Facing long-term reality

Letter from Ed Rogers

Drought – March 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine


As this winter turns dry, more people are starting to realize that the drought we are experiencing is not short term and finally the media appear to be waking up to what many geologists and climatologists have been warning: this drought is long term, possibly decades long.

One thing that you can get from these reports when you read between the lines is that Arizona and New Mexico, are going to look with envy at the water in Colorado. Some water attorneys in those states are already sharpening their pencils.

No matter what the cause, (El Niño, La Niña, Global Warming, Pacific Oscillations, leaving a short-term glacial cycle, or a combination of all of the above) being right on that part of the equation will not solve the problem. The only solution is to face reality.

The biggest hurdle to understanding this reality: Do not think within your own life-span nor your parents’ or grandparents’ lives. Geological and meteorological cycles go far beyond 50 years or 150 years. You have to finally look at long-term spans which can be 1,000 or for that matter 10,000 or 10 million years. You have to think deep time when you are suddenly faced with something off the recorded data.

Our Governor’s answer seems to be “build more reservoirs”. As this drought deepens you will not have water to fill those reservoirs. That decision is a short term (my political career) advantageous decision.

For example, look at the new reservoir built for Morrison. It was completed last year and is empty. A member of the planning board is a retired USGS paleobotanist and a friend. His frustration in trying to stop what he knew was a mistake has been shared with me. His frustrations in trying to explain the situation and the need to control development and lot size have also been shared.

A few suggestions:

1) Our county commissioners and town governments need to sit down in a summit meeting and discuss the reality of this drought and be willing to work toward some mitigation efforts.

2) Efforts need to include: regulations at both the town and the county level that require the clearing of brush and trees adjacent to structures, and along USFS and BLM boundaries (fire breaks). You can get help from the prison crews, and ideas from our fire protection staffs. I am sure they will support these efforts.

For new subdivisions and new homes, make these clearances a part of the code, along with restrictions on types of structures in heavily wooded areas. We were lucky last year. How about this year? Each year the odds get worse.

3) If you check any comprehensive geological database it becomes apparent that the underlying geological structure in the Upper Arkansas is not known.

It is in the San Luis Valley, thanks to oil and gas exploration. You can look at profiles and immediately determine that the deepest and most plentiful part of the aquifer system is not in the Rio Grande basin, but along the eastern boundary of the valley. No surprise to some that wells elsewhere, even those 150 years old, are going dry.

We need similar data in the Upper Arkansas valley. Otherwise we cannot with any credibility state what our aquifers are, nor their recharge rates. You cannot drill one well in a new subdivision, get a rate of flow and state “Yes, we have adequate water.” It is absolute negligence to do so. It will be expensive to have these studies done. But several universities have geology departments which specialize in subsurface and crustal structure studies.

These studies are often funded by National Science Foundation grants. These grants are provided to graduate and post-doctoral students. We would not have the data for a couple of years but it is a start in the right direction. At least we would not be working blindly.

4) Get our zoning regulations in place to limit lot size in rural areas. This one act will immediately help on water demands as the county grows.

5) Educate the public with meetings on what is coming down the pike. The public can handle this if it is provided the information in a nontechnical, clear manner and that will make it a lot easier to start and keep in place strict conservation measures. But, the public will expect to see an even enforcement of these measures with NO variances, or exemptions.

One thing everyone needs to understand, we live in a high mountain desert, not New England, and if that means no green lawns and broad green golf courses and green manicured lawns around government buildings, so be it.

6) This is the least politically popular, but we have to consider a moratorium on large subdivisions until we know what we really have in terms of true aquifer supplies and where those aquifers are really located. It is going to be very hard to impose regulations on existing homeowners and turn around and approve new large subdivisions while ignoring the valid concerns of residents who have been practicing conservation. No, this valley is not “one boundless aquifer” as some would have you believe. That is by far one of the most asinine statements I have heard.

It has been proven that no part of the Rio Grande Rift Valley (we are part of that structure) is one aquifer. It is a series of discreet basins and not one is boundless.

These are my thoughts and a few suggestions for everyone to think about. The final decisions will lie with our elected and appointed officials.

Ed Rogers, Geologist

Poncha Springs