely by school kids living throughout the area. Friends of the San Pedro River volunteers take hundreds of people who come from all over the U.S. (and around the world) on bird-watching hikes. Members will give input to local Bureau of Land Management employees as they begin writing a new Resource Management Plan, as well run a bookstore and visitors center at the area headquarters.


Gunnison River

Colorado Canyons Association

The Gunnison River, which flows through Gunnison Gorge, McInnis Canyons and Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Areas, is 164 miles long and the fifth largest tributary of the Colorado.  It also flows through the Black Canyon, one of the longest, narrowest and deepest gorges in the world. It empties into the Colorado River near the town of Grand Junction, which is also headquarters of the Colorado Canyons Association—a group that fosters community stewardship for the three National Conservation Areas.

The group hosts on-site education events for school kids from three counties, supports trail monitors, and has helped with restoration work on the Gunnison and North Fork of the Gunnison. These three National Conservation Areas are archaeologically significant, and the Colorado Canyons Association organizes frequent public lectures with regional experts on early Native American settlement and culture.


Grand Staircase Escalante Partners

In south-central Utah, the Escalante River flows about 90 miles southeast from the town of Escalante to Lake Powell. Much of it flows through sandstone gorges and rugged canyons, forming a key section of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. At almost 2 million acres, this is the largest unit of the Conservation Lands. Most of the year, the river is a small stream that can be easily waded or stepped across; during spring run-off, however, it can become a muddy torrent and grow 10 to 100 times in size.

Grand Staircase Escalante Partners support educational outreach about the area, an archaeological site steward program, a paleontology lab, and native plant restoration projects. They are also part of the Escalante River Watershed Partnership, removing invasive Russian Olive from the river and its tributaries. In May, Interior

Secretary Ken Salazar identified river projects in 10 western states to serve as models of the America’s Great Outdoors River Initiative to conserve and restore key rivers across the nation, expand outdoor recreation and support jobs in local communities. The Escalante River Watershed Partnership was among those highlighted.


Lower Dolores Boating Advocates

A relatively new organization and a new member of the Conservation Lands Foundation’s Friends Grassroots Network, Lower Dolores Boating Advocates are based in Dolores, Colorado and focus on whitewater recreation and habitat conservation in the lower Dolores River. People have been boating the Dolores River recreationally for more than 100 years; the amount of water in the river, however, has been reduced since the construction in the 1980s of McPhee Reservoir just downstream from the town of Dolores.  Below the reservoir, the Dolores River flows approximately 170 miles through beautiful public lands, including BLM wilderness study areas and other citizens proposed wilderness areas amounting to almost 250,000 acres.

Lower Dolores Boating Advocates are supporters and members of a broad coalition working to introduce legislation to designate the area a National Conservation Area and Wilderness.  They also conduct grassroots and outreach projects that raise the profile of the river and highlight its recreational and habitat values.  As the organization grows and becomes more established, it will participate in restoration projects that support the Dolores River Restoration Partnership’s Tamarisk Removal Project – another restoration project highlighted by Secretary Salazar as a model for how communities can restore and reconnect with their local rivers.

Kayaking on the Dolores River

Returning to last week’s forum on the “Value of the Colorado River to Western Colorado Economies.”  In this case, “economies” are diverse and have many different meanings and priorities for many different people. The Mesa County Conservation Forum designed this public discussion—and all of the events they organize—to take place in an open and honest forum that fosters respect and collaboration among participants. The goal is to establish fact-based, civil and informed dialogue about one of the most complex conservation issues we face.

It is a good reminder that the Colorado River and its tributaries, including the four watersheds these four organizations are focusing on, are the arteries of the West. Or as one panelist boiled it down to, “asking someone if they care about Colorado River water is like asking them if they care about oxygen.”  We tend to talk or argue about how one economy is more important than another, when what we really need to talk about is the river.

The Conservation Lands Foundation is excited for these organizations poised to take meaningful next steps toward action for their watersheds–actions and advocacy that will positively impact the amount of water flowing in these great rivers.  To find out more, or to get involved with these groups, click on the names below.

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