While Colorado is Ready For More Renewable Energy, the Grid Isn’t — For Now

DENVER – By 2030, Colorado plans to cut the emission of climate-warming pollution by 50 percent. By 2050, it will be 90 percent.

That means more of the state’s energy will have to come from renewable energy, up to 100 percent by 2040, according to a vision laid out by Gov. Jared Polis.

One big hurdle stands in their way: The system of wires that stretches from power plants to energy users. The grid was never designed to handle the more fluctuating energy renewables provide and energy providers worry that all that new clean energy could test its limits.

“We’re going to need to have a lot of changes in the system to make a very high penetration renewable system work,” said Richard Sedano, president and CEO of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit focused on the clean energy transition.

That’s because much of the national grid is old, some of it by more than 100 years, and splintered into local and regional sections that don’t connect. Early morning solar energy generated in New York can’t efficiently move west to coffee machines and laptops in Colorado or California.

One National Renewable Energy Lab study imagines a possible fix: high voltage direct current transmission lines that quickly move renewable energy to parts of the country that need it. Right now, just a few such “express train” lines exist in the country. Permitting constraints and cost are two big limitations. The NREL study estimates it would take $70 billion to build such lines. Ambitious climate legislation like the Green New Deal could direct funding for that kind of project, but Congress has steered clear of that kind of investment.

“Generally we don’t get the kind of direction that will motivate these kinds of big picture developments,” Sedano said. With the energy market in flux, private investors aren’t paying for that kind of large-scale investment yet.

That has left any grid improvements to states, cities and local energy providers.

Related story

Red Zones & Green Jobs: Creating an Equitable Solar-Powered City

In Colorado, about a dozen cities and counties have committed to 100 percent renewable energy and the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, plans to generate 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050. That’s forcing the utility to begin to improve its section of the grid.

Xcel is building a system it calls Advanced Grid, which will allow for more customers to attach solar panels onto their homes and provide power to the utility’s system. It will also allow for the two-way flow of information between customers and the company so that appliances could one day take signals from the grid about when to draw power — saving customers money.

Improving the grid may also open up new opportunities. Drake Bartlett, a senior trading analyst with the company, said Xcel will explore ways to share power with markets outside of Colorado. Right now the power it generates in Colorado remains in the state.

“As we move towards a carbon-free grid, we have ideas of where it’s going to come from, how we’re going to get there,” he said. “But there are other parts of it that we don’t know.”

That uncertainty extends to what grid infrastructure improvements will be needed. Inadequate updates to the country’s electric grid now could cost customers later. Worst case scenario, they could lead to brown or blackouts, according to Juan Torres associate lab director for the Energy Systems Integration Facility at the National Renewable Energy Lab.

Colorado Energy Production Estimates 2016 Chart

Without federal guidance, each state has to find its own way.

“You have to work within the constraints of the culture and what the people in the region, what their appetite is,” said Torres. California, which has a carbon-free goal for 2045, is importing some renewables from out of state. Overseeing future grid improvements will be the job of the California Independent System Operator.

The state has already invested billions in updating transmission lines to allow easier exchange of energy into Nevada and Arizona and facilitated quick regional sales of energy using a system called Western Energy Imbalance Market.

Neil Millar, executive director of infrastructure development at CAISO, said it will take a “broad suite” of solutions to update the grid and make a 100 percent carbon-free future a reality.

“Reinforcing those different corridors, and getting the appropriate market structure in place so that people can make the best use of the assets they do have is really playing an important role,” Millar said.

Loading Graphic…

For Hawaii, which declared a 100 percent renewable goal in 2015, trading wind and solar with other states is not possible due to its island status. Hawaiian Electric Company Senior Vice President of Planning & Technology Colton Ching said the utility is focused on large-scale solar and rooftop solar installations.

Hawaiian Electric estimates it needs to triple the amount of rooftop solar from where it currently stands now to meet its goal. That means getting the grid ready for energy to flow to and from homes, not just to homes as it has in the past.

“We need to get ahead of our own curve and make those circuits ready for two-way power flow in advance of those systems being added,” Ching said.

Boulder resident Jerry Palmer powers up his electric car. His utility, Xcel Energy, is making enhancements to the grid to allow for two way flow of information via the electric grid. (Photo by Grace Hood/CPR News)

Some parts of the system are already ready: On any given day half of Hawaiian Electric’s circuits already push power back onto the grid. But even there, the system will need to be beefed up.

“We’re going to need to enhance the ability of those circuits that already doing two-way power flow so they can do more reverse power flow,” he said.

Ultimately, customers will be the ones who pay for grid updates. That means utilities and states will have to take into account their preferences, attitudes and beliefs. The most challenging of this group will be people like Boulder resident Jerry Palmer, who hopes to one day cut electric company Xcel Energy completely out of the picture.

Related story

Coming Clean: An Elemental Special Interactive Series

Standing in front of solar panels as his electric car charges in his garage, Palmer discussed future plans to add a battery storage system from Tesla.

“I could actually go off the grid, and generate and store that energy right in my own garage,” Palmer said.

Right now that’s an aspirational goal. But if more customers prioritize independence that could create a bigger challenge for utilities in the future: Convincing customers not to leave the grid.

Coloradans reject setback restrictions on new oil and gas development

DENVER – Colorado oil and gas companies landed a significant victory election night as voters rejected sweeping restrictions on the booming industry.

Proposition 112 would have required any new oil and gas development that’s not on federal land to be set back at least 2,500 feet — almost half a mile — from homes and such “vulnerable areas” as playgrounds, lakes and rivers. The current limit is 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, health care centers and other high-occupancy buildings.

Although natural gas production has been stable over the past decade, oil production in Colorado has doubled in the past five years – the bulk of it driven by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Critics of the well-stimulation technique say it poses dangers to public health.

Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said workers got involved because their livelihoods were at stake.

“What’s been amazing to me is seeing the people in this industry step forward. People who don’t like politics and don’t want to be involved in politics, but they understand you don’t get to choose your moment,” Haley said.

