Twelve months ago, a long-time conservationist and river enthusiast (that’s me) accepted with great excitement the challenge of being Executive Director for the coolest conservation group he knew: The Colorado Water Trust. It’s been a whirlwind!
In some ways, my timing could not have been worse. Mother Nature threw us a curve ball this past winter and spring: A dry, warm weather pattern that caused many of our rivers to run so low – even dry in some cases – that they were closed to fishing and other recreation. And while the last year was unusually bad, we don’t think a return to the wet years of the 20th Century is in the cards.
But in other ways it was a rewarding time to enter the water world. Colorado’s water system is changing. It has to. The equation that allows us to send enough water downstream to other states to meet our treaty obligations no longer balances. And the Front Range continues to grow like gangbusters. Even though city utilities have responded by introducing highly successful water conservation programs, the math doesn’t work. Less water (due mainly to earlier, warmer springs) plus more people equals trouble for rivers, and the people, plants, and animals that depend on them.
No one wants a top-down, regulatory approach to this challenge, nor do they want to abandon our time-proven system of prior appropriation (first in time, first in right) of water rights, or worse, let the federal government dictate a response. That’s why Colorado Water Trust is so important. The legal tools to work within the system on behalf of our rivers already exist. We use them every day, in unique and creative ways that benefit everyone involved. On the Crystal River and the Little Cimarron. On the Poudre and the Yampa and the Fraser. And the great Colorado River itself. Across our great state.
Just this year, we leased 1,800 acre feet of water in a reservoir high up on the Yampa River, and for several weeks “our” released water and that of Tri-State (an electricity generating company) was almost all that flowed down a portion of that mighty tributary of the Colorado. Early this year, we signed the state’s first irrigation retiming agreement with a rancher on the Crystal River. We implemented several projects negotiated in past years. And we continue to develop the state’s first augmentation plan for environmental purposes, creating an efficient, transparent water market that water rights owners on the Cache la Poudre River can participate in.
But here’s where I and my fellow Water Trust crew have run into a hurdle. This work is so time consuming and expensive that we can only do a few projects a year, and that’s not enough. Time is getting away from us too fast, our rivers’ flows declining with the climate at a greater rate than the Water Trust and its (few) like-minded partners can match. We need to scale UP, and fast.
And you knew this was coming, but here it is: This is where you come in. Colorado Water Trust is supported mainly by a group of generous water savvy donors who have allowed us to grow to the organization we are today. What we need now, is for all Coloradans to prioritize our state’s water future. We need your support – at whatever amount is possible for you. Whether it’s a gift on Colorado Gives Day, a gift on our website’s donation page, or joining our new, exclusive monthly donors club, Tributaries … and then asking your friends and family to care, too. It doesn’t take a check with many zeroes to do it, but Colorado will not be able to save our rivers unless we all get involved.
I said at the outset that Colorado Water Trust is the coolest conservation group I know, and here’s why: The amount we get done, in an area of conservation that few venture into because of its complexity, is amazing given how small we are. We do it by finding projects that are win-win for everyone involved, working with water rights owners who want to help rivers, but need our assistance. We believe we are the wave (pun intended) of the future for conservation groups of all types: Market-based, collaborative, inventive, and inclusive.
A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to raft down the Colorado River, and given the low water I had plenty of time to take stock of where we stand. It’s an exciting time, in both the good and bad sense, for these amazing rivers that have defined Colorado for millions of years. I’m looking forward to my second year at the Colorado Water Trust with great anticipation, and I hope you’ll be along for the ride!