Flight Across America 2015 - Megadrought

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

EcoFlight's Flight Across America program dynamically engages college students about environmental issues, using a broad range of perspectives, both aerial and on the ground, to bring attention to pressing conservation issues. Students learn how such issues personally impact their lives and the world around them, and how to personally participate in advocacy work. Through the aerial perspective and discussions with diverse stakeholders and experts on the ground, EcoFlight offers a tangible educational experience, engaging students in the complexities of environmental issues throughout the West. It is our hope that by offering students the opportunity to delve deeply into issues central to the West, they become better prepared to participate in meaningful discussions public lands and advocate for their beliefs, as the next generation of leaders. Flight Across America 2015 focused on water conservation concerns in the West, emphasizing the crucial role water plays in sustaining life, and the mega drought happening in many states across the West.

The program provided an excellent learning environment for students, combining the aerial perspective of the role of water in the health of ecosystems and how watersheds connect landscapes, with on-the-ground discussions of the impact of energy development, urban planning, recreation and agriculture on our water resources. The Colorado River Basin is in its 14th year of drought, and water is a top concern for population centers and agriculture. We will discuss the coping mechanisms of multiple states in the West, as they plan for the future in an attempt to balance an already over-allocated water supply with growing domestic demand. Climate models are predicting an even drier future, with sustained periods of sparse precipitation and significant loss of soil moisture that span generations, about 10 times as long as a normal three-year drought. In the face of these “mega-droughts” it is imperative that we begin thinking in terms of the future and not just the present for water management in the West.

In a five-day tour of four states, FLAA 2015 will engage college students with diverse conservation concerns of water in the West. EcoFlight provided aerial tours of water storage and diversion projects, over energy development (both fossil fuel and renewable), over agriculture, and wild landscapes, and watersheds that are vulnerable to drought and water-loss. On the ground students met with diverse stakeholders - planners, public officials, conservation groups, sportsmen, energy industry representatives, Native Americans, recreationists and journalists to discuss the different and often competing interests in water and water conservation. EcoFlight’s FLAA goal is to offer a balanced, in-depth, unique and provocative perspective of issues that are important for all citizens, and to create a space for young adults to advocate for their beliefs.

Flight Across America 2015 seeks to engage students in conversations with a diverse range of stakeholders while offering them this aerial view of issues not readily visible, except from a plane. Students will gain experience in working with the press on environmental issues, and using the power of their own informed voice and perspective to participate in meaningful discussions of solutions. We are excited to trace the story of water and drought in our region this year, and to examine the possibilities that exist for a more sustainable future. Flight offers the unique aerial perspective where passengers can better understand complex issues, such as the size and scale of water users like the oil and gas industry in the Piceance and Uinta Basins, and the state of water storage facilities like Lake Powell. Overflights with students and the voice of young adults provide a platform to engage the media on these issues in a new way, and to bring together opposing viewpoints on common solutions.

En route, students will have the opportunity to engage with these issues in depth, and meet with conservationists, industry representatives, water managers, and diverse stakeholders. Throughout the tour, students will have the opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences with numerous media representatives as well as with hundreds of other students. Students will also be conducting a Roaring Fork Valley high school seminar in Aspen, Colorado with six high schools from the valley, as a conclusion to the program and an opportunity to share their thoughts and findings.

Focus areas include:

Water for Energy: As energy is a big player in the water economy of the West, the program will focus on extractive and renewable energy sites including natural gas, coal, oil shale and tar sands, and hydro-electricity. Looking at water in relation to energy, we will fly over the web of natural gas drill pads that span the Piceance and San Juan River Basins and coal-fired power plants that dominate small-towns in New Mexico and Arizona, proposed tar sand and oil shale sites in Utah, and hydroelectric dams like Glen Canyon. Even the development of renewables such as hydroelectricity is cause for concern; while dams generate clean electricity, they do so at a price that often includes river and canyon health.

City Water: Over 30 million people depend upon water from the Colorado River and its tributaries. As the Southwest grows and aquifers shrink, cities vie for more water. Grand Junction, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson exemplify those cities within the Colorado River Basin that supplement tributary and aquifer supplies with diverted river water. Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Tijuana rely upon Colorado River pipeline diversions across mountain ranges. These trans-basin water diversions take a toll on the balance of natural ecosystems throughout the west.

Recreation: Fishing, skiing, boating, hunting, bird watching, and other precipitation-dependent activities create a multi-billion dollar recreation industry and draw tens of millions of people each year from around the world to the Colorado River Basin. Other tourism businesses—including hotels, restaurants, river outfitters, fishing guides, and retailers—rely on water-based activities. Students will meet with representatives from the recreation and business sector that depend on water.

Native Americans: Indigenous people throughout the West have spiritual and historical legacies—hunting, fishing, and unique cultural identities—based upon healthy rivers and streams. In the Grand Canyon and in Utah, students will meet with native tribes who depend on clean water for drinking and agriculture and tourism.

Wildlife habitat: As water demands increase and climate change places more stress on already over-allocated streams and rivers, native wildlife and fish species are becoming more threatened. A combination of river drying, habitat degradation and exotic species has resulted in a decline in certain native species. Many of these “invasives” have altered the original ecosystem and jeopardized native wildlife. Students will meet with scientists who are researching these impacts, and conservation groups who are trying to protect watersheds and preserve healthy riparian ecosystems.

Water for Agriculture: The Colorado River irrigates 3.5 million acres of agriculture, which consumes 78 percent of the Colorado River’s water. Regions facing tighter water budgets are beginning to buy up water for urban growth, and pay farmers to stop watering their crops and send their water to cities. Students will meet with experts on water issues and discuss possible solutions to a growing water deficit.