Written by the 2015 Flight Across America students, Tyler Grimes, Josey Burkett, Ryan Lima, Shawn Lack, Katie Junghans, Katlin Lowe, Jonah Seifer and Emilio Mateo.
Dear Roaring Fork Valley High School students,
We have a request of you. The eight of us on Flight Across America just experienced something transformational. Ecoflight made it possible for us to be at the 10,000-foot level, far enough removed to see a systems perspective and close enough to see the features of the landscape. The 2015 theme was Megadrought and the Future of Water in the West. We looked at this particular system in a way none of us had before. Now we want to share it with you and make a simple request.
On Sunday, we met with Liza Mitchell from the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Mark Fuller from Ruedi Water and Power Authority, We learned about over-allocation on the Colorado River due to the 1922 Compact formed during the wettest decade of the last 1,000 years. That compact is the legal basis for how the waters of the Colorado are divided among seven western states. We heard about the Colorado River flowing to the ocean for the first time in 30 years. We heard about the 16-year drought impacting the Western states and climate change exacerbating those conditions.
We learned about the 80-20 split in Colorado, with 80% of the water on the western slope and 80% of the population on the eastern. We learned that due to the shortage on the Colorado River, diversion projects that move water from reservoirs above Aspen over to the Eastern slope might not be the best idea. You could get involved with local water conservation efforts. But that’s not really what we’re asking of you.
We flew over oil and gas wells on the Roan Plateau and Piceance Basin, and heard about the amount of water fracking uses and the potential for ground water contamination in the watershed. We stopped in Moab and talked to Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance about their initiatives to protect land permanently, especially in ecologically-sensitive areas, to prevent energy developments that could threaten the river. We were told that once drilling begins, it’s too late. The fight is won and lost in the leasing stage.
We also heard from the Glen Canyon Institute and their belief that drought isn’t the right term to describe what’s happening on the Colorado River. What we are seeing is not a drought, but a water shortage. These conditions are likely the “new normal.” And because of that, the Glen Canyon Institute proposes to drain Lake Powell into Lake Mead to save the 2.5% of water that’s lost into the porous sandstone. It’s an amount equivalent to Nevada’s share of the Colorado. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Glen Canyon Institute would probably appreciate letters to Congressmen, but that’s still not what we’re asking.
The next flight took us over Lake Powell and we saw firsthand the side canyons that are returning as the water recedes. Then we landed in Page and toured Glen Canyon Dam. We learned the history of the dam and how it was built.
On Tuesday, we flew over the stunning Grand Canyon, over the last remaining village in the canyon and over the uranium mines along the rim. We toured an active uranium mine recently reopened. We heard the mine employees’ perspectives that it was safe and well monitored. We also heard from Roger Clark, a representative from the Grand Canyon Trust, who disagreed with the miner’s safety of uranium mining and advocated more testing further downstream from the mines. Clark and the Trust are also currently supporting a Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument bill to prevent new uranium claims in the canyon. They too could use the support of people making their voices heard to representatives, but again, that’s not what we’re requesting, Roaring Fork students.
We also met people working on “Save the Confluence”, including a Northern Arizona graduate colleague of two members of FLAA. Save the Confluence is working to protect the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado from a potential gondola that would take visitors from the rim. The confluence, we were told, is the most sacred site to multiple Native American tribes. It was described as a place with clear, turquoise water that shimmers in the sunlight. It’s the place some believe the soul goes when they pass on from this life.
Yesterday, we flew to Durango and passed over a field of oil pads stretching to the horizon. Not only were the number of pads remarkable, but their proximity to neighborhoods was shocking. It raised the questions like, where is the best place for oil and gas? Or any form of energy extraction for that matter? Who wants it in their backyard? Who wants it interfering with nearby protected lands? And who wants it in a position to endanger their water source? So where should wells go?
The Durango leg of the expedition really brought home many of the points we had been learning. We heard from a variety of stakeholders about the Gold King Mine spill into the Animas River. Representatives from Trout Unlimited, the Mountain Studies Institute, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Southwest Water Conservation District, and the Ship Rock Farming Board talked about the spill, the response within the community, and sampling that allowed them to track the damage to the river. They talked about the number of mines at risk of a massive spill, mines that are already leaking contaminants into the river. They discussed the potential of a Superfund, the pros and cons, and about the alternative clean up efforts led by Good Samaritan groups.
On our way back to Aspen, we flew back over the jagged peaks of the Rockies and saw the first signs of the snowpack beginning. We saw the grandeur of the natural system- snowfall to snowpack to streams to rivers. It’s a system that’s threatened by rising temperatures, with snow falling instead as rain, and snowpack melting earlier in spring.
Then we landed in Aspen and heard from Jim Pokrandt from the Colorado River District who summed his message succinctly: lawns or agriculture, how do we want to use our water? It’s a simple message and one you can remember to share. Yet, even this isn’t what we’re asking of you.
Additionally, we valued the deeper perspectives from the Navajo leaders we met. First, we learned from Northern Arizona graduate student Deon Ben, that the land we were visiting wasn’t part of a reservation, his people’s home is the Navajo Nation, and their voices should be heard as such. We heard from Sam Minkler as he reminded us that his people learned to thrive in this arid region for 4000 years and were only recognized by this country in the 1930s. He passionately cried out about the things we’re doing to the earth, he said, it shouldn’t be this way. We heard from Jo Bend the leader of the Ship Rock Farm Board that water is life, it’s the thing that makes this planet inhabitable and we have to protect it.
So Roaring Fork High School students, this is our request: that you will consider the intrinsic value of water. That you ponder if water is sacred. And when you turn on your faucet or drink from a fountain that you will know you are privileged, that you are enjoying something the majority of the world lives without. We ask that as you consider that value, that you also learn about the challenges facing our water supply. We ask that in your valuation you might look for ways to engage your local watershed, knowing the entire basin is connected by the Colorado River.