Welcome to the era of scarcity

 

I have a classic Western postcard tacked to the bulletin board above my computer. It shows two men in a field with shovels raised above their heads, locked in mock battle. Behind them runs an irrigation ditch. The headline reads: "Discussing Western Water Rights, A Western Pastime."

The postcard makes me laugh because I know firsthand how worked up people can get over water. At an annual ditch meeting two years ago, my Western Colorado neighbors seemed on the verge of an insurrection when the volunteer members of the board sheepishly announced that a leak in the local reservoir had not been fixed. That meant that the reservoir, which supplies our late-season water, would not fill, and so the ditches would run dry by the end of July. Our green patches of grass, alfalfa and corn would quickly become as brown, bare and cracked as the desert lands that surround them.

In years past, my neighbors and I might have shrugged off one shortened growing season; once the reservoir was fixed, after all, the ditches would flow copiously all summer long with snowmelt from the mountains behind town. But that was then. Nowadays, something weird is going on with the weather. The snowpack -- the source of nearly all of our water -- has become unpredictable, with most years on the lean side. No matter how much snow flies in the winter, it seems to melt off earlier every spring.

Climate change scientists confirm what old-timers know by observation: The West's water supply is shrinking. A difficult period of triage lies ahead. If our cities get their way, the rural areas and the Indian tribes will end up handing over their water. It's already happening in places like Southern California and Las Vegas, where deals are being cut to pump groundwater and divert traditional agricultural waters to the urban areas.

Here in Colorado, water managers have long assumed that the state still has plenty of unused Colorado River water to accommodate future growth on both the Front Range and the Western Slope. But now, forward-looking realists like Eric Kuhn are tossing those assumptions out the window. The Colorado River's flow has always been overestimated, and it is bound to shrink even more as the climate shifts. Kuhn, the protagonist in this issue's cover story, estimates that Colorado may have legal access to just one-tenth of the water it thought it had.

That means that the Front Range, which is expecting more growth in the next couple of decades, will need to push conservation harder than ever. But even that won't be enough: It will also have to purchase senior water rights from agricultural interests on my side of the Continental Divide. 

In the not-so-distant future, our small farms and ranches may dry up in order to keep the faucets running in the expanding suburbs of Denver. The great Western Pastime of arguing over water is far from over, but the players in the game are shifting. Instead of wielding shovels, they now carry the latest climate models and are accompanied by powerful lawyers.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers