Sunday, May 26, 2013

THE WESTERN STATES DIMINISHING WATER SUPPLY: Conservation, Water and energy use along the Upper Colorado River



Conservation, Water and energy use along the Upper Colorado River

The Colorado River, the High Plains aquifer and the entire Western half of the U.S. are rapidly drying up


What is life going to look like as our precious water resources become increasingly strained and the western half of the United States becomes bone dry? Scientists tell us that the 20th century was the wettest century in the western half of the country in 1000 years, and now things appear to be reverting to their normal historical patterns. But we have built teeming cities in the desert such as Phoenix and Las Vegas that support millions of people. Cities all over the Southwest continue to grow even as the Colorado River, Lake Mead and the High Plains Aquifer system run dry. So what are we going to do when there isn’t enough water to irrigate our crops or run through our water systems? Already we are seeing some ominous signs that Dust Bowl conditions are starting to return to the region.  In the past couple of years we have seen giant dust storms known as “haboobs” roll through Phoenix, and 6 of the 10 worst years for wildfires ever recorded in the United States have all come since the year 2000. In fact, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the average number of fires larger than 1,000 acres in a year has nearly quadrupled in Arizona and Idaho and has doubled in every other Western state” since the 1970s. But scientists are warning that they expect the western United States to become much drier than it is now. What will the western half of the country look like once that happens? In a recent National Geographic article contained the following chilling statement…The wet 20th century, the wettest of the past millennium, the century when Americans built an incredible civilization in the desert, is over. Much of the western half of the country has historically been a desolate wasteland. We were very blessed to enjoy very wet conditions for most of the last century, but now that era appears to be over. To compensate, we are putting a tremendous burden on our fresh water resources. In particular, the Colorado River is becoming increasingly strained.

Dust in the wind: Building unsustainable mega-cities in the western U.S., where water supplies were already scarce and now rapidly dwindling, just as demand is growing may be one of the greatest ecological blunders of the 20th century.
Ecosystem crash: Without the Colorado River, many of our largest cities simply would not be able to function. The following is from a recent Stratfor article: “The Colorado River provides water for irrigation of roughly 15 percent of the crops in the United States, including vegetables, fruits, cotton, alfalfa and hay. It also provides municipal water supplies for large cities, such as Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas, accounting for more than half of the water supply in many of these areas.” In particular, water levels in Lake Mead (which supplies most of the water for Las Vegas) have fallen dramatically over the past decade or so. The following is an excerpt from an article posted on Smithsonian: “And boaters still roar across Nevada and Arizona’s Lake Mead, 110 miles long and formed by the Hoover Dam. But at the lake’s edge they can see lines in the rock walls, distinct as bathtub rings, showing the water level far lower than it once was—some 130 feet lower, as it happens, since 2000. Water resource officials say some of the reservoirs fed by the river will never be full again.” Today, Lake Mead supplies approximately 85 percent of the water that Las Vegas uses, and since 1998 the water level in Lake Mead has dropped by about 5.6 trillion gallons.

“Last summer, Colorado—like much of the rest of the country—saw some of the driest and hottest conditions on record,”Since 80 percent of the state’s population lives on one side of the Continental Divide while 80 percent of its water comes from the other, everyone in Colorado and the west is affected by the dry conditions.”

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


The Dolores River is a major tributary of the Colorado River; it is seen here south of Grand Junction during an EcoFlight. Ken Neubecker, executive director of the Western Rivers Institute and EcoFlight instructor tells students about the connection between water and energy. “Water takes a lot of energy, a huge amount of energy—most people don’t realize it," says Neubecker. "We tend to take water for granted. [Energy takes] more water than we use for agriculture and more water than we use for our cities or for ourselves." More than 50 percent of the river is used for energy production between the extraction and refining processes for coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas. Four percent of energy production equates to actual consumption, but this is no small mark. EcoFlight is an organization based in Aspen, Colorado that advocates land conservation and environmental stewardship education through the use of small aircraft. #


The vast majority of the Earth's water resources are salt water, with only 2.5% being fresh water. Approximately 70% of the fresh water available on the planet is frozen in the icecaps of Antarctica and Greenland leaving the remaining 30% (equal to only 0.7% of total water resources worldwide) available for consumption. From this remaining 0.7%, roughly 87% is allocated to agricultural purposes (IPCC 2007).

