Cooperation, not conflict, is key 
to making river system work

By Richard Van Gytenbeek

Like many people in western Colorado, I start most mornings looking at the weather forecasts and studying the current snowpack estimates. On most of those mornings, my laptop stares back at me with the same depressing news — another round of anemic snowstorms and basin snowpack levels hovering at 65 percent to 80 percent of normal.

While March was a wet month, the lady in charge is once again making Western Slope water users more than a little nervous. Without more substantial spring snows, we are looking at another dry summer, summer that could devastate our farms, ranches and recreation/tourism industries.

In the face of looming water pressures — drought, climate change and municipal and industrial growth — our Western Slope communities must work together to keep our rivers and river-dependent economy healthy and viable.

Cooperation, not conflict, will be the key to our water future.

We’re in this together. Farms and ranches, recreation and tourism, towns and cities — all depend on a healthy Colorado River. In western Colorado, water from the Colorado River basin irrigates pasture on about 9,000 farms and ranches, operations that produce animals and crops worth $346 million annually.

Similarly, our recreation and tourism industries depend heavily on Western Slope rivers to support rafting, fishing, kayaking, camping and other activities. Recreation is a huge and growing business in Colorado, generating in excess of $6 billion per year.

While agriculture and recreation-tourism look like very different uses, they are remarkably intertwined and interdependent. Farms and ranches preserve the iconic landscapes and open spaces of the West, crucial wildlife habitat and a cultural heritage that is rooted deeply in the American psyche.

Recreation and tourism depend heavily on these open spaces and the wildlife they support to attract visitors who want to experience a Colorado that is healthy, wild and abundant.

Together, these sectors comprise western Colorado’s largest economic engine — an engine that runs on water. Without healthy rivers, the economic future of the Western Slope looks bleak.

With the specter of another dry summer looming, the communities of Colorado’s Western Slope must pull together to keep our rivers and economy healthy and growing. Increasingly, agriculture producers and recreation/tourism businesses are recognizing their common interests and finding cooperative ways to ensure the health of the rivers on which they depend.

Trout Unlimited, for instance, is working with ranchers and farmers, irrigation companies and other rural partners to upgrade obsolete or outdated irrigation systems on key tributaries of the Colorado River. These win-win projects are improving ranch operations and reducing maintenance costs while enhancing fish and wildlife habitat.

No, Western Slope interests won’t always agree on everything, especially when it comes to water. But there is much on which we can find common ground, if we consider our common future. Among other things, let’s agree on some core principles:

—Cooperation, not conflict: Work together to ensure the Colorado River is able to meet our diverse needs, from agriculture to recreation and tourism.

—Innovative management: Explore new ways to meet our water supply needs through innovative conservation and management.

—Keep our rivers at home: Leave water in its home basins and oppose large-scale, river-damaging transbasin diversions of water from the Colorado River to the Front Range.

—Protect our open spaces: Maintain our outdoor quality of life through a vigorous agricultural sector and ensure that our rivers and streams are flowing and healthy.

—Modernize irrigation: Upgrade our irrigation infrastructure systems to make them more productive, economical, and habitat-friendly.

I think most Western Slope residents would agree that these core values of cooperation and innovation could help us meet the serious challenges ahead. Fighting about water will surely be our demise.

Go to to learn more and express your support for working together to protect our Colorado River, our future.

Richard Van Gytenbeek is Colorado River Basin coordinator for Trout Unlimited. He lives in Grand Junction.


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Of course cooperation between agriculture and recreation is important. But let’s not forget to involve residential/commercial water consumers and extractive industries like oil and gas production, which does not rely on long-term preservation.

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