Denver Post 4-10-13 Photo Essay: Water Use on Colorado

Apr 10, 2013

As part of EcoFlight’s Flight Across America 2012 program, students flew the Upper Colorado River Basin studying the river from the air, and interviewing water users along the way. Photographer Heather Rousseau joined us and produced this photo essay on water and energy use along the mighty Colorado:

Water and energy use along the Upper Colorado River, a photographic essay

Posted Apr 10, 2013

Heather Rousseau spent ten days last fall photographing and interviewing people living and working in western Colorado, documenting their relationships with the land, energy and water.

“Last summer, Colorado—like much of the rest of the country—saw some of the driest and hottest conditions on record,” recalls Rousseau. “Since 80 percent of the state’s population lives on one side of the Continental Divide while 80 percent of its water comes from the other, everyone in Colorado and the west is affected by the dry conditions.”

Originally from Michigan, Heather Rousseau was a photographer at the Aspen Daily News from 2007-2011. She was one of The Denver Post’s 2012 summer photography interns and is currently finishing master’s degrees in both Visual Communication and Environmental Sustainability from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. This fall, she again returned to Colorado for this project, as a part of her coursework.

“I love the spirit and the landscape of the west, it is one of the most adventurous places I have been where everyone seems to have a deep connection with the landscape and nature, which in turn is connected to the river,” writes Rousseau. “Just like anywhere else, Coloradans embody an array of opinions and life habits. However, one belief seems to be shared by most who live in the arid west. Water is a valuable and finite resource and the Colorado River is pertinent to their way of life and water needs of the west.”

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


The Dolores River is a major tributary of the Colorado River; it is seen here south of Grand Junction during an EcoFlight. Ken Neubecker, executive director of the Western Rivers Institute and EcoFlight instructor tells students about the connection between water and energy. “Water takes a lot of energy, a huge amount of energy—most people don’t realize it," says Neubecker. "We tend to take water for granted. [Energy takes] more water than we use for agriculture and more water than we use for our cities or for ourselves." More than 50 percent of the river is used for energy production between the extraction and refining processes for coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas. Four percent of energy production equates to actual consumption, but this is no small mark. EcoFlight is an organization based in Aspen, Colorado that advocates land conservation and environmental stewardship education through the use of small aircraft. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Students look over Lake Powell from the Glen Canyon Dam during an educational trip about water and energy on the Upper Colorado River with EcoFlight. When talking to the EcoFlight students, Laurel Hagen, executive director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council, suggested that the answer to water preservation is a combination of endeavors- everything from improving technology, to renewable energy sources like solar panels, decreasing consumption, and limiting population growth. “Obviously we need some power; there is no question [whether or not] we are all going to suddenly live like cavemen,” she said. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Cows graze near an irrigated pond on Roy Savage's land in Garfield County, which he rents to other ranchers. “I saw the drought coming so I sold all my cows,” said Savage, whose family has a 60-year history of raising cattle in Parachute, Colorado. “You can’t make ends meet with cows, and oil and gas is the only thing that provides enough revenue so you can keep the ranchers.” #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Bill Fales, with Cold Mountain Ranch in Carbondale, Colorado looks out over his cattle. He loves ranching and is doing everything he can to protect Thompson Divide from gas drilling. “It is just a spectacular yet somewhat fragile area that we are trying our damndest to maintain and protect the values it provides to this valley today," said Fales. Located just under 8,000 feet and surrounded by ski towns of the Roaring Fork Valley, one can admire the river’s source, snow packed mountain peeks. The bases of the 14,000-foot high mountaintops hug the valley’s arid landscape below. Here William Fales has managed to keep his 300 head of cattle, which graze on a wide-open valley of alfalfa and irrigated grass—but it hasn't been easy. Drought and the possibility of natural gas development in the nearby high country has Fales concerned about his water source. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Farmer, Bill O’Leary, of Parachute, pets his horse after feeding her oats. He is very concerned about drought and water scarcity. He is trying new methods to continue his farming, but had to sell some of his horses because he could not afford to keep feeding them with the drought. O’Leary plans to start flood irrigation; he explains that the standard system of irrigating with sprinklers is inefficient and wastes water. “With sprinklers systems, the water just evaporates into the air,” he said. “I’m going to run the water through a pipe, put holes in it, so the water runs to the produce." Not long ago, O’Leary enjoyed boating trips to Baja California where the Colorado River once flowed into the Sea of Cortez. Drought, population growth and energy demands on the river have rendered it dry two miles shy of the Gulf of California. Not a drop of water from the Colorado River has reached the sea since 1998, leaving no water from the river for Mexico. “This is the lowest I have ever seen the river,” he said. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Jordan Lahti, left and Jeff Montebone prepare to herd cattle out of their summer grazing area on the Thompson Divide, an area of proposed gas drilling. 80 percent of the Colorado's water comes from the area where these ranchers are seen looking out at the snowcapped mountain peaks- the source of the Colorado River. Laurel Hagen, executive director of Canyon Lands Watershed Council, asks a question to a group of Eco-Flight students. “How do we get [the water] to one population over another? Right now, because urban populations are growing pretty fast, they are the ones who actually have the increasing demand for water." Basin diversions do not just include places like Denver and its suburbs but also cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas that hold a lot of water rights. Though cities like Las Vegas are getting better at lowering their per-capita water demand, water use is still growing, because their populations are growing. “We can conserve all we want but eventually we are going to hit a wall if our population keeps going up,” Hagen warns. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Lake Powell and nearby surburbs are seen from an EcoFlight plane giving students tours, looking at water and energy issues along the Upper Colorado River. The Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell to store water and provide power for states down river. When the lake is full, 3 to 4 percent of the water is lost due to evaporation. “You have the Colorado River coursing through your veins,” says Joan Mayer, an education specialist with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, to a group of EcoFlight students. Twenty five percent of the crops grown in the United States use water from the Colorado River. The use of water for energy extraction and irrigation are two of the largest straws that draw on the Colorado River. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