These statistics are particularly illustrative of the drastic problem of water scarcity facing the world. Water scarcity is defined as per capita supplies less than 1700 m3/year (IPCC 2007).

World freshwater availability  map 2000
Source: World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life. World Resources Institute, Washington DC (2000).
Figure 1: Freshwater availability: groundwater and river flow (2000). In
UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library. Retrieved 15:50, March 26, 2008.

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Students look over Lake Powell from the Glen Canyon Dam during an educational trip about water and energy on the Upper Colorado River with EcoFlight. When talking to the EcoFlight students, Laurel Hagen, executive director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council, suggested that the answer to water preservation is a combination of endeavors- everything from improving technology, to renewable energy sources like solar panels, decreasing consumption, and limiting population growth. “Obviously we need some power; there is no question [whether or not] we are all going to suddenly live like cavemen,” she said. #


According to the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, one in three people are already facing water shortages (2007). Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical scarcity, while another 1.6 billion people, or almost one quarter of the world's population, live in a developing country that lacks the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers (known as an economic water shortage).

World water use 2005
Figure 2: Water use in the world (2005)

There are four main factors aggravating water scarcity according to the IPCC:

  • Population growth: in the last century, world population has tripled. It is expected to rise from the present 6.5 billion to 8.9 billion by 2050. Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, and, although there is no global water scarcity as such, an increasing number of regions are chronically short of water.
  • Increased urbanization will focus on the demand for water among a more concentrated population. Asian cities alone are expected to grow by 1 billion people in the next 20 years.
  • High level of consumption: as the world becomes more developed, the amount of domestic water used by each person is expected to rise significantly.
  • Climate change will shrink the resources of freshwater.

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Cows graze near an irrigated pond on Roy Savage's land in Garfield County, which he rents to other ranchers. “I saw the drought coming so I sold all my cows,” said Savage, whose family has a 60-year history of raising cattle in Parachute, Colorado. “You can’t make ends meet with cows, and oil and gas is the only thing that provides enough revenue so you can keep the ranchers.” #

Water and Climate Change

Water scarcity is expected to become an ever-increasing problem in the future, for various reasons. First, the distribution of precipitation in space and time is very uneven, leading to tremendous temporal variability in water resources worldwide (Oki et al, 2006). For example, the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on earth, receives imperceptible annual quantities of rainfall each year. On the other hand, Mawsynram, Assam, India receives over 450 inches annually. If all the freshwater on the planet were divided equally among the global population, there would be 5,000 to 6,000 m3 of water available for everyone, every year (Vorosmarty 2000).

Second, the rate of evaporation varies a great deal, depending on temperature and relative humidity, which impacts the amount of water available to replenish groundwater supplies. The combination of shorter duration but more intense rainfall (meaning more runoff and less infiltration) combined with increased evapotranspiration (the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration from the earth's land surface to atmosphere) and increased irrigation is expected to lead to groundwater depletion (Konikow and Kendy 2005).

The Hydrological Cycle

The hydrological cycle begins with evaporation from the surface of the ocean or land, continues as the atmosphere redistributes the water vapor to locations where it forms clouds, and then returns to the surface as precipitation. The cycle ends when the precipitation is either absorbed into the ground or runs off to the ocean, beginning the process over again.

Key changes to the hydrological cycle (associated with an increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the resulting changes in climate) include:

  • Changes in the seasonal distribution and amount of precipitation.
  • An increase in precipitation intensity under most situations.
  • Changes in the balance between snow and rain.
  • Increased evapotranspiration and a reduction in soil moisture.
  • Changes in vegetation cover resulting from changes in temperature and precipitation.
  • Consequent changes in management of land resources.
  • Accelerated melting glacial ice.
  • Increases in fire risk in many areas.
  • Increased coastal inundation and wetland loss from sea level rise.
  • Effects of CO2 on plant physiology, leading to reduced transpiration and increased water use efficiency (Goudie 2006).