Oil and gas companies, including Anadarko and Noble Energy, poured millions into the political interest group Protect Colorado. Through mailers, door-to-door visits and TV ads the group trumpeted the industry’s economic success, and raised concerns about what would be lost if companies faced new restrictions.

The opponents said the measure would have banned new oil and gas activity on most non-federal land in Colorado and cost the state jobs. The industry generated $10.9 billion in production value in 2017,they said, and supported many other industries and jobs. State and local governments would also receive less in tax revenue if the measure were to pass, they argued.

Supporters of the measure said it would have reduced health and nuisance impacts — headaches, nausea, traffic and dust, for example — associated with drilling sites. They say it would have given property owners greater certainty about the location of new oil and gas sites close to their property.

Loading Graphic…

Fracking opponents are running out of avenues to challenge drilling in Colorado. In 2012 and 2013, Longmont and Fort Collins imposed short- and long-term bans on oil and gas development, but the Colorado Supreme Court rendered those efforts illegal. Efforts to impose greater setbacks through the Legislature have failed.

One of the few remaining challenges lies in another legal challenge before the same court: Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. That case challenges the commission, which is the state’s oil and gas regulatory body, to prioritize health and safety over resource development. The high court is expected to issue its ruling in the next year.

Oil production has doubled in the state since 2013, and as of 2017, the state had 54,000 producing wells. Natural gas production has been stable for the past decade. But an increase in population along the northern Front Range means more people now are living near oil and gas facilities.

Biologists scour Colorado River to help endangered species survive

Razorback suckers are endemic to the Colorado River Basin and have been listed as endangered since 1991. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – The temperature is hovering around 90 degrees as Dale Ryden and I float down the Colorado River near Grand Junction. The turbid water looks inviting, a blessed reprieve from the heat, but if either of us jumped in, we’d be electrocuted.

“It can actually probably be lethal to people if you get in there,” said Ryden, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ryden’s co-workers cruise by in gray and blue inflatable rafts, their bows fitted with a rig that suspends metal spheres the size of disco balls from electric cables. When the balls are lowered into the river, a generator at the back of each raft sends current through the balls into the water. What lies beneath the surface is a mystery the biologists intend to explore.

“To get at the animal we’re studying, we have to actually find ways to capture them and take them out of their natural habitat,” Ryden said. “And so, one of the ways we can do that is electrofishing.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists take stock of non-native fish caught as part of an electrofishing trip down the Colorado River near Grand Junction, Colorado. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Fish that venture near the electrified rafts are momentarily stunned and pulled from the water with nets. Today’s mission is to remove non-native fish – such as smallmouth bass that feed on the fry of the four endangered species found in the river. The bass will be collected, measured, weighed, stored in bags and eventually sent to a landfill.

Any of the four endangered species – bonytail, razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow and humpback chub – we encounter will be treated with care and released back into the river.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Dale Ryden paddles down the Colorado River between Grand Junction and Fruita, Colorado. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Ryden has a tough, and some would say impossible, job. Every day, he tries to find ways to help fish that evolved to live only in this river system – one of the most engineered ecosystems in the world – survive.

Ancient species

Fish in the Colorado River are a product of harsh conditions.

Over millions of years, the rushing, sediment-laden water sculpted their bodies with characteristic ridges and bumps, making them well-equipped to handle its highs and lows. But human interference in the rivers they call home has pushed a few to the edge of extinction.

“They’ve survived three explosions of the Yellowstone supervolcano,” Ryden said. “They were here when mastodons and woolly mammoths went extinct.”

However, the era of big dam building in the West fundamentally altered their river home over the past 100 years or so, Ryden said. Dams and diversions have made life close to impossible for these fish. Then people started adding toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals and a range of invasive fish for sportsmen to catch.

“Call it the death by a thousand cuts,” Ryden said. “So they could survive any one of those problems probably fairly well. When you start throwing them all on top of them, then it becomes a lot more problematic.”

About an hour into our trip, there’s a flurry of activity on one of the rafts. Technician Andrew Disch dips his net and pulls out the river’s historic top predator – the Colorado pikeminnow. It has been listed as endangered for more than 50 years.

The fish is impressive, measuring about 3 feet long. But it pales compared to the pikeminnows that once hunted the river, Ryden said.

“Back in the day, these guys used to get 6 feet long and a hundred pounds.”

Biologist Dale Ryden places a Colorado pikeminnow back into the river after it was measured and scanned.  (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The pikeminnow gulps down prey with a mouth so huge you could put your whole hand inside without touching the sides – something Ryden has tested personally. The torpedo-bodied fish is pale green on top with a white belly and pinkish tail.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Travis Francis scanned a microchip biologists inserted in the pikeminnow years ago.

“We haven’t we haven’t seen this fish since 2004,” he said, adding that biologists make dozens of passes over this section of river each summer. They’ve documented some pikeminnow migrating several hundred river miles from the San Juan River, down through Lake Powell and up to Grand Junction. Early settlers nicknamed the pikeminnow “the white salmon” for such behavior.

Ryden estimated 400 pikeminnow exist in the upper reaches of the Colorado River, and close to 800 in stretches of the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado. He likens the pikeminnow to a lioness on the Serengeti: Each is at the apex of its food chain. Now imagine you built a series of concrete walls around the lion, boxing her in, making it difficult to hunt. That’s what dams on the Colorado River have done to the pikeminnow, Ryden said.

After the fish was measured and scanned, Ryden gently picked it up and walked into the river.

“Come here, baby,” he whispered.

With both hands he lowers the minnow into the water. It disappears into the murk.

During this day on the river, Ryden repeatedly referred to the endangered species as “our fish.” He takes ownership of their protection. They’re something different and more special than the non-native fish that surround them.

“I’ve earned a lot of respect for them,” he said. “I think if you put that many issues in front of people that we had to adapt to in a very short amount of time, I think as a species we would have a very hard time existing in some of the world-changing conditions that these fish have.”

