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2015-16 State of the Rockies Project

Scales of Western Water

Recognizing the critical role water plays in the American West and the Rockies in particular, we continue our commitment to conservation issues with this year’s focus on western water issues. With declining snowpack in the Rockies, and less water in rivers, conservation corridor initiatives will face a tougher future. For example, Southwestern states such as Arizona and New Mexico have coped with severe drought for the last four to six years, and California in 2014-15 is now facing a severe drought. What can individuals and households do? How will western watersheds and states adapt, accommodate, or allocate scarce water resources? How are different regions and states poised to address these challenges?

We thus propose a scaled approach—from the rain droplet to the deltas—to study and understand the private, local, regional, state, and multi-state challenges that water availability under a changing climate will pose to all western communities who are concerned with their regional waters and landscapes.

Establishing a New Rockies Project Approach to Large Landscapes

The Rockies Project learned a great deal from two years of focus on large area public and private land conservation initiatives. Any westerner knows, however, that conserved land without water nearby is less valuable, less resilient in the long term. Moving forward, we intend to study, visit, and highlight how the multiple scales of water in the west will re-shape how we live, conserve, and think about water scarcity, so that liberal arts graduates at Colorado College fully understand the new dimensions to water in the Rockies and the American West.

We build upon many decades of ambitious and unique conservation in the United States, a country that largely invented the concept of protecting and preserving large segments of our public lands, especially in the American West. Establishment of national forests, national parks, wild and scenic rivers, and broad patches of public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management all helped define our past efforts at landscape-scale conservation. These results created a mix of diverse philosophies. But new models for water conservation, calling for or using collaborative efforts require new assessments of their successes and limitations.

The Colorado College State of the Rockies Project looks forward to testing and fine-tuning these approaches to “the scale of western waters” across the eight-state Rockies region and beyond. Building upon our experience over the past four years on conservation landscapes in the Colorado River Basin and then in the larger Rocky Mountain West, we intend to find fresh approaches and emphasize the important role of giving today’s youth a voice in the management, policy, and conservation dimensions of water challenges that they will inherit. 

2015 Summer Research 

With a group of four students with diverse academic backgrounds, The Rockies Project is diving into its thirteenth year of academic research. Each student adopted a particular “scale” of water to then explore and explain for the larger campus audience, and for our regional stakeholders who receive the Rockies Bulletin (Plains to Peak) publication or track us on social media efforts. Student researchers have been investigating their project through the student-faculty collaborative research approach that the Rockies Project has been utilizing for the last twelve years. This year's research focuses include:

  • Water and Ethics in Agriculture on the Western Slope
  • Native American Water Quality Rights
  • Water Pricing in Colorado 
  • Cultural perspectives on the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade Project

By examining common themes related to water at diverse scales across the Rocky Mountain West, we analyze the changing scale and nature of water scarcity and availability in the West. The intricate and often ambiguous factors affecting water scarcity and availability stem from economic, social, cultural, and biological factors. Our analysis of these complex interactions provides insight to practitioners, policymakers, and citizens of the West. In addition to this broad examination of the state of water at diverse scales and conservation themes, we also directly address specific case studies that best represent the various approaches to conservation and water management in the Rockies. These case studies provide context to the broader trends examined throughout the West.

In order to achieve these goals, and ultimately a comprehensive understanding of these important issues, we engaged stakeholders on all sides of the debate. Through fieldwork, data analysis, and geographic information systems, we are forming a well-balanced perspective on these issues. Engagement has occurred through fieldwork throughout the Southwest during an extended trip Santa Fe, the Navajo Reservation, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, Southern Utah, and the Western Slope of Colorado. By seeking diverse perspectives, we strengthen our research and outreach.