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Bill Fales, with Cold Mountain Ranch in Carbondale, Colorado looks out over his cattle. He loves ranching and is doing everything he can to protect Thompson Divide from gas drilling. “It is just a spectacular yet somewhat fragile area that we are trying our damndest to maintain and protect the values it provides to this valley today," said Fales. Located just under 8,000 feet and surrounded by ski towns of the Roaring Fork Valley, one can admire the river’s source, snow packed mountain peeks. The bases of the 14,000-foot high mountaintops hug the valley’s arid landscape below. Here William Fales has managed to keep his 300 head of cattle, which graze on a wide-open valley of alfalfa and irrigated grass—but it hasn't been easy. Drought and the possibility of natural gas development in the nearby high country has Fales concerned about his water source. #

Changes in Precipitation and Drought Patterns

Projections of changes in total annual precipitation indicate that increases are likely in the tropics and at high latitudes, while decreases are likely in the sub-tropics, especially along its poleward edge. Thus, latitudinal variation is likely to affect the distribution of water resources. In general, there has been a decrease in precipitation between 10°S and 30°N since the 1980s (IPCC 2007). With the population of these sub-tropical regions increasing, water resources are likely to become more stressed in these areas, especially as climate change intensifies.

While some areas will likely experience a decrease in precipitation, others (such as the tropics and high latitudes) are expected to see increasing amounts of precipitation. More precipitation will increase a region's susceptibility to a variety of factors, including:

  • Flooding
  • Rate of soil erosion
  • Mass movement of land
  • Soil moisture availability

These factors are likely to affect key economic components of the GDP such as agricultural productivity, land values, and an area's habitability (IPCC 2007). In addition, warming accelerates the rate of surface drying, leaving less water moving in near-surface layers of soil. Less soil moisture leads to reduced downward movement of water and so less replenishment of groundwater supplies (Nearing et al 2005). In locations where both precipitation and soil moisture decrease, land surface drying is magnified, and areas are left increasingly susceptible to reduced water supplies.

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Farmer, Bill O’Leary, of Parachute, pets his horse after feeding her oats. He is very concerned about drought and water scarcity. He is trying new methods to continue his farming, but had to sell some of his horses because he could not afford to keep feeding them with the drought. O’Leary plans to start flood irrigation; he explains that the standard system of irrigating with sprinklers is inefficient and wastes water. “With sprinklers systems, the water just evaporates into the air,” he said. “I’m going to run the water through a pipe, put holes in it, so the water runs to the produce." Not long ago, O’Leary enjoyed boating trips to Baja California where the Colorado River once flowed into the Sea of Cortez. Drought, population growth and energy demands on the river have rendered it dry two miles shy of the Gulf of California. Not a drop of water from the Colorado River has reached the sea since 1998, leaving no water from the river for Mexico. “This is the lowest I have ever seen the river,” he said. #

Although projecting how changed precipitation patterns will affect runoff is not yet a precise science, historical discharge records indicate it is likely that for each 1°C rise in temperature, global runoff will increase by 4%. Applying this projection to changes in evapotranspiration and precipitation leads to the conclusion that global runoff is likely to increase 7.8% globally by the end of the century (Oki and Kanae 2006). Thus, a region that experiences higher annual precipitation and more runoff increases the likelihood for flooding.

Furthermore, in areas that are already vulnerable due to their limited groundwater storage availability, this cycle intensifies with increased warming and diminishing water supplies. In water stressed regions, variability of precipitation patterns is likely to further reduce groundwater recharge ability. Water availability is likely to be further exacerbated by poor management, elevated water tables, overuse from increasing populations, and an increase in water demand primarily from increased agricultural production (IPCC 2007).

