ASPEN DAILY NEWS 10-22-19 Roaring Fork, San Luis valleys connect

Oct 22, 2019
Eco flight

A view en route to the San Luis Valley in mid-October on a flight organized by Aspen-based EcoFlight with students from CMC and Adams State

Growing up the daughter of coastal Peruvian farmers, Lucia Jayne thought she had a pretty good grasp of the importance of water and its environmental and economic impacts.

“I was able to see firsthand what happens when there’s not enough water coming from highlands, because I was living on the coast,” she said, adding that low rainfall meant instead pumping water from the ground to irrigate crops — a more expensive but necessary alternative.

“That would impact how much money, the profit we will get from that year,” she explained. “I was always aware of … how is the rain falling in the highlands. If it hasn’t been good, that was always the worry. Growing up, I was familiar with that.”

But it wasn’t until the Colorado Mountain College student hopped on a plane with three of her of CMC peers and EcoFlight President and pilot Bruce Gordon to the San Luis Valley that she saw the bigger picture from a different vantage point.

“It snowed that weekend, a fresh layer of snow,” she said of the Oct. 11 and 12 flights during the two-day program. “But not just that. We got to talk to the people there. When we flew over the second day to see all the reservoirs, it was like, ‘OK, now I can picture how much water you’re talking about.’ That was my favorite part, connecting when they were talking about the water and water rights and being on the plane … and seeing where the water goes.”

The program was an abridged iteration of EcoFlight’s Flight Across America, Gordon explained.

“We’ve been doing this for a lot of years,” he said of the student program. In past years, he’s taken student groups on multi-day trips with overnight stays across several states. This year, partially due to inclement weather and partially due to increased programming for the Aspen-based nonprofit, the trip was shortened — but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still incredibly impactful, Gordon stressed.

“Sometimes it goes across three, four or five states. Because we’ve been so busy … we just didn’t have enough time or resources, so we partnered with someone I knew in Alamosa that had access to Adams State,” he continued. “So it became Fly Across Colorado.”

Students submitted applications, complete with personal essays, in order to participate. Including the flight crew and students from Adams State University and CMC, 16 people heard presenters from the university and environmental advocacy groups before aerial tours of the Rio Grande Basin.

“The young adults are always inspiring,” Gordon said. “They care, they’re smart. Sometimes you get bogged down in this environmental work; it just keeps going round and round. These kids make it a priority.”

In fact, Gordon initiated student programming through EcoFlight, which he founded in 2002, in no small part because he wanted a breather from touring politicians — and because he wanted to realize a vision he’d dreamed up with John Denver on the golf course years before.

“The backstory is that John Denver and I were great friends, and we shared a lot of common interests. One of those was the environment and one of those was flying,” he said. “John was always a big supporter of my conservation flying.”

That support grew into a seed of an idea, he continued.

“We came up with this idea on the golf course for a flight from Alaska through the [continental] states, stopping at different airports and highlighting different challenges to the environment,” he said. “We were going to do this with volunteer pilots who were celebrities. He had access to a number of celebrities that he was going to run this by: John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford.”

Ultimately, they’d envisioned the trek with stakeholders and policymakers would culminate at the Earth Summit 2000 in Washington, D.C.

“Well, it never sort of got out of the dream stage because John passed away,” Gordon said. “Years later, I thought, ‘That was such a great idea.’ I started calling some of these contacts —  and nobody called me back. It was of course John’s deal.”

Eco flight

Much of EcoFlight’s programming centers around giving students new perspectives of public lands and how to protect them.

But his lack of clout with the celebrity A-list didn’t deter Gordon. It just meant taking a different direction — one in which he’s the pilot.

“After flying all year with politicians … [I] wanted to do something refreshing, and we targeted young adults,” he said.

Flight Across America — or in the case of earlier this month, Flight Across Colorado — is just one of myriad programs EcoFlight facilitates with schools and youth entities. Indeed, education is at the heart of the nonprofit’s mission: “EcoFlight flies conservation groups, policy makers, media representatives, concerned citizens and young adults over our Western landscapes so they can see for themselves the impact of man on our natural world, and hopefully inspire proactive behavior to protect these landscapes,” according to its website.

As far as Jayne is concerned, mission accomplished. Her conversations with people like San Luis Valley rancher and farmer Cleave Simpson has put a human face onto the water conservation issue, in turn only deepening the business and sustainability student’s interest in the topic.

“We don’t get enough precipitation, we’re not going to ski powder this week,” she said. “But I feel like for them, the entire economy would just collapse if they don’t have enough water. It helps you be more conscious about [water management]. It doesn’t sink in until you talk to the farmer … and you’ve put a face on it.”

She’s accurate in her assessment, Simpson confirmed. And the situation has become ever dire, requiring innovative solutions.

“The Rio Grande Basin is a highly over appropriated basin from a water-use perspective. There are more applications for water rights than there is water available,” he said flatly. “Really, what this district and this community struggles with is we built our communities, our economies and our culture all around irrigated agriculture from the ’20s to ’60s. We’re just dealing with a dwindling supply of water. We’re out of balance. You either sit back and watch this happen to you, or you get proactive and come together as communities of interest, which is what we’ve done.”

Simpson is the general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, a collective self governance comprising six subdistricts in which committees discuss water management plans.

“We are assessing ourselves. We are paying a fee for the water that we’re pumping out of these aquifer systems that we’ve never had to before,” he said of the governance model.

It’s much more sustainable than what could be a state-mandated, “pretty Draconian” alternative: turning off the wells, of which there are more than 14,000 in the area. If RGWCD’s efforts prove inadequate to maintain necessary water levels to meet other regional obligations, that’s exactly what could happen.

Simpson and many of his neighbors have also turned to other, less water-consumptive crops. For his part, Simpson has started exploring farming hemp.

“I raise alfalfa because that’s what my great grandfather was doing. It’s the most water consumptive crop we can raise here,” he said of the roughly 8,000-foot elevation. “Water conservation was what motivated me to get interested in [hemp], but it’s been monetary for a number of people.”

That kind of risk management especially piqued Jayne’s business curiosities, and she said that insight will likely stay with her in other contexts.

“For example, clothes: It’s tremendous how many gallons of water we use for a T-shirt — there’s so much water to grow the cotton, to process the fabric. I think we don’t think about it. It’s really important for everything that happens in the industry,” she said. “If I’m going to be working at a company, and I’ve already seen how water can affect the people directly, I feel like I will be more conscious. There are people I’ve talked to in the past that will be affected if we waste water.”