At this time, 39 years ago, “federal officials scrambled to avoid one of the most dramatic dam failures in history.” Glen Canyon Dam was bursting at the seams with water and rock blasting out around its foundation while crews raced to install a rampart of plywood sheets across the top of the dam. This near catastrophe was precipitated by the 1983 El Niño, the largest such event on record. Western reservoirs were full beyond capacity. The incredible backstory researched in Kevin Fedarko’s book “The Emerald Mile” is a resource and account not to be missed.

That winter and spring, the West experienced massive snowfall and tremendous moisture. That spring, I filled my cooler with snow from a remaining snow bank along the Marble road…  on June 4! Local rivers ran huge and flooding was pervasive.

It is almost hard to believe that this is the same Colorado River. It is not the same climate. Climatologists declare this drought the worst in well over 1,000 years according to tree rings. Other sources show prior drought river levels a third of current levels, before the 40 million people now having some dependence on the Colorado River system. 

Last week, “U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Touton said that 2 to 4 million acre feet of (water) conservation was needed just to protect critical reservoir levels in 2023.” 

What uncanny timing for the Carbondale State of the Rivers networking session Thursday evening hosted by the Colorado River District (CRD) at the Third Street Center. Their meeting serendipitously coincided with the federal agency’s announcement at the Boulder water law summit that if the seven western states don’t act quickly to protect the Colorado River water resources system, then the federal government has the “responsibility and the authority to take action.”

The CRD, funded by a property tax within 15 western Colorado counties, has the mission to safeguard “all the waters of the Colorado River to which the state is entitled.” The CRD fights to keep our water on the western slope of Colorado to ensure water for drinking and agriculture, fish and wildlife. CRD’s domain encompasses the entire watershed of the upper Colorado River. They own two reservoirs and represent numerous other water interests.

The Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association is grateful to CRD for reaching out to our valley and including numerous other local and regional groups to present. There is optimism that so many entities can come together with a common goal. The question is not when, the crisis is now. 

With Lake Powell hovering at around 30% volume and Lake Mead at record lows, the entire Colorado River system is in danger of crashing. This system of water impoundment was once lauded as the most ambitious and successful project ever watering a desert ecosystem. The benefits to agriculture and industry, to housing, recreation and retirement have been remarkable. There is disproportionate use between the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states. but there is a pervasive missing component to this equation. Conservation! It is at the very least encouraging to hear Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Touton iterate the “Big C” in the national arena. Federal, state and local governments need to work together with the private sector now in the best interest of national health and security.

Two weeks ago, while river levels started to drop quickly, we heard KDNK’s Steve Cole announce “…but the Crystal River is still holding” at a higher level. My wife turned to me and said that the Crystal River is our only river, undammed, that represents a water volume not altered by dam or diversion.

We are not going to dam our way out of this predicament, nor will it be quick or painless. Wild and Scenic designation is not a panacea for these ills, but could prevent the damming of one of the last free flowing rivers in the state. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act clearly spells out the scope of action ( Each designation is individually written to address the unique qualities of its river, but protection of the free flowing water and private property and water rights are its keystone.

To learn more about the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association and to support its mission, visit

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