Technician MacKenzie Barnett sorts smallmouth bass on an electrofishing raft along the Colorado River. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Defining success in recovery

Since 1988, recovery programs for endangered Colorado River fish have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, funded by a mix of hydropower revenues and money from agencies within the Department of the Interior. Ryden said the effort is beginning to pay off.

Two species – the humpback chub and the razorback sucker – are on their way to being downgraded from endangered to threatened.

But deciding whether an endangered species is “recovered” is a subject for debate. Some environmental groups have questioned the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to downlist the two species. In the case of the razorback sucker, they contend, most of its population growth is the result of an intense breeding and stocking program, not reproduction in the wild. Going forward, it’s unclear how much government intervention will be necessary to keep the sucker from going extinct.

In its proposal to downlist the razorback, the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program recommends that Fish and Wildlife revise the program’s goals, and that its current goals for “recovery,” written in 2002, are inadequate and dated.

The program, a partnership of local, state and federal agencies, water and power interests, and environmental groups, is set to expire in 2023. Director Tom Chart said the partners are rethinking what recovery of means, and how best to achieve it. Current goals for the program don’t fully address the need for more coordinated management of flows from the Colorado River system’s reservoirs, removal of non-native fish and stocking of endangered species past 2023, he said.

“The Colorado River is one of the most altered ecosystems in the world,” said Tom Chart, director of the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

“The Colorado River is one of the most altered ecosystems in the world,” Chart said in an email. “The (Fish and Wildlife) Service should revise recovery goals for this species in these contexts and based on the experiences and information gathered.”

‘Some people even kiss them’

Although the Endangered Species Act of 1973 requires the government to save these fish, it can be tough convincing the public that they’re valuable and the effort isn’t in vain. A razorback sucker, Ryden noted, doesn’t have the charisma of other wildlife.

“Basically we’ve made the judgment through the Endangered Species Act that it (the endangered animal) is there for a reason and it has a right to exist,” he said. “And it doesn’t have to be a polar bear or an eagle.”

In our last few miles on the river, the biologists net a razorback sucker – the second of the day – and head toward the river bank to scan it. The grayish-green fish is notable for its pronounced hump, which looks like the keel of an overturned boat.

That’s when the Morton family from Houston – mom Kate and kids Simon and Claire – floated by on a raft. Ryden, seeing an opportunity to educate the public on the value of the razorback sucker, called them over. He pulled the sucker from the livewell of the raft and presented it to the Mortons.

“Go ahead, give it a pet,” Ryden suggested.

Simon gently rubbed his fingers along the fish’s scales. Claire tentatively placed an index finger on the razorback’s head.

“Isn’t that special?” her mother asked. “Wow, that is an awesome fish.”

When Ryden first started working on the Colorado River, razorbacks nearly had been wiped out. He didn’t see one during his first four years on the job. One day, a crew brought one into the hatchery for breeding. He remembers the biologists crowding around it, marveling at the novelty of seeing a wild razorback.

“Some people even kiss them if you’re really brave,” Ryden told Simon. “Just right on the cheek.”

Ryden leaned in, nearly touching his lips to the fish, and made a kiss sound.

Now, after years of stocking tens of thousands into some reaches of the river, Ryden says razorback suckers are plentiful enough that you can find one on any summer day and give it a kiss.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Central Arizona farmers face tough choices planning for water cuts

PHOENIX – Farmers between Phoenix and Tucson, in Pinal County, are in a tough spot as Arizona continues critical negotiations over expected cuts in Colorado River water allocations.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the Colorado River system, is likely to be “in shortage” in 2020. A shortage declaration from the Bureau of Reclamation would trigger mandatory cutbacks for some large water users in Arizona.

But the risk goes deeper than that. Reclamation projections say Mead is uncomfortably close to even lower levels – to the point where no water can be released, a situation known as “dead pool.” In an effort to keep the system relatively healthy, the seven states in the Lower and Upper basins of the Colorado River are finalizing a plan to prop up Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the country. On top of that, Arizona is working on an internal deal to figure out precisely who gets a water cut, and how.

Serious questions

At a recent public meeting of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee, a group of eighth-graders attended as part of their own study of water. One of their questions was, “Should some stakeholders or cities get their water shut off, or should everybody be put on a water limit?”

In response, Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, said planners “know what the answer is” to the question of who gets cut first.

“But sometimes we don’t like what the answer is,” he continued. “That’s why we’re all meeting here, is to see if there’s a way to agree to still – respecting how the priorities work – make agreements among ourselves that the outcome might be different than just kind of the default outcome of what the priorities dictate.”

The default outcome is tolerable for some groups and intolerable for others.

Shane Leonard, general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District in Maricopa County, is a member of the state’s Drought Contingency Plan Steering Committee. (Photo by Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

Pinal County reality

In the “intolerable” column is Kelly Anderson of Pinal County. A third-generation farmer, he grew up in a house on property he now owns on the outskirts of Maricopa, south of Phoenix. He grows decorative wheat millet for Hobby Lobby and other crafts stores, as well as regular wheat. He also leases fields to alfalfa farmers.

Anderson, a former mayor of Maricopa, sits on the board of the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation & Drainage District. Along with other irrigation districts and water users, the MSIDD is slated to lose all its Colorado River water during a Tier One shortage under the proposed Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan.

“The good times with the CAP water is over,” he said. “We’re going back to the way it was in the ’70s.”

Anderson knew he would have to fully return to groundwater by 2030, but Pinal County farmers had planned for there to be some river water until then. Long-term drought and overallocation have led to Lake Mead falling faster than the basin states expected, which is why a new plan is needed.

But the drought-contingency plan threatens to make the cutoff for Pinal County farmers much more sudden, which is why they’re fighting to keep some river water as a bridge to a future of pumping groundwater.

“It would give us a longer period of time to work on wells, to budget, to do capital improvements, some bonding to help with those types of projects,” he said. “With the drought, it just brought things to the forefront much, much quicker.”