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Jordan Lahti, left and Jeff Montebone prepare to herd cattle out of their summer grazing area on the Thompson Divide, an area of proposed gas drilling. 80 percent of the Colorado's water comes from the area where these ranchers are seen looking out at the snowcapped mountain peaks- the source of the Colorado River. Laurel Hagen, executive director of Canyon Lands Watershed Council, asks a question to a group of Eco-Flight students. “How do we get [the water] to one population over another? Right now, because urban populations are growing pretty fast, they are the ones who actually have the increasing demand for water." Basin diversions do not just include places like Denver and its suburbs but also cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas that hold a lot of water rights. Though cities like Las Vegas are getting better at lowering their per-capita water demand, water use is still growing, because their populations are growing. “We can conserve all we want but eventually we are going to hit a wall if our population keeps going up,” Hagen warns. #

A recent global analysis of variations in the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) indicated that the area of land characterized as very dry has more than doubled since the 1970s, while the area of land characterized as very wet has slightly declined during the same time period. In certain susceptible regions, increased temperatures have already resulted in diminished water availability. Precipitations in both western Africa and southern Asia have decreased by 7.5% between 1900 and 2005 (Dai et al 2004).

Most of the major deserts in the world including the Namib, Kalahari, Australian, Thar, Arabian, Patagonian and North Saharan are likely to experience decreased amounts of precipitation and runoff with increased warming. In addition, both semiarid and arid areas are expected to experience a decrease and seasonal shift in flow patterns. If increased temperatures cause an intensification of the water cycle there will be more extreme variations in weather events, as droughts will become prolonged and floods will increase in force (Huntington 2005).

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Lake Powell and nearby surburbs are seen from an EcoFlight plane giving students tours, looking at water and energy issues along the Upper Colorado River. The Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell to store water and provide power for states down river. When the lake is full, 3 to 4 percent of the water is lost due to evaporation. “You have the Colorado River coursing through your veins,” says Joan Mayer, an education specialist with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, to a group of EcoFlight students. Twenty five percent of the crops grown in the United States use water from the Colorado River. The use of water for energy extraction and irrigation are two of the largest straws that draw on the Colorado River. #


Melting Glacial Ice

Water supplies can also be affected by warmer winter temperatures that cause a decrease in the volume of snowpack. The result is diminished water resources during the summer months. This water supply is particularly important at the midlatitudes and in mountainous regions that depend upon glacial runoff to replenish river systems and groundwater supplies. Consequently, these areas will become increasingly susceptible to water shortages with time, because increased temperatures will initially result in a rapid rise in glacial meltwater during the summer months, followed by a decrease in melt as the size of glaciers continue to shrink. This reduction in glacial runoff water is projected to affect approximately one-sixth of the world's population (IPCC 2007).

A reduction of glacial runoff has already been observed in the Andes, whereby the usual trend of glacial replenishment during winter months has been insufficient. This is due to increased temperatures, which have caused the glaciers to retreat. It is likely that Andean communities such as El Alto in Bolivia have already observed a reduction in glacial runoff due to the scattered distribution of smaller sized glaciers, which further reduces the potential for runoff. In these areas, approximately one-third of the drinking water is dependent upon these supplies, and the recurrent trend of increased melt with diminished replenishment provides a dismal projection for water reserves if this same pattern continues (Goudie 2006).

Rousseau - Upper Colorado


A well rig for a horizontal hydraulic fracturing is seen on private land near the Roan Plateau in Garfield County. Currently there are only a few wells being "fracked" in Garfield County, an area that has a history of oil and gas booms. In addition to independent land owners, more than 90 percent of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) area is available or leased to energy development. Frakcing techniques require hundreds of thousands of gallons of water extraction for each well, which directly or indirectly is fed by the Colorado River or its tributaries. #

Water Quality

Freshwater bodies have a limited capacity to process the pollution stemming from expanding urban, industrial and agricultural uses. Water quality degradation can be a major source of water scarcity.

