Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Author Jonathan Waterman’s speaking engagement in Steamboat Springs last week was well timed, coming 10 days after the U.S. and Mexico finalized a complex agreement that could allow the Colorado River to once again flow to the Gulf of California.
Waterman, a Carbondale resident, is among the foremost crusaders of an effort to restore flows in the delta of the Colorado River where it once flowed in abundance across a desert plain, supporting many species of flora and fauna. But those days are no longer — it has been 13 years since the Colorado River last flowed to the sea.
In addition to describing the plight of the Colorado Delta, Waterman told his audience at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore he’s concerned the river is on the verge of a crisis when it will no longer be able to sustain 3.5 million acres of farmland and 30 million people throughout the Western U.S. and Northern Mexico.
“How much longer can we keep consuming water the way we do?” he asked. “I don’t give it a decade at the rate we’re going.”
Waterman knows firsthand how the current drought has shrunk reservoirs and how the river shrinks into a tiny, cesspool of a stream before it peters out altogether.
Beginning in 2007, and in collaboration with National Geographic, Waterman launched a 1,450-mile journey from the headwaters of the Colorado River to its mouth, traveling 800 miles of that float solo, many of them in a tiny 3-pound pack raft.
He floated through the developed corridor where the river flows along Interstate 70 and noted that it still supports a natural environment that can only be glimpsed while traveling 75 miles per hour on the highway.
“Again and again the river offers a wild experience,” Waterman said. “I camped and wrote in my journal almost every night for five months.”
It was while descending Marble and Grand canyons and watching millions of years of geology stream by that he gained the sense that the canyons are time machines. That feeling was reinforced when one of the fisheries biologists he was floating the canyon with showed him, under an oath of secrecy, a large, fully intact Puebloan pot hidden in an alcove high above the river.
The new water-sharing arrangement involving Mexico and seven Western U.S. states extends Mexico’s ability to store water in Lake Mead near Las Vegas and calls for increased sharing of water in both lean and abundant years. It also includes a commitment to working together to begin water releases to replenish wetlands in the Colorado River delta of the Gulf of California. And that gives Waterman renewed hope for the river.
“If we can perform this one act, it will show the rest of the world that we care, not only about the river and the Sea of Cortez, but about Mexico and those creatures at risk — vaquita porpoises, totoaba (giant bass), shrimp, and the many birds — south of the border beyond reach of our endangered species law,” he wrote in his blog.
When you think about it, a river that never reaches the sea is a river that can never fulfill its destiny.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com