West ripe with environmental stories



From record drought to the West’s most important waterway, invasive weeds to endangered wildflowers, a history of uranium mining to expanding oil and gas production, red rock canyons to white peaks, gray deserts and no less than five national forests, it is hard to think of a better or more important location for environmental reporting than western Colorado.

Over the past six months, The Daily Sentinel has been able to dig into all these stories and more through a grant supporting a full-time environmental reporter. The six-month term of that grant ends next week, but before it does, the Sentinel is inviting the public to participate next week in a symposium discussing the newspaper’s work over the first half of this year and Western Slope environmental issues in general.

“Between Mountains and Desert: Environmental Issues in Western Colorado” will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Colorado Mesa University Ballroom.

There has been some confusion as to whether the event will include time for local groups to make presentations about their work. Unfortunately, it will not. The event will consist of a roundtable discussion on the environmental topics mentioned above followed by a brief period for questions from the audience and then refreshments.

The roundtable discussion will include:

■ Richard Alward, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission environmental scientist

■ Matthew Berger, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel environmental reporting fellow

■  Bernie Bornong, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests acting supervisor

■  Teresa Coons, John McConnell Math & Science Center of Western Colorado director

■  Hannah Holm, Colorado Mesa University Water Center coordinator

■  Greg Trainor, Grand Junction utilities director

■  Russ Walker, Colorado Mesa University professor of environmental sciences

■  Frank Smith, Western Colorado Congress director of organizing

The Sentinel would like to express its gratitude to the roundtable guests for taking the time for what should be a fascinating discussion and to reiterate the newspaper’s commitment to quality, in-depth coverage of the environmental issues playing out in our communities — a commitment that will last well beyond next week.

In retrospect, of course hiring a full-time environmental reporter would cause environmental catastrophes to ensue. Drought, wildfire, record high temperatures and all the attendant impacts on agriculture, forests, rivers, wildlife — we at the Sentinel take full responsibility, and we are sorry. For the elevated background radiation, polluting industries, and both imperiled and invasive species — our bad.

I, in particular, want to apologize. It probably did not help to point out research that says hot, dry years will become increasingly the norm or that the wildfires are burning differently and more destructively than 100 years ago or that the amount of water running into the Colorado will continue to gradually decline even as demand for it continues to rise.

Breakfast should be a peaceful time, full of optimism about the day ahead, so hopefully we didn’t ruin too many with these reports.

But in all seriousness, we are not quite smug enough to think that these events and impacts would not have happened without our reporting. We might be smug enough, though, to think they possibly could have gone un- or under-reported, which, to some degree, is really the same thing.

A hot, dry summer is just that until it is placed in the context of 100 years of recordkeeping. A polluting facility off a highway in the desert may not exist as far as the average resident is concerned until the hard questions are asked. An endangered fish can slip into oblivion with only a few biologists mourning its loss unless someone is able to take the time to tell others about the conditions leading to its decline.

The Daily Sentinel lucked out a little over six months ago, then, when it received a grant that allowed it to hire an environmental reporter who would have the time and leeway to do just that.

For reasons that remain a mystery, that reporter became me, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area who had spent the past two years as an environmental reporter in Washington, D.C., but was eager to head back west.

The closest I had ever been to Grand Junction was the Salt Lake City airport.

But it turned out, I lucked out as well. Since February, I have been able to explore the fascinating landscape in which you get to live full-time through a reporter’s point of view.

That point of view meant anything that caught my attention during a Sunday hike or Friday evening bike ride, I could spend Monday morning prying into.

Not a bad way to spend the work week. (This is where I am probably supposed to say the world needs more good journalists. Give it a try if you are so inclined.)

All tongue-in-cheek apologies aside, the stories I came across while here were optimistic as often as they were pessimistic. Desert dust has been increasingly blowing onto Colorado snowpack over the past decade, for instance, causing snow to melt slightly faster and less water to run off into the Colorado. Frustrating, sure, but how cool is it that we know about this, that a line can be drawn between Sonoran dust and San Juan snow, that we can measure the slightest variations in runoff between one hour and the next, between one decade and the next?

And that is just one example of many where negative impacts are occurring, but we would not even know about those impacts were it not for something as incredibly positive as human ingenuity.

If the climate here continues to get hotter and drier, if and when more droughts occur, if invasive species continue to spread and some native wildlife just doesn’t make it, at least our eyes will be wide open while it happens.

Science has allowed us to understand our world down to its minutest particles and shifts, revealing both awe-inspiring and deeply frustrating news. And journalism can play a key role in making that understanding widely available.

It’s been a privilege to be able to be a part of that process here.

I should end with a more sincere apology than the first. There are so many more fascinating environmental issues here that I simply did not have the time or energy to pursue.

How will water demand by increasing oil and gas development, including in formations like the Niobrara shale, affect Western Slope water supply? What is the lingering impact of what remains of the 300,000 tons of uranium mill tailings that were used as foundation below Grand Junction’s streets and buildings?

Is there any sustainable solution in sight to the bark beetle epidemic, to the impending divergence between water supply and demand, to storing wastewater from energy development? The list is endless and self-perpetuating.

I am sorry I did not get around to looking into these questions and more while here. But as long as researchers and journalists continue their work on the Western Slope — with the help of observant residents — someone will.


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