The backstory

There is a reason why farmers in Pinal County are near the back of the line when it comes to doling out river water. In the early 2000s, they swapped more secure rights for a lower priority as part of the Arizona Water Settlement Agreement. This water was subject to availability and would be phased out by 2030. It helped cities and the federal government settle Native American water claims.

In return, the farmers got more than $162 million in debt relief and cheaper water prices.

Attorney Paul Orme has represented Pinal County irrigation districts for years. He said when the Arizona Water Settlement deal and a 2007 drought plan known as the Interim Guidelines were drawn up, circumstances were different.

“We didn’t have anything on the horizon like what we’re facing now,” he said. “I think most folks who are objective in this process say, you know, this should be a share-the-pain kind of situation and we’re taking the big hit of the pain up front.”

He argued that the Drought Contingency Plan ultimately is meant to protect higher priority water by preserving Lake Mead’s long-term health. Pinal County farmers will not have guaranteed access to CAP water after 2030.

Shane Leonard is general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District, which serves agricultural and residential customers in Maricopa County. He said there are legitimate concerns over the economic impact to the state if Pinal County farmers were to lose their river water through a shortage declaration. But he also said politics is at play.

“There are going to be some key folks down at the Legislature that want to know that we at least tried to mitigate some of Pinal County’s issues,” said Leonard, who along with Orme is one of almost 40 members of the drought plan’s steering committee.

Ultimately, it is lawmakers and the governor who give the state the authority to sign on the dotted line with California, Nevada and the Upper Basin states. While acknowledging his clients’ legislative support, Orme said it’s only as strong as the case for fairness they can make.

Coloradans increasingly identify as ‘conservationist,’ but will that drive them to the polls?

Kirk Klancke’s voting past makes him a unique political animal. It has nothing to do with his party affiliation as a longtime registered Republican in Grand County, Colorado. What’s different is that he has defined his politics based on water conservation and the environment.

“Keeping our environment healthy has to be one of the most important issues on the minds of our politicians,” said Klancke, who loves to fish in Ranch Creek near his home outside Tabernash. The stream feeds the Colorado River, which is at the crux of many water debates in the West.

Klancke heads a local chapter of Trout Unlimited in Grand County. Because water issues are so important, Klancke says he may break with his party to support Democratic candidate Jared Polis for governor.

“I’m a big fan,” he said.

Klancke is not a typical voter; the environment hasn’t historically been a priority at the polls. In 2016, just 2 percent of national voters volunteered anything related to the environment as a top priority. But that may be shifting in 2018 as voters worry about the Trump administration’s policies concerning pollution, mining, drilling and use of public lands.

“I think, personally, that the environment is the drive engine for this state. Our tourism base, all that money comes because the health of our environment,” he said while casting a dry fly for trout in a tributary of the Fraser River. “I would like to see people get elected just on the grounds that they will be backing environmental work.”

President Donald Trump “is probably the least environmentally friendly president we’ve had in my lifetime,” says Kirk Klancke, who loves to cast for trout in a tributary of the Fraser River near his home in Grand County. “I loved it when Obama took over the presidency. And I’m a registered Republican, for the record.” (Photo by Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

In Colorado, the annual bipartisan Conservation in the West Survey shows a 10 percent jump to 75 percent of Republicans, Democrats and independents who identify with the term conservationist.

“Generally we have seen that how people identify themselves doesn’t tend change over the time,” said Lori Weigel, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies. “So it’s really been somewhat remarkable that we’ve seen a significant double digit shift.”

“If there’s something going on around you that you disagree with, or you’re not liking the direction that it’s headed, you either get involved in it, and you try to make changes, or you just shut up,” Cindy Wright says of the way her father raised his children. So Wright and her sister got involved in protecting wild horses in Sand Wash Basin. In the process, “We’ve learned how ill-informed some of our representatives are.” (Photo by Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

You see that change in voters like Cindy Wright, a Moffat County resident who recently co-founded the nonprofit Wild Horse Warriors.

Standing on BLM land near the Utah line, Wright explained that public lands are integral to recreation. They’re also important spaces for wild horses to roam.

The hot and dry weather – and Wright’s affection for the federally managed Sand Wash Basin – motivated her to start a nonprofit to protect the animals.

“If we were treating our own wildlife or our own livestock at home to some extent the way our government treats our wild horses, the humane society would be on our cases,” added Wright.

Wright voted for Donald Trump in 2016 because health care was a primary political issue for her. But the real undecided question for environmental groups is how to harness the frustration of Wright and others into action at the polls.

Wright says she takes elections issue-by-issue. “I don’t vote Republican, Democrat, independent party lines. I vote on the policies being presented during the time of elections, and which ones at that point are important to me.”

Outdoor groups like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers are jumping into the fray. They’ve released questionnaires to inform voters on candidate’s environmental positions, including Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates. Because in some of today’s increasingly close political races, they say a conservation vote can make a difference. The Outdoor Industry Association launched a Vote the Outdoors effort earlier this year that includes scorecards.

Getting out the vote also means pro-environment rallies. That was the goal when about 1,400 people gathered in downtown Steamboat Springs in August to speak out against efforts to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat, Steamboat’s 1984 Winter Olympic gold medalist Deb Armstrong, Routt County officials, native American speakers, and others, took turns at the lectern.

In August 2018, horseback riders were among those protesting a visit to Steamboat Springs by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who was appearing at a private event sponsored by the conservative Steamboat Institute’s Freedom Conference. (Photo by Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

Longtime Steamboat resident Sunny Duckels came to protest increases in drilling.

“I really want us to put our government behind looking for alternative methods for energy,” she said, holding a handmade protest sign.

Duckels added that in Steamboat Springs and other Western Slope towns, the environment is the economy. This summer’s drought hurt local fishing and tubing businesses. And climate change could hurt the nearby ski economy.

“I really believe that it’s not a Republican or Democrat issue in our community,” she said.

Event organizer Cody Perry added that there’s palpable frustration with the Trump administration in 2018. Especially about efforts to shrink public lands that went against overwhelming support for protections.

“The landscape is our identity and when we see that taken from us, it’s the same thing as someone coming into your house and taking that from you,” Perry said.

