Water, fire and radiation topics at Sentinel symposium

Teresa Coons, left, discusses the human tendency to stockpile in difficult times, whether it be necessitites for the family or water, during the panel discussion at “Between Mountains and Desert: Environmental Issues in Western Colorado” held Tuesday at Colorado Mesa’s University Center. Some of the other experts on the panel included, from left to right, Sentinel environmental reporter Matthew Berger, Frank Smith of the Western Colorado Congress, and Bernie Bornong, acting deputy forest supervisor for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests.

From wildfires to radiation to water conservation and quality, one thing was clear: There is no easy answer.

Still, a panel of eight local environmental experts did their best to answer moderator and audience questions Tuesday night at “Between Mountains and Desert: Environmental Issues in Western Colorado.”

More than 100 people gathered Tuesday in the Colorado Mesa University Ballroom for the Daily Sentinel-hosted environmental symposium. The symposium was requested by an anonymous benefactor who paid for the Sentinel to hire an environmental reporter for six months. That reporter, Matthew Berger, began writing environmental content for the Sentinel in February. His fellowship will end this week.

Berger served on the panel with Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commissioner Richard Alward; Acting Deputy Forest Supervisor for Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests Bernie Bornong; Teresa Coons, executive director of the John McConnell Math and Science Center of Western Colorado; and Hannah Holm, coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa. Also on the panel were Western Colorado Congress Director of Organizing Frank Smith, city of Grand Junction Utility Director Greg Trainor, and Russ Walker, an environmental science professor at Colorado Mesa.

Local stories, the drought of 2012, stirred discussion of water use in western Colorado. Trainor said water production is up at the city because there is less of it appearing naturally in the area this year compared to 2011. Until the economic value of water increases, Trainor said he doesn’t expect citizens or businesses to significantly curb water consumption, which may lead to future problems.

“Five hundred thousand to 700,000 urban acres could be dried up by 2050” because of urban sprawl in the state, Trainor said, citing a Colorado River Water Availability Study.

Coons said it’s a natural tendency for residents to stockpile water when it is scarce or perceived as scarce. But Holm has hope that behavior won’t last forever. Holm said water consumption in Colorado declined after the last big drought in the state in 2002. Inspiring a significant decline in water usage would take more than fighting a water-hoarding impulse, though, she said.

“The issue with getting a lot more from conservation is in order to get a lot more (water) from conservation we would need more regulation,” she said.

When the discussion turned to wildfires, Bornong said large wildfires should be no surprise given how many people are building homes in fire-prone areas and beetle kill may not be making the situation much worse. Smith said state officials may want to wait on decisions about using chain saws or letting nature run its course to prevent future wildfires like the ones sweeping the state this summer. Alward said any new information about wildfire-fighting methods should be kept in context and considered a new theory to add to research rather than a replacement for all other theories.

The symposium also touched on whether higher-than-average radiation levels in the Grand Valley may be harmful to residents’ health, among other topics. Coons said doses of radiation under a certain threshold may not pose an issue, but the level of that threshold is unknown.


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