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Colorado River Basin

Living & Learning in the Arid West

It was May 10, but flurries sprinkled the Colorado Flatirons rock formations with much-needed precipitation. Fresh off the plane from Boston and reveling in the beauty of our first hike, my group of Colby-Sawyer travelers paused beneath a stone arch to watch the snow welcome us.

For the next 11 days, the great outdoors was a classroom for me and the other 11 students in ENV 334 River Communities. Led by Associate Professor of Natural Sciences Nicholas Baer and Professor of Environmental Studies Leon-C. Malan, we journeyed across Colorado and Utah to learn about water use in the arid American West and even spent four days rafting on the Green River.

Professor Baer created this biennial field studies course in 2007, three years after he joined the Colby-Sawyer faculty. “I wanted to design a field course based on water resources,” he said. “I envisioned meeting with stakeholders and trying to build this idea of understanding how Western waters are used.”

students overlooking river

Over the years, Professors Baer and Malan have built a network of contacts in the region who tour Colby-Sawyer students through hydro facilities, farms and goldmines. The visits turn classroom topics into firsthand experiences, as environmental studies major Emily Earnshaw ’16 of Warwick, R.I., explained. “I’m a visual person,” she said. “I learned all about goldmines, but I had no idea what it was really like until I saw [one here]. We don’t have goldmines in New Hampshire, so I never would have gotten to experience that otherwise.”

East Meets West

We quickly learned that water in the West is being pulled in all directions. Farmers use into irrigate crops, miners to extract fossil fuels, and cities to meet the demands of rapid urban growth — all while countless other species need it for their survival.

While in the Uncompahgre Valley, a region in western Colorado reliant on agriculture production, we toured three sites: Randy Meeker’s farm, a prize-winning Black Angus ranch, and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association’s irrigation system.

Meeker uses techniques considered progressive in his region. One example is his recent addition of a collection pond to capture irrigation runoff that would otherwise be wasted. Meeker then applies the salvaged water to his fields.

We gathered around Meeker for an eye-opening discussion about the pressing issues that are associated with growing food in a nutrient-rich but water-poor region. “It was interesting to hear people arguing for Monsanto — especially one of the farmers — just so passionately, as if he doesn’t know that there are serious repercussions [to genetically modified crops],” said history and political studies major Benjamin Abrahamovich ’15 of Lexington, Mass., as he processed a different perspective on the multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation.

The Colorado River’s average annual flow is decreasing while the population depending on it continues to grow, which makes water allocation increasingly complex. Each stakeholder we visited helped us put Western water limitations into perspective by offering a unique view of the situation. For students accustomed to the water-rich East Coast, the discussions about water spurred shocking realizations. “I had no idea the drought was this bad,” said English major and Rowley, Mass., resident Rebecca Garibaldi ’17.

Talking with representatives from both Denver Water and Western Resource Advocates, we learned about the drastic diversions that transfer water from the West Slope, where 70 percent of the annual precipitation falls, to the East Slope, where 70 percent of the population lives.

“It’s nice to have students understand how urban development impacts the water resource needs in the area and how folks here deal with a finite amount of water and a growing population,” said Professor Baer. “What I like the students to learn is that residents and ranchers have to buy up agricultural water rights or have to recycle water and try to do innovative things because they’re limited as well.”

Becoming Experts

Prior to the trip, we broke into six pairs to study and become experts on an aspect of life in the West, such as mining, agriculture and water allocation. The assignment required us not only to gain an in-depth understanding of our topics but also to develop an engaging way to teach the information to our classmates. In doing so, everyone took on the role of student and teacher. The goal of this course is not merely to open our own eyes as students but also to bring knowledge back to friends, family and the Colby-Sawyer community.

Take environmental studies major Lea Taylor ’17 of Newburyport, Mass., for example. “My topic was the precolonial people of the Colorado Plateau, and we decided to do a personality quiz based on the tribes in the area, which were the Navaho, Apache, Hopi, Pueblo and Ute,” she said. “Everyone was into our presentation; we were creative and learned a lot from that experience. We saw a lot of cool things that our classmates made, like clay pottery and a teepee.

students white water rafting

In addition to our own creations, we encountered Native American artifacts such as petroglyphs etched onto rock faces and granaries hidden on the sides of plateaus.

We even viewed the remote Ute reservation from the sky when we piled into seven-passenger planes on our way to Desolation Canyon, the starting point for the rafting segment of our trip. The flight provided views of wild horses and buffalo grazing on the undeveloped land.

The Utes were a nomadic tribe, constantly moving across the territory we know as Colorado, Utah and their neighboring states. For this trip, we also adopted a nomadic lifestyle and called six campsites and three hotels home. Setting up and breaking camp became as routine as brushing our teeth.

Meals were also a lesson in communal experiences; everyone, for example, assisted in cooking and cleaning. Several times, we even tried fishing for our meals, though not always successfully. Fishing was just one of the many skills we gained that weren’t specified in the course syllabus. In addition to becoming experienced campers, we learned to slow down, separate from the never-ending demands of the 21st century, and truly connect with our surroundings. “My favorite part of the trip has probably been just being away from everything out in the wilderness and not having to worry about anything besides what we’re doing,” said environmental studies major and Slatersville, R.I., resident Evan Dalton ’17. “It allowed me to just be there in the moment and respect all my peers and everybody around me and develop better relationships with people I didn’t really know."

On the Range – Outside Cell Range

Much of our field study took place in areas beyond the reach of cell towers. Our flight to Desolation Canyon, for example, dropped us 100 miles away from the nearest town. Though we couldn’t text or tweet, it wasn’t long before most of us learned to appreciate the absence of technology because it allowed us to find different methods of documenting our journey.

student contemplating sunset

To encourage us to record our experiences, Professors Baer and Malan presented each of us with a waterproof notebook and a pencil at the beginning of the trip. Along the way, we were expected to take notes, respond to prompts, and to reflect.

“A journal helps you reflect; to physically write something down while it’s in the moment, that connection with your head and your hand makes something stick in your mind,” Professor Malan told us.

Throughout our studies, our professors reminded us of the responsibility that comes with such a unique trip. Each moment brought a new adventure, and each adventure unveiled new knowledge.

Field studies courses are opportunities to network with experts across the nation to open gateways for discussion, collaboration and change, and they exemplify Colby-Sawyer’s ideology of always learning and thinking outside the class.

“I liked listening to each stakeholder and understanding what they’re going through; trying to think of solutions was one of the hardest parts of this whole course,” said environmental studies major Daniel Keane ’16 of Wilmington, Mass. “We don’t live out here, but someone has to be thinking of a solution. Probably the biggest takeaway is my understanding of the issue of water usage and applying it to New England because it will probably become a problem for us, too.”

In fact, the issue of water in the West already affects East Coasters because Western agriculture provides food for most of the nation. When people on the East Coast sit down to enjoy Black Angus steak from the Uncompahgre Valley, they’re increasing Western water demand without even realizing it. “We need to focus more on the environment because we’re oblivious to the fact that we're harming it,” said Garibaldi. “Being on the river made me realize that I need to be more cautious of how much water I use and how I affect the environment even if I’m not living in Colorado or Utah.”

Students on beach after rafting

On May 21, we boarded our plane and headed home. As the Colorado landscape disappeared beneath us, we bid farewell to the land that had become a part of us.

“Students will find a connection to a place, and it may not be this place. But folks at an individual level will learn the value of a strong connection to a spiritual home,” said Professor Malan. “If people have a connection to a place, I’m hoping that one of the takeaways would be that they would do something about that. It’s okay to sit and write about it, but if people don’t do something about it, nothing will happen.”