Opinion by Stephanie Dungan
Snowpack on top of Colorado’s Mt. Sopris shines bright white in the morning sunshine. Often, I have admired her grandeur from the ground, but I’ve never seen her from above. Looking down on this peak from a Cessna 210, it is clear to see that this mountain — as well as those that surround her — is part of an interconnected ecosystem.
Sopris, seen from this aerial perspective, is a gift from EcoFlight, a non-profit based in Aspen with a goal to educate and advocate on behalf of wildlife and wildlands. The striking views and the big picture, so to speak, seen from an airplane are uniquely effective ways to witness the value inherent in our land, and not just as a resource to consume.
Taking part in the Flight Across America program, I was one of eight graduate students who participated in an extensive exploration of one of the essential elements: water. Over four days and four states, this group spoke with experts in policy and conservation, as well as Indigenous leaders, and witnessed firsthand (from the air) water issues facing the Colorado River Basin.
With this, our beloved mountain told a new story from a new perspective. At almost 13,000 feet, Mt. Sopris is located in the Northwest region of the Elk Mountain Range, her base nestled between the confluence of the Crystal and Roaring Fork Rivers. Scanning her slopes white with snow, speckled with dark patches of exposed granite, I suddenly realize that this is not the story of a single mountain.
As beautiful as she is, she does not stand alone within the Maroon Bells Wilderness. She is surrounded by other peaks, rivers, trees, animals and people. Her ecosystem doesn’t function within a vacuum of space that lies within what the eyes can see, but extends far beyond what can even be viewed from a plane.
Snow that lies at the summit of Mt. Sopris may one day flow into the Crystal or Roaring Fork Rivers, only to later join into the massive Colorado River. A single molecule of water that lands on the top of this mountain has the potential to flow through seven different states and Mexico — though, given increased demand, it is unlikely to make it that far.
The Colorado River Basin does have a large and impending water problem. Deciding who gets water, how much they get and the value of this vital resource has been flawed from the start.
The Colorado River Compact of 1922 allocated shares of water from the Colorado River to each state within the Upper and Lower Basins. The problem was, and still is, it promised shares of water that were based on abnormally high flows through the river, creating a deficit from the very beginning. Now that the amounts of water are being reduced due to a changing climate, there is even less to go around. This fact creates impassioned debate, because water is necessary for life.
Arguments over water rights, Indigenous rights, aridification, climate change and pollution are slowing the path to solutions. The complexity seems overwhelming, but there are solutions. Groups of conservationists are fighting to create protections for rivers, such as Wild and Scenic designation of the Crystal River. Designations such as this, help protect the free-flowing nature of rivers by preventing the construction of new dams or diversions.
Rivers in a free-flowing state have better water quality, reduced levels of pollution and create an ecosystem that supports biodiversity. Contrary to what some believe, designations such as these don’t reduce access to rivers but instead foster a sense of stewardship that safeguards the recreational adventures these beautiful waters provide. Natural stream flows at the headwaters also have positive effects on water levels in downstream rivers, such as the Colorado River.
We are at a crossroads when it comes to the water problem. We can choose to make changes now while we still have options, or we can continue to hide our heads in the sand until we are forced to change because there is no longer enough water to share.
Sopris is but one mountain in a range and, just like her, we don’t stand alone in our efforts to find solutions. We are part of a history, ecosystem and a community that is greater than our individual selves. Solutions can be found in stories from the past, the scientific community, words of elders in Indigenous communities and conversations with our neighbors. Solutions to complex issues are not founded in being right, they are founded in working together and seeing things from new perspectives.
Mt. Sopris, photo courtesy of Stephanie Dungan