By JILL OZARSKI
This week would normally mark the annual summer Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Denver, the largest trade show in the outdoor industry in all of North America.
In past years, the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market has convened conservation leaders and business voices to share their creativity, passion and innovation for healthy rivers and outdoor activities. But this year, as with so many events, the summer market has been transformed into Outdoor Retailer Online, a three-day business, networking and educational event hosted entirely virtually. But one thing hasn’t changed: this week offers a chance to reflect on the invaluable role Colorado’s rivers and streams play in all of our lives.
Not only do our rivers provide water for drinking (and washing our hands), they also serve as sources of safe outdoor activity — something that’s especially critical in the age of social distancing.
But healthy rivers and streams don’t just improve our quality of life — they also power our economy. Colorado boasts a thriving river-related recreation economy that encompasses everything from whitewater rafting to fishing to picnicking along the riverbank. People come from all over America to enjoy everything our rivers have to offer.
In fact, a recent study from Business for Water Stewardship revealed that water-related recreation supports over $18 billion a year in economic activity in the state of Colorado alone. That economic activity in turn generates $10.3 billion for our state GDP, supports 131,000 jobs and provides $6.3 billion in household income for Coloradans across the state.
But rivers and streams across the state are facing increasing threats due to the effects of climate change, including ongoing drought and warmer temperatures. The latest forecasts are clear: Our future and way of life are at risk unless we take proactive steps to conserve water and modernize how we use and manage our water resources.
The good news is that we have plans in place to support our rivers. Colorado’s Water Plan, finalized in 2015, sets a goal of achieving 400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water conservation savings by 2050. It’s a bold proposition, but we’re already taking steps in the right direction. This year Colorado’s state budget included $7 million for Water Plan implementation grants, which support water projects across the state, and an additional $4 million toward investing in stream and watershed management planning efforts to keep rivers healthy and flowing.
These are laudable investments, and ones that will yield short-term and long-term benefits. Because when we invest in the health of our rivers, we’re also safeguarding everything they underpin: our current water supply, the livelihoods of small business owners and outfitters — and our collective economic future.
Recovering from COVID-19 and the economic downturn it’s caused will not be easy. But if I’ve learned anything from the Outdoor Retailer shows I’ve attended over the years, it’s that we have the tools and capabilities to think audaciously and creatively in ways that will champion the outdoor recreation economy and protect Colorado’s rivers.
When great minds from across the outdoor recreation and environmental conservation spectrum work together, the result is smart decisions and creative solutions that protect ecosystems and support the communities that rely on them. These days, that might mean facilitating safe outdoor recreational activities to boost local economies and provide some much-needed relief from being cooped up in our homes.
While the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market may be virtual this year, it doesn’t mean that we can’t still come together to reflect on all that rivers give to us — and to renew our commitment to protecting these precious natural resources in return.
Jill Ozarski is a program officer in the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative.