In the Pacific NW we are blessed with an abundance of water. It falls from the sky almost too frequently September through June. We have rivers & streams & lakes & wetlands & enough soggy ground to host a variety of mud monsters. Most of the time, we don’t have to think about having enough.
Colorado, on the other hand, has a water shortage. Every square inch of water is spoken for. And harvesting rain water from your own gutters is illegal. The drops are spoken for before they ever fall from the sky. Until 2009 it was also illegal in Washington state. Every state has it’s own laws. Texas and Ohio for instance give their citizens incentives for the collection of run-off.
West of the Mississippi, all water is privately owned. If you have a stream running through your property that doesn’t give you automatic water usage rights. You have to own the water rights. East of the Mississippi, you are good to go with your stream.
Another interesting fact is the “use it or lose it” laws of the Western US. If you own water rights and don’t use the water, you lose your rights. Someone can take you to water court. This seems to be another state by state matter in terms of length of inactivity. In Colorado, if you don’t use your water for 5 years, you lose your rights. There are stream gauges that measure water flow and usage. That is why water intensive crops such as cotton are grown in Arizona. Might as well use the water if you’ll lose it, right?
Oh yeah, and in Colorado, you can draw a stream or river dry. Crazy huh?
In order for a stream or river to be healthy it needs a flourishing edge of plant growth. This filters the water that runs across the land and into the waterways. In fact, wetlands are the best filter between waterways and dry land, they help ensure the healthiest water. But in many places wetlands have been drained, beavers killed, and riverbanks denuded by both cattle and wild animals such as elk.
Long ago the beaver was extirpated from many Western states. For hundreds of years they were trapped for their fur to makes coats and hats for the wealthy Europeans. As the cultural landscape of the US began to change with European settlement, native tribes became more and more connected to European commerce and their main currency was beaver pelts. Beaver pelts in exchange for copper and iron and guns and beads.
As the beavers died out the wetlands began to disappear. And as the iconic predators of the West were hunted to extinction (bear, wolf, mountain lion) the grazers like elk and deer became more bold and spent their time by the water’s edge browsing on lush vegetation and mucking up the water quality.
In 1995 wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park. As the wolf population established itself the grazers moved from hangin’ in the river valleys to taking care around the water’s edge. As the plants and trees grew back the beaver population began to return. Beavers stay mostly at home in their lodge until the age of 2 and afterwards need good cover as they make their way out into the world looking for their new home.
I was lucky to interview Alice Outwater earlier this week. Alice is an environmental engineer and Water expert living in Durango, CO. She wrote an incredible book called Water: A Natural History which I highly recommend reading. It is illuminating and full of interesting and sometimes very sad stories. When I spoke with her on Tuesday she told me that citizen involvement on a local level is what will change the politics of water. She encouraged us all to know our Watershed and explore our streams and rivers. Where there is poor edge along the water, chances are the water quality is also poor. When individual landowners change how they manage their land and water, the water benefits and so does all of life.
So, what watershed do you live in?
Where does your water go when you flush your toilet or as you brush your teeth?
Let me know what you discover about your local water.