State of the Rockies Project: Experts weigh in on impact of “climate disruption” on the Colorado River

The 2011-2012 Monthly Speaker and Conference series, sponsored by The Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project, continues to draw hundreds of students, faculty and area residents. The series, titled “The Colorado River Basin: Use, Restoration and Sustainability as if the Next Generation Counts,” features experts talking each month through February about issues surrounding the Colorado River.

On Monday night, Dec. 5, in the Gates Common Room in Palmer Hall, the project presented “”Perfect Storm for the 21st Century” Three experts participated:

  • Moderator Beth Conover, a founding partner at Econover LLC, a consulting firm specializing in environmental issues;
  • Stephen Saunders, founder of Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and
  • Jeff Lukas, an associate scientist for Western Water Assessment, where he studies climate change and its impact on the environment.

Saunders told about 175 people attending that “global warming” is a misnomer because it doesn’t convey the real danger of the condition and that humans are mostly to blame for it. His preferred phrase is “climate disruption.”

Quoting the 1970s comic strip character Pogo, Saunders said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The Colorado River Basin, Saunders said, is in the “bull’s-eye” for climate disruption because studies show the area has increased in temperature more than any other part of the United States.

Climate disruption is said to be caused by emissions from cars, factories and other human creations that create a greenhouse effect, trapping heat in the atmosphere. This increases evaporation on oceans, lakes and rivers, which brings tremendous energy into the skies that have created massive tornadoes and hurricanes, scientists say, as shown by the many this year.

But the energy in the sky doesn’t result in rains that replenish the earth’s water bodies like the Colorado River, explained Lukas during his talk. Much of it evaporates before reaching the bodies, a phenomenon he calls “evapotranspiration.”

“The evapotranspiration dial is being turned up in a big and consistent way,” Lukas said.

Lukas also pointed to evidence in tree rings that droughts are a recurring condition in world history. Combining a natural drought with climate disruption could be a real disaster, Lukas said.

Lukas and Saunders proposed efforts to reduce emissions in America to lessen the process, and to use less water for agriculture and more water for human use. Upping reclamation water use was also suggested.

During a Q & A period, the speakers were asked about the factor of population growth on bleeding the Colorado River dry. While both acknowledged that population growth in the West was a problem, they said most scientists see climate change as a greater danger to the river.

A student asked if there were efforts to enable the Colorado River to complete its journey to the Sea of Cortez, a feat that would have no utilitarian value. Since 1998, the river has run dry before reaching the delta because of overuse.

The speakers were doubtful that any effort toward that would be successful. “No one in the basin is compelled to do that,” Saunders said.

There is, however, at least one person, and he’ll be one of the speakers at the next event on Jan.30, titled “Unheard Voices of the Colorado River Basin: Bringing Mexico and Native American Tribes to the Table.”

Scheduled to speak are Bidtah Becker, a lawyer and member of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice who focuses on protecting Navajo water rights; and Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta, the director of the Water and Wetlands Program whose contributions to environmentalism include efforts to restore the Colorado River delta.

There will also be another update on two young men from Colorado Springs who in October set out on their goal of paddling the entire length of the Colorado River.

The Conference and Speaker series continues through February. For more on its speakers and events, go to

Written by Rockies Project writer Mark Barna

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