“I see it as a civil rights issue. I see him as marginalizing the sovereignty of tribes and I see it stealing from the American public.”

Water thieves of the West take notice: This sheriff’s deputy is watching

MONTEZUMA COUNTY, Colorado – One Sunday morning several years ago Dave Huhn got a call. He’s usually off work that day, but it was the height of irrigation season and decided to answer. The woman on the other end was frantic, screaming as she watched her 82-year-old husband from the window.

Their 86-year-old neighbor was beating him with a shovel.

“It was a situation where you had two old timers that were very stubborn and very hard-headed,” Huhn says, “and they were bound and determined to do it their way. And the other party was saying, ‘No you won’t.’”

This was a fight over water. One of the men accused the other of taking more than his share from their irrigation ditch, leaving less for everyone else. The situation escalated to the point that their shovels transformed from farm tools to weapons.

Huhn is a sheriff’s deputy for Montezuma County, Colorado, a stretch of sagebrush mesas and sandstone cliffs bordering Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, home to Mesa Verde National Park, where ancestral Puebloans’ cliff dwellings still stand. Unlike other local law enforcement throughout the West, Huhn specializes in the complex world of water law.

For the last nine years’ summers, he has criss-crossed the county, seeing up close the conflict that chronic aridity creates. Back in 2009, when Huhn took over as the sheriff’s department’s water enforcer, word spread quickly.

“The very first month of the very first year I had almost 450 calls that one month,” Huhn says. “That was just extraordinary.”

These days, depending on the severity of drought, Huhn says he averages 60 to 100 calls per month for water cases.

Water law enforcement varies across the western U.S. Water disputes — both violent and nonviolent — will sometimes find their way to the attention of local law enforcement, but due to an ignorance of what the law actually says, many deputies will simply tell the parties to hammer out their differences in state water court. Huhn says the common refrain is that conflict over water is a civil matter, that no criminal statutes have been broken.

But depending on the case, Huhn says, that’s incorrect. Local law enforcement can issue citations for water violations, and police how people use and abuse the state’s scarce natural resource.

Wine grapes grow in Montezuma County’s McElmo Canyon, a hotbed of water conflict according to deputy Dave Huhn. (Luke Runyon/KUNC)

On the beat for nearly a decade, Huhn says he’s known for fairly and thoroughly investigating water cases. When he shows up on scene, his reputation precedes him.

“I’ll walk up to the front door or out in that field to talk to whoever I need to talk to and they’ll turn around look at me and give me a funny look and say, ‘You’re that water cop, aren’t you?’ So I’ve kind of gotten used to that.”

The majority of calls he receives are claims of water theft, Huhn says. There are a few methods to steal water. One popular method, he says, is to simply drop a pump into an irrigation ditch. Throughout the county, ditches run through people’s properties on an easement, meaning the residents see the water on their land, but they have no rights to use it. If they turn that pump on and divert from the ditch without the water rights to do that, it’s a crime.

Huhn started confiscating dozens of pumps, storing them in the evidence room, “and as they started to pile up I was told not to do that anymore.”

Huhn says disputes among farmers are sometimes harder to prove. One party might have rights to some water, but end up taking more than their share. After consulting the local water commissioner, and documents related to a water rights decree, he can issue either a warning or write a ticket, just like a traffic stop.

“First, people were shocked. They were like, ‘You’re kidding me right? You’re going to cite me over water?’ I say, ‘Yes, it’s a valuable commodity in this state.’”

Another common citation is for failing to have a measuring device on a ditch, like a weir or a flume. Those who divert from a stream are required by state law to measure the flow of what they take. Enforcement of that requirement varies across Colorado, but not in Montezuma County. No measuring device? That’s either a warning or a citation, Huhn says.

76-year-old farmer Bob Schuster has called on Deputy Huhn to help resolve water disputes among his neighbors a few times. At dispute is water in a ditch that irrigates farmland in the county’s McElmo canyon, a narrow, picturesque reach of sandstone with a series of vineyards and pastures that stretch across the Utah border.

Schuster grows wine grapes and hay, and also runs a plumbing supply store in the county’s biggest city, Cortez. Schuster says water conflict is a constant fact of life in the county, but droughts like one currently sapping nearby reservoirs and streams make people desperate.

“People are basically — and these are good people — basically dishonest,” he says.

Schuster’s farm sits at the end of an irrigation ditch with a handful of users upstream. If they’re taking more than they’re entitled to, the ditch dries up before it reaches his fields.

“They look out their fields, they see they need water and they take the water going through that’s not theirs,” he says. “They don’t consider their neighbor needs his water.”

Because livelihoods here are so dependent on water, emotions run high when accusations get thrown around. In true Hatfield and McCoy fashion, Schuster says he’s had guns pointed at him, shovels swung at his head and been sucker punched in fights with neighbors over water.

When water deliveries are being curtailed due to drought restrictions, everyone’s on edge.

“Water is more scarce,” says Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “And so you get the same demand, less water. And so that heightens the potential for conflict.”

Deputy Huhn’s role — enforcing water law and interacting with the county’s agricultural community — is unique in the state, Preston says.


Huhn will write citations for stealing water, lacking a measuring device in an irrigation ditch and tampering with a headgate. (Luke Runyon/KUNC)

“To tell you the truth I can’t believe that that other counties aren’t doing the same,” Preston says. “Once this kind of program is put in place, if it’s done with a well-trained person, they’re never going to want to go back to the bad old days.”

Back at the sheriff’s office, Deputy Huhn says violent skirmishes over water have been on the decline since the county’s started enforcing water law. But dry years add pressure on farmers and ranchers trying to make ends meet.

“Historically we’ve had people killed over water in the state of Colorado. We have in this county,” he says.

Huhn’s job has all the makings of a tall tale from the Wild West, with sweeping desert vistas, and shoot-outs with outlaws. But his role seems more futuristic. The most recent science on climate change shows the Colorado River Basin, which includes all of Montezuma County, to be hotter and drier as decades pass.

