Flight Across America 2012 - Upper Colorado River Basin

State: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming
Region: Colorado River

Flight Across America 2012 focused on water conservation concerns in the Upper Colorado River Basin, emphasizing the crucial role water plays in sustaining natural and societal life. With our college level students, the program took an aerial look at water and its relation to the health of ecosystems, energy development, urban planning, recreation, agriculture, and wildlife habitat in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming. As energy is a primary player in the water economy of the west, the program focused largely on extractive and renewable energy sites including natural gas, coal, oil shale and tar sands, and hydroelectricity. Additionally, we explored the reasons why water conservation is of such great concern to citizens, conservationists, sportsmen, Native Americans, and farmers, and how climate change raises the stakes. The balance afforded by the objectivity of the aerial perspective was further aided by industry tours of a natural gas drill pad and hydroelectric dam as well as a round-table seminar with representatives of diverse backgrounds and beliefs.


Mark Reisner writes in his classic history Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water, that the Colorado River “rises high in the Rockies, a trickle of frigid snowmelt bubbling down the west face of Longs Peak, and begins its fifteen-hundred-mile, twelve-thousand-foot descent to the Gulf of California.” Along the journey, the Colorado cuts through billions of years of geology, sustains countless aquatic and terrestrial species, flows past thousands of historic and cultural sites, and offers world-class recreational opportunities. However, since the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river has been devoted primarily to another purpose—delivering water to 30 million people in the Colorado River Basin states through a complex plumbing system comprised of hundreds of dams, diversions, tunnels, canals, and pumps. The framers of the Compact, which divvied up water rights among seven Southwestern states, significantly overestimated the actual average river flow, did not anticipate future explosive population growth and water demand, and did not foresee global climate change or the resulting long-term reductions in precipitation and water flow. Development of the Colorado River for water delivery has resulted in massive damage to hundreds of miles of canyons, numerous native fish and wildlife populations, hundreds of priceless cultural sites, and world-class recreation areas. Over the decades, the managers of this system have continued to focus almost solely on water development and delivery. They have only begrudgingly allowed non-water stakeholders, including the tribes, the conservation community, and the public, to be involved in discussions on the future of the river.


In a four-day tour of four states, FLAA 2012 engaged our students with diverse conservation concerns of the Upper Colorado River Basin, both from the aerial and ground perspectives.  In Colorado, we flew over oil rigs on the banks of the Colorado River, uranium mining on the Dolores, and dam proposals on the Crystal, recently listed as the 8th most endangered river in the west. Looking at water in its relation to energy, we flew over the web of natural gas drill pads that span the San Juan River Basin and coal-fired power plants that dominate small-towns in New Mexico and Arizona, proposed tar sands development sites in Utah, and hydroelectric dams like Glen Canyon that holds back Lake Powell. In Wyoming, we flew the Green River (the Colorado River’s major tributary), and discussed the effects of climate change on dwindling mountain glaciers at the headwaters of the Green; then flew the large gas field called Moxa Arch in the Upper Colorado Basin, in the migration route  of the pronghorn antelope. Our tour ended with overflights of the Yampa River, a tributary of the Green and one of the last remaining wild rivers in the west, and a stop in Craig, Colorado on the Yampa River. 

En route, students had the opportunity to engage with issues that are typically not well known by the public and met with conservationists, industry representatives, and individuals whose voices aren’t often heard. Throughout the tour, they had the opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences with numerous media representatives as well as with hundreds of other students. We met with Navajo high school and college students in Farmington, and conducted overflights with these local students on the issues immediately affecting them, and did the same in Page, Arizona.  We also conducted a full Roaring Fork Valley high school seminar in Aspen, Colorado at the end of the trip, with at least four schools from the valley, including our local community college, in attendance. We conducted overflights for the students from the local schools prior to the seminar.

EcoFlight’s FLAA goal is to offer a balanced, in-depth, unique and provocative perspective of issues that are important to all of us, and to create a space for young people to advocate for their beliefs. We are excited to trace the story of water in the Upper Colorado River Basin and to examine the possibilities that exist for a more sustainable future. Flight Across America 2012 seeks to engage students in conversation with a diverse range of stakeholders while offering them this aerial view of unseen issues not readily visible, except from a plane.