Nov 4, 2015

Author: Rae Brownsberger

Earlier this month, Colorado water practitioners, planners, politicians, and even a few high school students gathered in Avon, CO for the 2015 Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference. As a newcomer to the state of Colorado, this was my first Watersheds Conference, and I was rather impressed by the value I felt I got out of the conference. Not only did I get a crash course in Colorado water, but I also gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of outreach and education in tackling our state’s complex water issues. As someone new to this community, the unscheduled networking opportunities were invaluable to me; plus, my scavenger hunt teammates and I won a case of New Belgium beer. And I picked up a sweet Colorado Riparian Association trucker hat and beer coozy to go on my Watersheds Conference beer cup. Readers: these are high-value goods.

The theme of the conference this year was “In it for the Long Haul.” The first Plenary Session’s title was “Defining Resiliency for Colorado Communities.” I heard that the official count for the number of times “resiliency” was mentioned during the 90-minute session was 108.  Even though a proper “definition” does not include the word to be defined (nerd-alert), I thought our speakers did an excellent job capturing the complexity of “resiliency” in the context of water resources. So how do we define resiliency? We heard that, officially, resiliency is defined as the “ability to recover from an acute or chronic disturbance.” We heard that traditional definitions of resiliency might equate to “returning” or “bouncing back” to the pre-disturbed state, but perhaps we should think of resiliency as the capacity to evolve or adapt with changing conditions and increasing uncertainty; to “bounce forward.” We heard that resiliency is to “build back better than before;” because clearly, if it’s broken, it wasn’t optimally designed in the first place. We heard that resiliency means keeping your proverbial eggs in multiple baskets, as well as investing in some egg-laying hens, just in case you lose all of your baskets at once.

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have attempted to tame rivers and wetlands and contort them into more serviceable and convenient water delivery systems. The oldest known dam was the Sadd-el-Kafara dam in Egypt, built around 2950-2680 B.C. Pressurized water systems have existed since at least 2000 B.C. in Crete. So it’s not surprising that by today, with 7 billion humans (compared to merely 27 million 4,000 years ago), our rivers are almost universally exploited. The one notable exception to that rule here in Colorado is the Yampa River, the last wild river in the Colorado River Basin. In our second Plenary Session, we heard appeals based on both morality and economy for keeping the Yampa wild. The video documentary presented by American Rivers tugged at our heartstrings, as we watched the Yampa bring a father and son “back to the important places.”  But even those with hearts of steel who need to see a dollar amount to make a decision can appreciate the value of a wild Yampa. Indeed, the wild Yampa is part of a system that is worth an estimated $18 billion in tourism and recreation to the state of Colorado. And Colorado’s “water-based economy” extends beyond just snow and water recreation: all of agriculture is essentially exporting Colorado snowmelt hidden within the cell walls of plants and animal products. Therefore, sustainable watershed management is critical for sustaining a healthy Colorado economy. After all, “economy” and “ecology” have the same latin root in “ecos,” meaning “home.”

Over dinner, we heard our keynote speaker Dr. Wallace J. Nichols take the emotional appeal of rivers to the next level with a discussion of the neuroscience of water and love. Dr. Nichols posits that simply being in or near water can have a healing and calming effect. Perhaps protecting rivers simply for the love of the river is a valid consideration in water resources management decisions.

Later, the neuroscience of our generous beer sponsors’ products enhanced the hospitality room camaraderie and made for a fun night of networking. I had planned to make the Wednesday morning sunrise yoga session, but those plans fell through. I heard it was lovely, though.

Wednesday’s concurrent sessions explored the nuts and bolts of flood recovery, agriculture, restoration ecology, data-crunching, public policy, and education. I wish I could have pulled a Hermione Granger and gone back in time to attend all of the talks, but I don’t have a magic hourglass like she had. So instead I hopped around from room to room to build my own custom Watersheds Conference experience.

Thursday’s field trip to Camp Hale was particularly interesting to me. This site is a perfect example of all the messy, complicated issues that compete for our attention as water and natural resource practitioners. It is easy to see that the straight channel engineered by the Army reduced (eliminated) the basin’s natural abilities to serve as a wetland habitat, and as a sponge to hold our precious groundwater resources (indeed that was the idea, to allow for conventional building construction on dry land). But returning the river to its pre-disturbed state is not so simple. How have water rights developed over the last half century, and can the hydrology of a restored system still function in a way that will not “injure” water rights holders? The 10th  Mountain Division’s legacy is represented by that straight channel—how do we honor that cultural resource? And even the logistics prove to be a challenge: how do we manage the asbestos-containing material buried in the ground from historical building demolition?

There are no easy answers. All of these issues require interdisciplinary work. But of course, that is the whole point of the Watersheds Conference—to build a deeper collective understanding of our how our built and natural systems interact, so that we may be better equipped to protect them—and ourselves.


Colorado Riparian Association