“We don’t want the violence,” Huhn says. “We don’t want the fighting between families and between friends. We want to be able to resolve it in a nonviolent way.”

Meaning from here on out Deputy Huhn is going to be spending more time, not less, keeping fights over water from blowing up.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

From neon orange to chocolate brown: The West’s unluckiest river takes a beating

DURANGO, Colo. – In early August 2015, Barb Horn stood on a bank of the Animas River, waiting for mine waste spilled upstream to reach the city. She and hundreds of others waited hours for the waste plume to appear, but darkness fell.

The next morning, she saw the change.

“It was absolutely surreal,” Horn said. “And I think that’s why it went viral. It’s like somebody Photoshopped the river orange.”

Upstream, Environmental Protection Agency workers and an environmental contractor cleaning up the Gold King mine near Silverton had accidentally triggered the spill of 3 million gallons of rust-colored waste, known as “acid mine drainage.”

“If you’re a Harry Potter fan, it looked like butterbeer, like butterscotch,” said Horn, a water quality specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The water was laden with metals, including iron, which colored the water reddish-orange.

The Animas begins in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains before joining the San Juan River, an important tributary of the Colorado River.

For Horn, the spill was a stark visual reminder of the river’s long history of pollution from abandoned mines.

“And it immediately tugged on your heartstrings thinking nothing could live in that,” she said.

Barb Horn, a water quality specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, says ash from this summer’s 416 Fire was deadlier than acid mine drainage from the 2015 Gold King Mine spill. (Photo: Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The spill temporarily stopped recreation in the river and forced farmers to delay irrigation to their crops. But life in the river? It didn’t change much. The bugs and fish survived and showed no signs of short-term harm. The fish had been living with heavy mineralization of the water for decades.

Crisis averted — until this year.

“So I joke that now the river looks like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s chocolate fudge river,” Horn said.

We spoke along the river’s stretch through the city. The water was a cloudy brown color with suspended bits of charred debris.

The first few ash-laden runoff events probably killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30-mile stretch of the Animas.

The Animas began the summer with record low water because of long term drought and a warm winter. That primed the nearby mountains for wildfire. The 416 Fire ended up burning about 55,000 acres around the drainage basin for Hermosa Creek, a tributary of the Animas. When rains fall on the burn area, a thick sludge washes into the river.

Horn says official surveys haven’t been conducted, but it’s likely the first few ash-laden runoff events killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30-mile stretch of the river.

“You could literally see the fish coming to the banks gasping for air. It physically smothered their gills and their ability to breathe,” Horn said. “So there it was, it didn’t look as bad. It came from a, you could argue, natural source and did way more damage.”


Sediment and ash from the 416 Fire piles up along the banks of Hermosa Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. (Photo: Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Many Western rivers are stressed by drought, pollution, overuse by cities and farmers and runoff from wildfires. The Animas is the perfect poster child.

“It certainly is unlucky,” said Scott Roberts, a researcher with the Mountain Studies Institute, a nonprofit research group based in nearby Silverton. “It’s unlucky now. And it’s been unlucky for throughout time really.”

The river is facing problems that show themselves, including a vibrant orange smear or a chocolate brown sludge, he said. Or like earlier this summer, when the river all but disappeared within Durango’s city limits, recording its record lowest flow in 107 years of data.

But there are many other issues that don’t draw public attention. Before the Gold King Mine spill, and even now, the river receives acidic water laden with heavy metals from the region’s numerous abandoned mines. Adding insult to injury, in July 2018 a truck carrying waste material from the mine site crashed into Cement Creek, another Animas tributary.

“It’s being stressed by drought, being stressed by warmer temperatures,” Roberts said of the Animas. “It’s being stressed by runoff from wildfires, being stressed by elevated metal concentrations, being stressed by bacteria, by nutrients.”

Roberts points to studies that showed samples of the river’s water with high levels of bacteria commonly found in humans, likely leached from underground septic tanks.

Tom Knopick is co-owner of Duranglers, a fly-fishing outfitter. He predicts the Animas River “will be in a short period of time better than it was before the fire.” (Photo: Luke Runyon/KUNC)

“I don’t think the problems that are plaguing the Animas today are unique to the Animas,” said Ty Churchwell of Trout Unlimited, based in Durango. Trout Unlimited receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

In fact, Churchwell said, drought, ash-laden runoff and mine pollution are often the norm in Western watersheds. The Animas has just experienced the extremes of all three in a short period of time.

“We certainly have experienced more than our fair share of traumatic incidents here in the last three years,” he said.

All these stressors don’t make it easy on local business owners, heavily dependent on tourists coming to town to raft and fish on the Animas. Low flows have curtailed river rafting operations throughout the Southwest.

Fishing isn’t restricted on the river through Durango, but local anglers are avoiding large portions of the stressed river this summer, said Tom Knopick, co-owner of Duranglers, a fly shop in downtown Durango.

He takes solace in knowing that all this trauma is bringing attention to the Animas’ myriad problems. Some of the mine waste is being treated now before draining into the river. When it comes to the fire-related sludge, the healing process has already begun.

“We’ve seen this before and we know that we know that it’s a short term problem,” Knopick said, comparing this summer to that of 2002 when the Missionary Ridge fire scorched more than 70,000 acres outside Durango. “You know we don’t like it. Rather not be dealing with it. But the reality is the Animas will be in a short period of time better than it was before the fire.”

But it could be another five to 10 years before the Animas is back to its former self, according to Horn of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“Rivers really are a great metaphor for our body and our own health and our own lives,” she said. “You can think about maybe the Animas is having a heart attack, a stroke and clogging up and saying we need to pay attention to what we eat or what we’re doing with her and to her.”

Horn said rivers have been rebounding from cyclical drought and fires for millenia. But human activity has made the frequency, duration and magnitude of those events worse.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Energy ballot initiatives will be big in the November election

In two western states, the November election will give voters a chance to vote on oil and fracking and renewable energy. The initiatives in Colorado and Arizona have been contentious already and millions have been spent.

