Both of my parents have taken time to write their childhood memories in the form of books they can pass along to future generations. As we get older, we tend to become more interested in family history, so genealogy is more popular than ever. Ancestry.com generates over $1 billion a year in revenue.
"Roots" author Alex Haley once said, "In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage — to know who we are and where we came from." Family stories and childhood memories are more than just a desire to know about the past. They teach us what we know, and make us who we are. A friend of mine now working on such a book says memories are the building blocks of character.
That is as true for a community as it is for individuals. As my friend says, we inherit from our parents and other ancestors more than our hair color. We also learn from them our values, understanding of right and wrong, sense of humor, work ethic, religion, ideas of duty and fairness, and so much more. Just so, our communities inherit values and character from earlier generations. A community that loses its memory risks losing its character, as well. This is why learning our history, and passing it along, is so vital.
The Western Slope, for example, was settled by tough pioneers who scratched out a living in some very inhospitable places, where almost all the water comes in the form of snow, and rivers run only seasonally. The communities they founded are possible only because they built systems to store and move water.
People in our generation often forget what it took — still takes — to live in such arid climes. We take for granted the delivery of water to our homes, and food to our stores, and we don't teach our children much about how that happens. No wonder so many people now view our old western water laws as "outdated." I attended a regional conference recently in which several leaders expressed that very view. Some proposed a new free-market system, where water rights could be bought and sold by anyone, for any purpose, so the market itself would determine the highest and best use of water — not some old law that treats water rights as property, and gives priority to older uses rather than popular ones.
That same view is behind another "new" version of an old plan to build a "big straw" to carry water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Denver. The theory is that it would divert the water after it crossed the state line, so it wouldn't harm Western Colorado. The private financing scheme could earn millions for investors, because the Front Range is so starved for water that people there would gladly pay. However, interstate water laws prohibit using water from one state to supply another, and changing that would imperil the future of Western Colorado.
Occasionally, we must remind ourselves of stark realities. The Colorado River supplies water to 30 million people in seven states, and there is never enough. If water is for sale to the highest bidder, there won't be any for the Western Slope. If water flows toward money, it will end up in Southern California and Denver.
The communities between Denver and L.A. survive only through a very delicate balance of complex water laws, the cornerstone of which is the "prior appropriation system," under which older water rights have priority over newer ones. It is folly to expect a thirsty Los Angeles to care enough about Fruita that it would refuse to buy available water.
Consider the plight of St. George, Utah, continually scrambling to develop new housing because as the nation's fastest growing town, it adds 12,000 new people every year. But new developments require new water, and every water project proposed faces intense opposition from California and other states. They all need the water, and defending St. George is not their job.
A decade ago, when forced to stop using more than its share of the Colorado River, California didn't bat an eye at drying up farms to supply the growing cities. Smaller communities can never compete with big city money, so they must jealously guard the water system that enables their survival.
That jealousy is part of the character of the Western Slope that we love. It is part of our collective family history and childhood memories, and we must pass it along unhindered to future generations.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of "Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back." He is a Western Slope native.