A well rig for a horizontal hydraulic fracturing is seen on private land near the Roan Plateau in Garfield County. Currently there are only a few wells being "fracked" in Garfield County, an area that has a history of oil and gas booms. In addition to independent land owners, more than 90 percent of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) area is available or leased to energy development. Frakcing techniques require hundreds of thousands of gallons of water extraction for each well, which directly or indirectly is fed by the Colorado River or its tributaries. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Roy Savage prepares coffee for his guests after hunting. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Michael Lewis, left, Roy Savage, center and Thomas Ball enjoy coffee and conversation after returning from hunting in Garfield County. Lewis and Ball do not see the natural gas drilling that takes place on Savage’s land as a threat to the sport they love. The elk they shot was in a herd grazing near a drill pad. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Roy Savage looks over his land, with his 4-year-old daughter Abigail. Savage grew up as a fourth generation rancher in the area but recently sold his cows because of the drought. In order to keep his land he transitioned into sort of an energy specialist, allowing company's extract the minerals that lay below the surface of his land. “I think it is important for her (Abigail) to grow up on her own family’s ranch because it will give her a place to roam,” he mused. Savage even takes Abigail to see his friends who are avid hunters, as they gut a deer they shot that had been grazing near the gas pads on his land. “Being a part of a piece of land, big or small, I think, gives a person a wider horizon... It gives one perspective,” Savage said. He also speaks about the water and energy nexus in a thoughtful and concerned manner, yet he is also very matter-of-fact. “Water and energy are inextricably linked,” Savage explained.“Each is dependent on the other; you have to have energy to produce water and you need water to produce energy. The question is, what are the resources you are using and what are the resources you need?” #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Thomas Ball, prepares to tag the elk he shot in Parachute, Colorado on his friend Roy Savage's land. He supports natural gas drilling in the area, pointing out that the elk he got was in a herd grazing off of land right by the gas wells. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Deer graze on irrigated ranching land underneath the power lines in Parachute, which is also an area for hunting. If it were not for irrigation from the Colorado River, the desert scape would not enable grazing for local wildlife in the area. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Lorie Syme of Montrose looks outside at a gas pipeline valve in Battlement Mesa during a tour by the Western Colorado Congress. Syme went on the tour because she wanted to learn more about the natural gas boom that has taken place in Colorado and across the country in recent years. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Michelle swims with her daughter Regan at the Battlement Mesa Community Center as concerned citizens discuss natural gas drilling in the area during the Western Colorado Congress' annual meeting. The community center was fully paid for by the oil and gas company EXXON. Garfield county has been one of the largest producers of natural gas in Colorado. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Gas pads are seen in Garfield County, one of the largest natural gas producing counties in Colorado. Thousands of wells are being fracked in Colorado alone, and fracking uses 5 million gallons of water per well. “This is enough water for two average families a year,” Ken Neubecker, executive director of the Western Rivers Institute explains. Currently, gas drilling on the Front Range, in places like Weld County, have the highest gas production sites. The tight sands geology in Garfield County are more expensive to drill from. However, the water required for hydraulic fracturing in Garfield County can be a less intense because the natural geology allows gas companies to rely more heavily on recycled water. Still, locals in the area have strong opinions for and against the natural gas drilling. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Lily Janssen, left, watches as her mom and sister, Ginger and Laela Janssen, pick tomatoes from their green house. Their home is on Basalt Mountain, which overlooks the Elk Mountain Range. Ginger and her husband Robb built their home on a very site-specific location that lends itself well to renewable and minimal energy use. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Ginger Janssen holds a handful of fresh cherry tomatoes from her green house garden. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Robb and his daughter Lily gut pumpkins grown in their garden to make pumpkin pie from scratch. The teepee Robb and his wife Ginger once lived in can be seen outside on the hill. Rob and Ginger Janssens’ first home was a Volkswagen bus, the second a teepee, then a cabin that was basically four walls, no running water or power, just wood heat. The cabin was a huge upgrade at the time. “We were just thankful for walls,” said Robb Janssen. The family's present house is completely off the grid and made mostly of reused and recycled materials. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Laela Janssen jumps on the trampoline in her backyard on Basalt Mountain. Her home can be seen behind. “We live in a very site-specific place,” said her dad, Rob Janssen. The Janssens have springs above their property that feed into a creek; the creek helps power the entire house. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Ginger Janssen collects eggs from their chickens and ducks. The Janssen family also has goats that Ginger hopes to get milk from someday. “We like to use the word ‘sustainable’ and that kind of stuff but the only way we can be sustainable is if the valley is still here," said Ginger's husband, Rob. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Bill Fales, with Cold Mountain Ranch prepares his horses for a cattle drive with his friend Frank Houpt, back left and daughter Molly Fales, right. He loves ranching and is doing everything he can to protect Thompson Divide from gas drilling. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Horses graze near an irrigation ditch at Cold Mountain Ranch near Carbondale, Colorado. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


Shawn Taylor, of Snowmass Village, looks on the town of Carbondale after a bike ride on Red Hill. Mount Sopris, off in the distance, and the surrounding landscape is also a playground for the outdoor minded residents. Carbondale veils the the Thompson Divide, where local ranchers are offering to buy oil and gas leases to prevent drilling on the public land. In addition, the Hidden Gems Campaign has proposed “wilderness area,” on potential drilling sites. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


A multi-well, directional natural gas well is drilled in Rifle early October 2012. A natural gas drilling boom in 2008 put the area on the map as a major drilling location. Since, most of the controversial hydraulic fracking in Colorado happens on the front range. Still, gas drilling supports the economy of Rifle and surrounding towns. Some organizations and local activists are fighting for stricter regulations on the drilling, as they are concerned about their air and water quality. Hydraulic fracking is just one of the many energy related water straws from the Colorado River. #

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


“I just love the river; it feels incredible,” says Allison Austin, a local resident, while looking up through rising steam at a thick blanket of stars while relaxing in natural hot springs along the Crystal River just outside of Carbondale. Ranchers use the Crystal River for irrigation; it also provides the town’s water supply. The Crystal is one of the only free-flowing rivers in the United States. It has no dams, but its pristine status is threatened. The national non-profit organization American Rivers included the Crystal River on their 2012 America’s Most Endangered Rivers list due to a proposed hydropower dam and water diversions. #