COLORADO

Colorado voters could see two competing oil and gas ballot measures in November.

On one side, environmental group Colorado Rising, seeks to require a 2,500-foot setback between oil wells and any occupied structure, including gathering points like playgrounds and waterways like rivers. These setbacks have been an issue for years, and come as more oil drilling and fracking happens close to cities. (In Culver City, California, for example. PBS SoCal’s David Nazar has reported on the conflict of such exploration in that city in LA County.)

On the other side is the Colorado Farm Bureau, which wants property owners to be compensated if their water, mineral or property is taken or devalued.

Protesting Signature Efforts: Another Front In Oil And Gas Ballot Battle

“The only thing that would be affected by this are the most egregious acts of government,” said Colorado Farm Bureau Executive Director Chad Vorthmann. “Where they specifically targeted one individual one producer or one type of industry and said we’re going to take your property. Or we’re going to devalue it.”

The Colorado Farm Bureau has already delivered 209,000 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State, which it said is a new record. Protect Colorado, which is funded heavily by oil and gas interests, pumped millions into the signature gathering effort.

The Farm Bureau was required to gather signatures from all 34 Colorado state senate districts for its constitutional amendment. The Secretary of State’s office has until September 5 to verify the signatures.

Meanwhile, Colorado Rising turned in more than 170,000 signatures on deadline day, Aug. 6, and is taking a different tack. It’s attempting to get a statutory amendment passed by voters.

“There are so many reasons we need to protect the health and safety of Coloradans,” said Suzanne Spiegel with Colorado Rising. “Right now the state isn’t doing that. People are getting sick, there are explosions that are killing people, our water is being contaminated. And it’s on us to step up and protect our communities protect our neighborhoods.”

This will be the second time that setback proponents have sought to put a measure in front of voters. A third attempt in 2014 resulted in a brokered compromise between Democratic Rep. Jared Polis and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The compromise created an oil and gas task force which made several recommendations regarding the location of large oil and gas facilities, and gave local governments more say in how oil and gas is developed. Some suggestions were adopted by state regulators.


According to a state of Colorado analysis, nearly 55 percent of land across the state would be unavailable for oil and gas development if voters approve Initiative 97.

According to a state analysis of Initiative 97, nearly 55 percent of land across the state would be unavailable for oil and gas development if voters approve it.

In Weld County, where the majority of oil and gas is developed, nearly 80 percent of land would be off limits.

Ultimately, former Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission head Dave Neslin said lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages could be in play..

“I think it will give rise to takings claims against the state on the part of the mineral owners in Colorado,” said Neslin, an attorney with Davis, Graham & Stubbs. “I think it would be a billion dollar mistake.”

ARIZONA

In Arizona, Cronkite News and KJZZ have reported on a very heated initiative campaign that would change the state constitution to set new goals for renewable energy use. One proposal, sponsored by Clean Energy for Healthy Arizona would require that 50 percent of Arizona’s electrical energy must come from renewable sources, mostly solar and wind, by 2030.

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona is primarily funded by California billionaire Tom Steyer, who has become a target in the campaign. A political action committee, Reliable Energy Policy, has targeted Steyer.

Steyer has been mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate and recently told CSPAN that he has not ruled it out. He is the third biggest donor nationally in the 2018 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Arizona Public Service Electric Company (APS) opposes the renewable energy referendum and argues that the passage of the proposal could lead to the shut down of the Palo Verde Nuclear plant, the largest power producer in the country. It serves 4 million people across the Southwest.

The widespread availability of wind and solar power could impact the market for nuclear power, argue opponents of the referendum.

They say that nuclear power would be hit hardest among sources of power in Arizona, because Palo Verde – the nation’s largest power producer – could not operate at levels low enough to satisfy the initiative’s requirements.

Rodd McLeod, a spokesman for the Clean Energy Initiative, took issue with APS’ assertion that the requirements of the initiative would force them to close the plant. He was skeptical of the argument that Palo Verde would no longer be economically viable, since utilities from other states own part of the plant.

Arizona is already one of the top producers of renewable energy.

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona has turned in nearly half a million signatures, but opponents of the ballot measure have filed a lawsuit, claiming that more than 200,000 of the signatures are invalid because they belong to people who are not registered to vote in Arizona, while others lack key information like first and last names.

Cronkite News’ Jéssica Alvarado Gámez and KJZZ’s Will Stone contributed reporting for this article.

Those who live off the land in southern Colorado feel the drought’s reach

Every day, southwestern Colorado rancher Matt Isgar starts an increasingly complex puzzle. The goal is to find food for his 135 cattle.

“Most of the pasture we used last year we’re not using this year because there’s no moisture,” Isgar said of the land he ranches in Hesperus, west of Durango. “There’s no new growth.”

With the dark red bull’s eye of exceptional drought looming over the Four Corners region, Isgar has lowered his grazing standards. He sold off 35 cows to stave off financial bleeding, but there are still costs.

“We’re spending more material and labor fixing fences and hauling water, and we’re supplementing with protein. So every day is more expensive to operate,” he said.

Hot and dry conditions have become an insidious foe to Colorado ranchers and farmers. While dry summers aren’t new, a winter and spring with little snow and rain have pushed parts of the state to get drier, faster. June marked the third warmest on record for the entire state. Colorado should soon see normal monsoon moisture, but that won’t help Rocky Ford cantaloupe farmer Greg Smith. The legendary local crop grows out on the southern eastern plains, another region dealing with exceptional drought.


“Most of the pasture we used last year we’re not using this year because there’s no moisture,” Matt Isgar said of the land he ranches in Hesperus, west of Durango.

Smith saw the writing on the wall with the spring’s low snowpack and only planted a third of his 100 acre farm.

“It’s just brown dry,” he said. “A match gets started on fire and you have a prairie fire that may run for miles.”

There’s a cost to leaving fields empty. Smith still treats the soil to prevent weeds. And financially, even with fewer acres planted, he has the same bills to pay. Even his retirement plans got delayed. His intention to build a second retirement residence was torched by the Spring Creek Fire which burned more than a 100,000 acres in southern Colorado.