Although the IPCC projects that an increase in average temperatures of several degrees  as a result of climate change will lead to an increase in average global precipitation over the course of the 21st century, this amount does not necessarily relate to an increase in the amount of potable water available.

A decline in water quality can result from the increase in runoff and precipitation- and while the water will carry higher levels of nutrients, it will also contain more pathogens and pollutants. These contaminants were originally stored in the groundwater reserves but the increase in precipitation will flush them out in the discharged water (IPCC 2007).

Similarly, when drought conditions persist and groundwater reserves are depleted, the residual water that remains is often of inferior quality. This is a result of the leakage of saline or contaminated water from the land surface, the confining layers, or the adjacent water bodies that have highly concentrated quantities of contaminants. This occurs because decreased precipitation and runoff results in a concentration of pollution in the water, which leads to an increased load of microbes in waterways and drinking-water reservoirs (IPCC 2007).

One of the most significant sources of water degradation results from an increase in water temperature. The increase in water temperatures can lead to a bloom in microbial populations, which can have a negative impact on human health. Additionally, the rise in water temperature can adversely affect different inhabitants of the ecosystem due to a species' sensitivity to temperature. The health of a body of water, such as a river, is dependent upon its ability to effectively self-purify through biodegradation, which is hindered when there is a reduced amount of dissolved oxygen. This occurs when water warms and its ability to hold oxygen decreases. Consequently, when precipitation events do occur, the contaminants are flushed into waterways and drinking reservoirs, leading to significant health implications (IPCC 2007).

Effects on Coastal Populations

For coastal populations, water quality is likely to be affected by salinization, or increased quantities of salt in water supplies. This will result from a rise in sea levels, which will increase salt concentrations in groundwater and estuaries. Sea-level rise will not only extend areas of salinity, but will also decrease freshwater availability in coastal areas. Saline intrusion is also a result of increased demand due in part to growing coastal populations that leave groundwater reserves increasingly vulnerable to contamination and diminishing water reserves (IPCC 2007).

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Roy Savage prepares coffee for his guests after hunting. #

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Michael Lewis, left, Roy Savage, center and Thomas Ball enjoy coffee and conversation after returning from hunting in Garfield County. Lewis and Ball do not see the natural gas drilling that takes place on Savage’s land as a threat to the sport they love. The elk they shot was in a herd grazing near a drill pad. #

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Roy Savage looks over his land, with his 4-year-old daughter Abigail. Savage grew up as a fourth generation rancher in the area but recently sold his cows because of the drought. In order to keep his land he transitioned into sort of an energy specialist, allowing company's extract the minerals that lay below the surface of his land. “I think it is important for her (Abigail) to grow up on her own family’s ranch because it will give her a place to roam,” he mused. Savage even takes Abigail to see his friends who are avid hunters, as they gut a deer they shot that had been grazing near the gas pads on his land. “Being a part of a piece of land, big or small, I think, gives a person a wider horizon... It gives one perspective,” Savage said. He also speaks about the water and energy nexus in a thoughtful and concerned manner, yet he is also very matter-of-fact. “Water and energy are inextricably linked,” Savage explained.“Each is dependent on the other; you have to have energy to produce water and you need water to produce energy. The question is, what are the resources you are using and what are the resources you need?” #

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Thomas Ball, prepares to tag the elk he shot in Parachute, Colorado on his friend Roy Savage's land. He supports natural gas drilling in the area, pointing out that the elk he got was in a herd grazing off of land right by the gas wells. #

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Deer graze on irrigated ranching land underneath the power lines in Parachute, which is also an area for hunting. If it were not for irrigation from the Colorado River, the desert scape would not enable grazing for local wildlife in the area. #

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Lorie Syme of Montrose looks outside at a gas pipeline valve in Battlement Mesa during a tour by the Western Colorado Congress. Syme went on the tour because she wanted to learn more about the natural gas boom that has taken place in Colorado and across the country in recent years. #

