Colorado River, like Chimney Rock, deserves safekeeping
By Brooke Webb
On Sept. 21, the panoramic Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, near Pagosa Springs, was officially designated a national monument. With its rich history as home to the ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians, it is a sacred site to American Indians and an essential connection to our cultural heritage in the Southwest.
Thanks to the hard work of Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Scott Tipton, this well-deserved designation places Chimney Rock in the spotlight for national and international visitors and inspires an economic boost from new tourism.
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, monument status for Chimney Rock could double annual tourism in five years to 24,000 visitors and generate an additional $1.2 million for the area economy.
Fact is, a significant amount of data shows that protecting Colorado’s best public lands and vital waterways is one of the best things we can do for our local communities and the state’s economic well-being.
For example, Protect the Flows, a coalition of more than 500 small businesses from Colorado and the six other states that rely on the Colorado River, recently commissioned an analysis showing that $26 billion is produced in economic output each year from the 5.36 million adults who flock to the Colorado River for recreation. The study showed 234,000 jobs across six Western states are supported by the river and $3.2 billion is raised in state, local and federal tax revenues.
The river is such a huge economic driver that, if it were a company, it would be the nineteenth largest employer on the Fortune 500 list.
And like Chimney Rock, the Colorado River is in need of additional protections. Population growth, energy development, climate change and 12 years of consecutive drought have stretched water-storage supplies to the near limit in almost every part of the Colorado River basin. With 36 million people demanding a share of the river for agriculture, drinking water and electricity, the Colorado already runs dry in the Sonoran Desert miles before it reaches the sea. And as the river’s flow decreases in other places, recreation opportunities decrease, tourism numbers dwindle, small businesses and the economy suffer.
The situation is so dire and pressing that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Bureau of Reclamation are currently considering proposals to resolve these supply-and-demand imbalances in the bureau’s Colorado River Basin Study due out this year. The study will define current imbalances and future ones anticipated over the next 50 years, and it will provide strategies to remedy them.
As a small agricultural business owner who depends on the Colorado River, I see several clear policy solutions that can be inspired by the study’s findings.
First, let’s improve urban water conservation. By reducing urban water use just 1 percent per year, we will realize significant water savings at very low cost.
Second, let’s improve agricultural efficiency. Since 70 percent of the water consumed from the Colorado River and its tributaries goes to agricultural use, simple measures like upgrading to more efficient irrigation technology will go a long way toward protecting the health of the Colorado River and the viability of rural communities.
These are two examples of common-sense, near-term solutions that can ensure our Western way of life — and the multibillion-dollar recreation and tourism industry that is a pillar of our Western economy — continues to thrive. They make more sense than costly, unproven schemes that will result in more expensive water.
We have a real opportunity here to leverage consensus and get something positive done for the Colorado River and those who depend upon it.
Secretary Salazar needs to seize this opportunity and lead by taking steps to implement the areas on which there is agreement, such as urban and agricultural water efficiency.
For all of the reasons we protect resources of great value and significance like Chimney Rock, we must also protect the “mother of rivers” that sustains us. We must keep the Colorado River flowing for our health and heritage, so that the dollars it generates can continue to keep our small businesses, tax coffers and local economies afloat and so that our children and grandchildren will always enjoy the Colorado River as we have.
Brooke Webb is the owner of Mesa Park Vineyards in Palisade. Mesa Park is family-owned and run and focused on creating superior wines, supporting local businesses and strongly supporting the Colorado wine industry.