“Actually, I think it’s probably going to be on hold for a couple of years to see how the place shapes up,” Smith said. “It’s not going to be the same as it was. That’s for sure.

Nearby Baca County was the epicenter of the 30s dust bowl, so dryland wheat farmer Brian Brooks said he’s seen worse. His crop yields are down by about 5 bushels per acre. Prices have decreased slightly. His only saving grace at the moment was above average rainfall from last year that supercharged the soil. Farming advances have allowed him to conserve that moisture for his benefit now.

That future that will likely mean hotter temperatures which can prolong drought. Roger Pulwarty, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said hotter temperatures can prompt flash droughts, like in 2012, when the majority of the U.S. dried in just a few months.

“This idea of intensification in drought is what makes drought very unique … By the time it’s intensified, we’ve used up all the buffers we’ve relied on, [like] cheaper grain. And now we’re at the mercy of a very, very strong event,” he said.

It feels like that hotter drier future has already arrived for hay grower Ed Zink. For 70 years he’s lived on Waterfall Ranch, near Durango. He typically sees the namesake waterfall on the nearby rocky cliffs — but not this year. It’s a first for Zink.

“It’s not even keeping the rock wet. It is dry,” he lamented.

Zink watched the 416 Fire, which burned more than 50,000 acres, come within a half mile of this property in June, another first. Ample water rights for his property have meant little difficulty for growing hay this year. But 70 years ago, Zink said his property was situated at the edge of alpine forest. He could see desert to the south. That desert has started marching northward toward his farm.

“I don’t know how to exactly put it in perspective,” he said. “It feels like the edge of that desert has moved 50 or 75 miles in my lifetime.”

Zink’s neighbor’s wells have started to dry up, another change in his lifetime. Groundwater is on the decline, and the cause is not fully known. La Plata County plans on a comprehensive study of the problem. The picture adds up to a landscape of more people making due with less water.

Formation of Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park offers lessons for dealing with drought

DENVER – Eighty percent of Colorado is experiencing some form of drought or dryness, which means dry river basins, hungry wildfires and parched farmland across the state. Some have already started comparing conditions with the 2002 drought, which climatologists say was the worst since the late 1600s.

The drought also is spurring a closer look by historians into how communities have survived and triumphed over water scarcity — instead of adhering to the Old West canard that “Water is for fighting.”

In 1999, some of Colorado’s most powerful politicians stood on top of the windswept sandy hills of Great Sand Dunes National Monument, which would soon become Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. It was an attempt to conserve not only the land, which includes the tallest dunes in the U.S., but the aquifer and waterways, including the seasonal Medano Creek.

“I think the feeling was, ‘If we’re going to save this resource, the time is now. We’ve got to act,’” said historian Michael Geary, who wrote “Sea of Sand: A History of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.”

The Summit on the Sand at Great Sand Dunes National Monument took place Dec. 18, 1999. Attending were (from left) Rep. Scott McInnis, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Sen. Wayne Allard, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar.
Photo: Fred Bunch, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Just the year before, voters had defeated Amendments 15 and 16, which would have allowed water to be exported from the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, where the dunes are found. A famous photo was taken when state and federal lawmakers shooed away the news media and park employees to discuss formation of the park. Rep. Scott McInnis, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, Sens. Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell spoke out in the open for more than half an hour.

The Summit on the Sand led to Allard’s legislation to expand the national monument to a national park. It was the culmination of cooperation by Republicans, Democrats, ranchers and such environmental groups as the Nature Conservancy.

“There was a great sense of relief that they got this through when they did. And that they did something that was very worthwhile,” Geary said.

Historians at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center of the American West want to know why some communities rally to protect water resources and others fail. In the San Luis Valley, the community first fought over water, then banded to save it. Patty Limerick, director of the center, said inevitable fights over water leave people beaten down.

“But water also causes some people in some circumstances to say, ‘We’ve got to pull it together,’” she said.

The Center of the American West has looked at examples of cooperation tracking back to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. They’ve also looked at more recent cooperative agreements in the Colorado River basin since 1999.

Roger Pulwarty, a senior advisor and drought expert for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that in many cases, reaching a crisis point “actually allowed us to create systems to be more efficient, to protect our watersheds, has actually led us to produce very positive outcomes.”

Crises don’t always force people to work together. In Oregon nearly 20 years ago, conflict arose when the federal government stopped farmers from pumping water to protect endangered fish. After years of fighting, a diverse group of tribes, ranchers, farmers, environmental groups and state governments came together to sign the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement in 2010.

“It was quite remarkable that people were able to find common ground and come together,” said Brian Cannon, history professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

As with the establishment of Great Sand Dunes National Park, congressional approval was needed. But Republicans became wary of a deal to remove dams from the river. Cannon said there were misunderstandings among stakeholders. The agreement unraveled in 2015 and Congress never approved it.

“One of the things we can learn is that the negotiations took place behind closed doors,” said Cannon, blaming proprietary business issues for the lack of transparency. “So that’s one thing we can learn is the value, where it’s possible, of transparency in negotiations.”

A revised version of the Klamath restoration plan has been proposed. A corporation has proposed removal of the dams. But this provides little help to irrigators who have struggled with water supply in the past because of the presence of endangered fish.

Geary, the historian, said Colorado’s San Luis Valley is gearing up for another water fight. The Bureau of Land Management has delayed a plan that could expand oil and gas drilling within 1 mile of the park, which has some worried about disruption of water supplies. The BLM has agreed to consult with the Navajo Nation, which is a local landowner, before making a final decision.

“It’s very easy (to think) black and white, us versus them,” Geary said. “But that really doesn’t get anybody anywhere. What gets people somewhere, and hopefully it’s a place they want to be, is dialogue.”

There’s still work to be done on the agreements that helped create Great Sand Dunes National Park. This is the final year of a study to determine the park’s rights to conserve its underground water. If approved, the water right would exist in perpetuity.