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Michelle swims with her daughter Regan at the Battlement Mesa Community Center as concerned citizens discuss natural gas drilling in the area during the Western Colorado Congress' annual meeting. The community center was fully paid for by the oil and gas company EXXON. Garfield county has been one of the largest producers of natural gas in Colorado. #

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Gas pads are seen in Garfield County, one of the largest natural gas producing counties in Colorado. Thousands of wells are being fracked in Colorado alone, and fracking uses 5 million gallons of water per well. “This is enough water for two average families a year,” Ken Neubecker, executive director of the Western Rivers Institute explains. Currently, gas drilling on the Front Range, in places like Weld County, have the highest gas production sites. The tight sands geology in Garfield County are more expensive to drill from. However, the water required for hydraulic fracturing in Garfield County can be a less intense because the natural geology allows gas companies to rely more heavily on recycled water. Still, locals in the area have strong opinions for and against the natural gas drilling. #

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Lily Janssen, left, watches as her mom and sister, Ginger and Laela Janssen, pick tomatoes from their green house. Their home is on Basalt Mountain, which overlooks the Elk Mountain Range. Ginger and her husband Robb built their home on a very site-specific location that lends itself well to renewable and minimal energy use. #

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Ginger Janssen holds a handful of fresh cherry tomatoes from her green house garden. #

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Robb and his daughter Lily gut pumpkins grown in their garden to make pumpkin pie from scratch. The teepee Robb and his wife Ginger once lived in can be seen outside on the hill. Rob and Ginger Janssens’ first home was a Volkswagen bus, the second a teepee, then a cabin that was basically four walls, no running water or power, just wood heat. The cabin was a huge upgrade at the time. “We were just thankful for walls,” said Robb Janssen. The family's present house is completely off the grid and made mostly of reused and recycled materials. #

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Laela Janssen jumps on the trampoline in her backyard on Basalt Mountain. Her home can be seen behind. “We live in a very site-specific place,” said her dad, Rob Janssen. The Janssens have springs above their property that feed into a creek; the creek helps power the entire house. #

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Ginger Janssen collects eggs from their chickens and ducks. The Janssen family also has goats that Ginger hopes to get milk from someday. “We like to use the word ‘sustainable’ and that kind of stuff but the only way we can be sustainable is if the valley is still here," said Ginger's husband, Rob. #

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Bill Fales, with Cold Mountain Ranch prepares his horses for a cattle drive with his friend Frank Houpt, back left and daughter Molly Fales, right. He loves ranching and is doing everything he can to protect Thompson Divide from gas drilling. #

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Horses graze near an irrigation ditch at Cold Mountain Ranch near Carbondale, Colorado. #

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Shawn Taylor, of Snowmass Village, looks on the town of Carbondale after a bike ride on Red Hill. Mount Sopris, off in the distance, and the surrounding landscape is also a playground for the outdoor minded residents. Carbondale veils the the Thompson Divide, where local ranchers are offering to buy oil and gas leases to prevent drilling on the public land. In addition, the Hidden Gems Campaign has proposed “wilderness area,” on potential drilling sites. #

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A multi-well, directional natural gas well is drilled in Rifle early October 2012. A natural gas drilling boom in 2008 put the area on the map as a major drilling location. Since, most of the controversial hydraulic fracking in Colorado happens on the front range. Still, gas drilling supports the economy of Rifle and surrounding towns. Some organizations and local activists are fighting for stricter regulations on the drilling, as they are concerned about their air and water quality. Hydraulic fracking is just one of the many energy related water straws from the Colorado River. #

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“I just love the river; it feels incredible,” says Allison Austin, a local resident, while looking up through rising steam at a thick blanket of stars while relaxing in natural hot springs along the Crystal River just outside of Carbondale. Ranchers use the Crystal River for irrigation; it also provides the town’s water supply. The Crystal is one of the only free-flowing rivers in the United States. It has no dams, but its pristine status is threatened. The national non-profit organization American Rivers included the Crystal River on their 2012 America’s Most Endangered Rivers list due to a proposed hydropower dam and water diversions.



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