Nicolette Toussaint

In the absence of anything like a crystal ball, most of us expect some version of the lives we have experienced so far to continue into the future.

The town survey I recently filled out is a case-in-point. The survey is intended to inform the town’s trustees as they begin to update Carbondale’s Comprehensive Plan, a document that strives to extend “two decades into the future, well beyond the pressing concerns of today.”

Given that timeframe and the climate changes we’re already experiencing, I was surprised to encounter almost nothing on the survey relating to water. 

So far this summer, Carbondale has “escaped” water restrictions. In late June, the City of Glenwood Springs had to enact temporary water use restrictions, asking residents not to water yards, run dishwashers or fill bathtubs. Even though Glenwood had spent about $10 million to protect its water intakes and filtration in the wake of the Grizzly Creek Fire, rain and flood debris in Glenwood Canyon suddenly overwhelmed the town’s filtration systems, prompting a pre-dawn text alert. 

Since last fall, Aspen too has maintained stage two restrictions that prohibit landscape watering between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and require residents to follow an odd-day/even-day watering schedule. Aspen’s utility resource manager, Steve Hunter, says that local stream flow has varied from 35 to 75 percent of median. What’s more, our local snowpack – which has recently melted away on Mt. Sopris – was just 70 percent of normal. 

The long-term outlook is even worse. As reported in a Washington Post article in August 2020, much of the Western Slope has already “warmed more than two degrees Celsius, double the global average. Spanning more than 30,000 square mile, [the Western Slope’s overheated area] is the largest 2C hot spot in the Lower 48.” Our beautiful Roaring Fork Valley borders this global hot spot. 

Carbondale’s Municipal Water Efficiency Plan, published in 2015 and available on the town’s website, states that “Carbondale owns and operates its own water and wastewater utilities.” Carbondale also “obtains its potable water supply from surface water sources in the Nettle Creek drainage, a tributary to the Crystal River, and from groundwater sources along the Crystal and Roaring Fork Rivers…” 

Since this same report forecasts a 143 percent increase in water demand by 2050, I’m pretty sure that folks at Town Hall must be thinking about water shortages, even if they’re not asking ME about it via the survey. I, for one, would welcome knowing more about where our water comes from and how the town hopes to navigate the pincer movement between population growth and diminishing water resources.

Of course, there’s not much we can do to limit growth. Most adults I know have chosen to have children and, these days, there’s not much legal precedent for surrounding your town with a medieval-style wall. 

Legal water grabs are another matter. The Roaring Fork Conservancy estimates that, on average, 38 percent of water from the Roaring Fork above Aspen and 41 percent of the Fryingpan River above Meredith are diverted across the Continental Divide to the Front Range. Across the Western Slope, wealthy towns and individuals have purchased agricultural lands in “buy and dry” schemes to tap their senior water rights. Although that’s kept fairly quiet, it’s certainly happening around us. 

Six large ranches are for sale in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Tybar Ranch along Prince Creek Road was recently sold for $12.55 million and that sale includes a planned unit development directed by Pitkin County, two open space parcels totaling 400 acres and 10 building sites. In the third paragraph of the Post Independent’s article on the sale, the paper obliquely mentioned that “water rights for the ranch date back to 1892 and it appears a portion of the ranch was homesteaded even earlier.”

There’s not much we can do to make it rain and snow, of course. But we could conserve. 

The Town of Carbondale participated in creating the 2015 Regional Water Efficiency Plan for the Roaring Fork Watershed. That document, also on the town’s website, lists two goals that haven’t gotten much attention, but should: 

“Engaging water users and stakeholders… in coordinated public outreach and education campaigns…” 

Outdoor water use reductions that include “a regional model landscape ordinance for new landscapes to be built smart from the start.”

I have been pleased to see a local trend away from lawns with new homes favoring native plants and xeriscapes. I suspect that, in time, the whole state of Colorado will have to pass laws to prevent residents from trying to transform our high desert landscapes into Scotland. 

Meanwhile, as I have watched the snows melt off Mount Sopris this summer, I have been reminded of the lyrics of an old song: 

All day I’ve faced a barren waste

Without the taste of water, cool water

Old Dan and I with throats burned dry

And souls that cry for water

Keep a-movin, Dan, dontcha listen to him, Dan

He’s a devil, not a man

He spreads the burning sand with water…

I believe that the Sons of the Pioneers were singing to a horse, not asking our town mayor how we’ll “wake and yawn, and carry on to water…”

But still, I’d sure welcome a public forum or two on that topic.