Two thousand people live in Dolores County, Colorado, a population in decline since the recession. As with much of the west, Dolores County’s history lies in extraction- logging, ore, agriculture in the arid southwest corner of an arid state, where an average year yields fourteen inches of precipitation. A third of the county’s jobs are in agriculture, with most of the rest in “regional services”- local government, schools, utilities and the rest. One percent of the folks in Dolores County, Colorado are employed in the tourism sector. Protecting their namesake river- home to Colorado River fishes found nowhere else on the planet- may improve that sector, adding diversity to the local economy.
Montezuma County, just to the south, has ten times the population in the same arid corner of southwest Colorado. Historically, Montezume county developed by supplying hardrock mines of the Animas River with the supplies that helped turn that river toxic orange a couple years back. Modern Montezuma county is driven by commuters to and from nearby Durango, by retirees, and by tourism- 15% of the local economy. Montezuma county officials are suspicious of efforts to protect the Dolores River.
Montezuma County fears any federal involvement could affect water management. More water for fish and wildlife, less for hay. Restrictions on development of pipelines to carry oil and gas across the country. But it’s mostly the potential reallocation of water they say native fish don’t need. They worry designation is a federal plot to benefit downstream users without irony- without understanding they’re downstream users.
Over the past decade the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies have worked to partner with local governments to protect vulnerable species before they become candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Those efforts hinge on local governments’ willingness to compromise, to find solutions which allow for responsible development and protection of valuable habitat. Without that ability to compromise, local managers tie the hands of federal agencies, precipitating the outcomes those local managers worry about. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We’ll see what happens on the Dolores.
I had a perfectly good plan last year: winnow down all the streams in the US to the last best ones, the ones science say are least disturbed, their annual pattern of flow today most similar to the historic record. Add in the nation’s system of Wild and Scenic Rivers, and spend the rest of my life focusing on those…
But there’s better data out there, more exhaustive- not just the great streams, the nice streams, the ones which are protected. There’s data on the streams that should be protected, if only we had the will- political, social, or otherwise- to do so. I’m anal about these sorts of things, so I dumped them into the existing list: something like 2,110 streams across the nation, notable for their ecological, fisheries, or cultural significance. It’s a couple lifetimes worth of work, but I’m happy to try. You can check out my progress on the Last Best Streams page.
The road splits a square mile of wet green meadow frosted with flowers of pink milkweed.
We pat our own shoulders splitting the world into binaries without fretting the shades of gray. It shows in our legislation. Land that’s dry year-round doesn’t fall under jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, land that’s always under water does. In between are the places saturated six or eight months of the year, unassumingly gathering the energy in nutrients driving the permanent lakes and rivers they feed. These temporary waters buffer downstream rivers and estuaries, filtering nutrients and contaminants. A chemical or fertilizer spill on this highway may kill wetland vegetation, but it’ll stay put.
This river’s adjacent wetlands function as a colossal sponge, meting snowmelt and rainwater out over the growing season. The cool groundwater augments surface flow, providing conditions for smallmouth bass, muskellunge, and walleye fisheries. Temporary streams are important habitat for species and communities evolved to exploit annual extremes in water availability, from insects and frogs to fish to waterfowl and migratory birds. It’s not that these places serve no important function, they just don’t fit our definition of waters worth protecting.
And so, they’re not.
Rivers are trees; the trunk can’t be supported without healthy limbs and leaves. It took more than forty years of careful research for scientists to convince policymakers of the intrinsic link between permanent rivers and lakes and their seasonal streams and wetlands. The effort culminated with revision of the “Waters of the United States” rule in 2015, stating waters with a measurable impact on permanent lakes and streams (the legalese term is “significant nexus”) fall under jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. Developers, industrial agriculture, and a handful of presidential candidates predictably cried foul, mis-characterizing the rule as an assault against private property rights designed to regulate the most inconsequential “puddles” on the landscape.
Perhaps the most literal consequence of the new administration’s “Drain the Swamp” mantra was in repealing the rule earlier this year, ignoring scientific consensus to further political ideology. Replacing the rule requires public comment, and you can convey your concerns here.
I know it sometimes feels like we’re shouting into the void, but after August 28th, you won’t get another chance.