Should we care if the Gunnison River’s water doesn’t reach the ocean?
Here in the headwaters of the American West, it’s a good time to be thinking about “fresh water” – the essential water that nurture all the plant and animal life on the planet we call “Earth.”
If our first look at the planet had been from out in space, we might have called the planet “Ocean” rather than “Earth”; there’s more than twice as much ocean as earth at the planet’s surface, and the planet’s capability for supporting our kind of life depends on an orbit at just the right distance from the sun for most of that water to be in its liquid form most of the time. On hot Venus, the next closer planet to the sun, all its water is in a permanent vaporous cloud (along with other elements, like poisonous mercury, that are liquid on earth). And on Mars, the next planet farther out, all the surface and atmospheric water lies in a solid state at the poles.
Life on this planet probably began in the oceans that cover 70 percent of the planet, and the oceans are still the source and home of most of the planet’s life. But once life began to move up onto the land, that life became dependent on the capacity of the oceans’ water to go to its vaporous state under the power of the sun – then condense as it rose as relatively pure water that fell back on earth and ocean. Most land-based life cannot live on water as saturated with dissolved solids as the oceans. We need that “fresh water” the sun cooks out of the ocean.
What’s a little ominous about this is how little fresh water there really is. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 97.5 percent of the water on the planet at any given time is in the oceans or other salt-water repositories (like Great Salt Lake). Only 2.5 percent of the planet’s water is fresh enough for our use, and 69 percent of that is (or was until recently) sequestered in glaciers and ice sheets; another 30 percent is “non-tributary groundwater” – deep, slowly-accumulating aquifers that do not interact with surface waters unless we pump it out.
That leaves a mere 1.2 percent as “surface water”: lakes, rivers and streams, and the soil moisture that interacts with surface water – and more than two-thirds of that is surface ice and permafrost in the high latitudes and altitudes. The remainder of that 1.2 percent are the rivers, lakes, swamps and alluvial groundwater that are the fundamental resource for all living things on the rock and earth parts of the planet. Remember that this vital 1.2 percent is not one percent of all the water on the planet; it is just 1.2 percent of the 2.5 percent that is fresh – three-hundredths of a percent of all the planet’s water. (See more at the U.S.G.S. website, with some neat graphs – water.usgs.gov/edu/earthwherewater.html.)
We probably love the surface waters more than we understand them – all the fresh-water lakes, ponded sloughs, and especially those tumbling streams here in the headwaters, and the rivers the streams create, alternately roaring down canyons and meandering in valley floodplains. We play in them, challenge them, or just sit and watch them. We also love the presence of those same waters in our homes and yards at the turn of a faucet; we have practically been given cultural permission to show our appreciation for that mundane miracle by taking it for granted.
But there are a couple other considerations lurking under the beauty we see in our surface waters. In the short term of mere millennia, we can ignore the darker consequence of moving water; much of the rugged alpine beauty we love here is a consequence of water’s persistent effort to convert everything solid on earth to silt, sand and gravel in a sea-level peneplain, as it did to the first set of Rocky Mountains. But we have had to deal with the cumulative salinity as the progressively less fresh water nibbles away at the land and its life, especially in the naturally alkaline western desertlands – a challenge in the lower Gunnison Basin.
We should also think about the fact that water flowing over land represents the failure of the land and the life thereon to hold onto that essential three-hundredths of a percent of the planet’s water, soak it up, sink it in. Rivers don’t “water the land”; they are carrying water away from the land – unless we or the beavers intervene. Why shouldn’t the farmers and ranchers run it back out onto the floodplains, the cities run it into pipes, giving it another chance to nurture earth life before disappearing back into the ocean? A mountain rancher told me once that it’s every rancher’s dream to turn his “watershed” into a “catchment basin.” That would be a little too efficient; the water that leaves the high meadows flows down to lower meadows and fields where it gets used again and again – a kind of a collaborative reuse efficiency.
Much is made of the fact that the Colorado River no longer flows to the ocean most years. Why shouldn’t this be a cause for celebration, for land-based life? It means that we have managed to more fully employ one river’s portion of that three-hundredths of a percent. “Conservation” in Theodore Roosevelt’s time meant “conserving for human uses” that water running off to the ocean unused in a two-month spring flood – hence the movement called “reclamation.” That movement has led to complaints about water loss from storage reservoirs through evaporation, which wastes about 13 percent of the river’s water every year – but that uncontrolled and unusable two-month flood wasted around two-thirds of the water; the arithmetic there is simple.
It’s true that so thoroughly using the Colorado River has cost us a beautiful wild delta where the river emptied into the Sea of Cortez. But we’ve replaced that old delta with a vast new “desert delta” that begins in the Phoenix-Tucson corridor and spreads through the Gila River basin, the Imperial Valley, and on over to the Los Angeles-San Diego metropolis; the river now fans out to all those places from Parker Dam and disappears into the desert rather than the ocean, nourishing a lot of life as it does. We don’t appreciate this manmade desert delta the way we (or at least Aldo Leopold) appreciated the old delta where the Colorado disappeared into the ocean, but out of that new delta comes a big portion of the fresh food we now take for granted all winter, as well as a lot of the “mind-food” that passes for culture, or at least entertainment, in America today.
Given the fact that we humans refuse to really limit our own population to what might be a comfortable fit with the most easily accessible and renewable three-hundredths of a percent of the planet’s water, we need to explore other strategies. For the time being, we are tapping into the deep aquifers that have been collecting minute bits of water for eons, but that is a form of mining that, like all mining, is not sustainable in the long run – although the odds might favor the bet that the human population will collapse before the bottom of the Pleistocene aquifers are reached. We are experimenting with recharging some of those aquifers in big water years, but aren’t sure that is going to work everywhere. We are trying to make our winter storms more efficient, seeding clouds to squeeze out all the precipitation possible.
Anthropogenic climate change might even help – somewhat, in some places. The frozen polar regions are beginning to melt out, but the biggest ice sheets unfortunately pour right into the ocean; water from melting mountain glaciers can be caught and used but that’s not a long-term solution to anything. And melting permafrost (which also releases unfortunate quantities of methane) occurs mostly in regions unsuitable for growing either mass food or mass society. It does look, however, like less of the planet’s fresh water will be tied up in “frozen assets” in the foreseeable future; we may actually have ended the Pleistocene, the Ice Age – and good riddance: ice sheets a mile or two thick? Talk about a waste of water.
Will the additional heat energy in the atmosphere cause significantly more pure water vapor to be sucked up from the oceans and moved over the land to condense and precipitate in significantly larger quantities? Or will most of that immediately fall back into the ocean? Will that additional heat energy expand the great cells of rising wet and falling dry air, pushing the subtropical desert belt north over Colorado as well as California? Or will it just intensify the action within those cells (possibly bringing us more water, but at odd times, in extreme amounts)?
Planetary forces will answer those questions in time; in the meantime, our best bet is to do what we can about slowing the dump of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, making our watersheds as healthy and resilient as we can, and figuring how we can best use, with the least taken-for-granted abuse, the precious little fresh water the planet has for all of us earthlings, animal and plant.