GUEST COMMENTARY | Colorado River Forecast Calls for Cooperation
by Richard Van Gytenbeek, Trout Unlimited Colorado River Basin Coordinator
Mar 26, 2013 | 1153 views | 2 2 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Like many people in Western Colorado, I start most mornings looking at the weather forecasts and studying the current snowpack estimates. On most of those mornings my laptop stares back at me with the same depressing news – another round of anemic snowstorms and basin snowpack levels hovering at 65-80 percent of normal.

While Colorado’s wet months are still to come, the lady in charge is once again making West Slope water users more than a little nervous. Without substantial spring snows, we are looking at another bone-dry summer. A summer that could devastate our farms, ranches and recreation/tourism industries.

In the face of looming water pressures – drought, climate change and municipal and industrial growth – our West Slope communities must work together to keep our rivers, and river-dependent economy, healthy and viable.

Cooperation, not conflict, will be the key to our water future.

We’re in this together. Farms and ranches, recreation and tourism, towns and cities – all depend on a healthy Colorado River.  In Western Colorado, water from the Colorado River basin irrigates pasture on about 9,000 farms and ranches – operations that produce animals and crops worth $346 million annually.

Similarly, our recreation and tourism industries depend heavily on West Slope rivers to support rafting, fishing, kayaking, camping and other activities. Recreation is a huge and growing business in Colorado, generating in excess of $6 billion per year.

While agriculture and recreation-tourism look like very different uses, they are remarkably intertwined and interdependent. Farms and ranches preserve the iconic landscapes and open spaces of the West, crucial wildlife habitat and a cultural heritage that is rooted deeply in the American psyche.

Recreation and tourism depend heavily on these open spaces and the wildlife they support to attract visitors who want to experience a Colorado that is healthy, wild, and abundant.

Together, these sectors comprise western Colorado’s largest economic engine – an engine that runs on water. Without healthy rivers, the economic future of the West Slope looks bleak.

With the specter of another dry summer looming, the communities of Colorado’s Western Slope must pull together to keep our rivers and economy healthy and growing.  Increasingly, agriculture producers and recreation/tourism businesses are recognizing their common interests and finding cooperative ways to ensure the health of the rivers on which they depend.

Trout Unlimited, for instance, is working with ranchers and farmers, irrigation companies and other rural partners to upgrade obsolete or outdated irrigation systems on key tributaries of the Colorado River basin. These win-win projects are improving ranch operations and reducing maintenance costs while enhancing fish and wildlife habitat.

No, West Slope interests won’t always agree on everything, especially when it comes to water.  But there is much on which we can find common ground, if we consider our common future.  Among other things, let’s agree on some core principles:

  • Cooperation, not conflict: Work together to ensure the Colorado River is able to meet our diverse needs, from agriculture to recreation and tourism.
  • Innovative management:  Explore new ways to meet our water supply needs through innovative conservation and management.
  • Keep our rivers at home:  Leave water in its home basins and oppose large-scale, river-damaging transbasin diversions of water from the Colorado River to the Front Range.
  • Protect our open spaces:  Maintain our outdoor quality of life through a vigorous agricultural sector and ensure that our rivers and streams are flowing and healthy.
  • Modernize irrigation: Upgrade our irrigation infrastructure systems to make them more productive, economical, and habitat-friendly.

I think most West Slope residents would agree that these core values of cooperation and innovation could help us meet the serious challenges ahead.

Fighting about water will surely be our demise. 

Go to to learn more and express your support for working together to protect our Colorado River, our future.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
April 01, 2013
I have to say that choosing recreation over food production is a bit disturbing to me, many of those open spaces you want to see are turning brown and growing over with weeds because there is not enough water to cover all the pastures anymore. People are selling off cows, not planting crops, selling water to fracker's for oil drilling...driving the price of food up ever higher every day while the quality has dropped off the deep end. Altering genetics and spraying chemicals on plants and pastures instead of water is a dead end, literally. There has not been enough water for all those who need it on our ditch for two years, and its not looking like that will change anytime soon. Our water problems need addressing for sure, just not sure this is the angle , having all the middle class families on the western slope eat expensive crappy food in trade for tourism? really?
April 02, 2013
Thanks for your comment, I appreciate the feedback. The primary message in my written opinion is that agriculture and recreation are natural allies in stewarding our river and water resources and sustaining the western Colorado communities that depend on them. The intent of my message was not to place one water user over another--it was just the opposite. I haved lived in Colorado and Wyoming my whole life and know and respect the farmers and ranchers who define our western culture, heritage and the western landscapes. They use the water to grow crops and animals for our markets, they protect vast tracts of habitat and open space and are conservationists by nature. In turn, they provide the natural "stage" upon which the recreation-tourism based businesses rely to attract their clients. I believe these two water users are remarkably interdependent and that by working together we can keep our rivers healthy, and our agricultural and recreation-tourism based economies vigorous and strong. The key is cooperation and smart management of our water resources to meet diverse needs.