Dust in the wind and the water

  • Paul Larmer

 

One morning last week, I woke up and couldn't see the mountains. Was it snowing? No, it was dusting … again. The wind, which had howled all day and night, had finally died down, but the dry and loose soils it had borrowed from Arizona and Utah were still precipitating all over our Colorado cars, lungs and what precious little snowpack we have left in mid-May.

I counted at least four dust storms in western Colorado over the past month, and it's been even worse in Arizona. Over a period of six weeks this April and May, Interstate 40 was closed seven times between Winslow and Winona due to blowing dust that created gray-out conditions and toppled vehicles and signs. Last year, I-40 was closed five times.

What's going on here? Weird weather patterns, drought, reduced vegetation due to overgrazing and oil and gas development, global warming? Probably all of the above, according to University of Colorado biogeochemist Jason Neff.

"It's really difficult to pin this year's activity on a single use," says Neff, the co-author of a 2008 study that found the West has become 500 times more dusty over the past two centuries, based on evidence from sediment layers in alpine lakebeds. "But there is no way to explain the long-term increase in dust activity without paying attention to cattle grazing," which has broken up fragile desert soils and made them readily available for airborne transport.

Of course, airborne dirt is just one half of the West's spring sediment load. The other half is currently racing downhill in the region's rivers and streams. Some creatures even thrive in these conditions. Unique and relatively obscure native fish have evolved with the Colorado River's seasonal flows of muddy waters. But as Hillary Rosner reports in this issue's cover story, many of those fish have been in steep decline ever since Westerners constructed dams and reservoirs, which tame the flows, trap much of the silt, and provide great habitat for non-native competitors like rainbow trout and striped bass — which also happen to be favorites of sport fishermen.

Along the lower Colorado River, the amazing razorback sucker, a native fish that can live up to 50 years and grow to more than three feet long, is now dependent on captive breeding programs and the slim hope that the funding and political will can be mustered to re-engineer parts of the river to function more as they did in the pre-dam era. That's a long shot, given that we have yet to remove dams for wild runs of endangered salmon, a much more photogenic fish with a lot more human fans than suckers and chubs can boast.

But it's an important effort nonetheless. As we head into what may be an extremely volatile period of climate change, creatures like the razorbacks that have survived the extremes of the West for tens of thousands of years are more than ever worth our attention.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance, a leading grassroots conservation advocacy organization for over 30 years, seeks a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help...
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...
  • 2 PROPERTIES ON THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Organic farm, hot springs, San Francisco River runs through both. [email protected]