Obituary for a river? Not if we start fighting


“Silence is a political stance. It defends the status quo.” – Lee Camp

When I read “Obituary For A River” in this newspaper last week, I was surprised at the disempowerment and parochialism displayed by the various people interviewed in this article. My goodness — what a depressing story! That’s why I want to introduce you to the vaquita.

The vaquita is the most endangered cetacean (whale species) in the world — it’s a beautiful and very small porpoise that lives in the Gulf of California where the Colorado River no longer meets the sea. Scientists estimate that only about 200 vaquita are still alive, and that it is increasingly threatened with extinction every year. One of its possible threats is because there are no freshwater and nutrients flowing into the Gulf, due to the damming and draining of the Colorado River from its headwaters in Grand County, Colorado, all the way to the City of Los Angeles.

And so when we talk about the rivers of Colorado, including the Fraser River which was the subject of this article, we are not just talking about short-term or very localized issues, we are talking about people and endangered wildlife throughout the Southwest U.S. from Denver to Mexicali and the Gulf of California.

The single biggest threat to every one of these rivers and the wildlife they support is new proposed dams and diversions, like Denver Water’s “Moffat Collect System Project.” And the single biggest thing you can do to address these threats is to stand up, speak out, and fight to stop the projects. Here’s what you need to know:

First, several people in the article said that “Denver owns the water,” and thus that Denver can and should divert the water and thereby has the right to kill this river. That is not accurate.

Water in the state of Colorado is owned by the public, and through a system of laws we the people grant “rights” to use that water to cities, farmers and industries. In so doing, we stipulate how they must use this water in a rightful manner. For example, they can’t waste it or use it for a purpose that is not beneficial, and when they propose dams and pipelines to divert it out of rivers, they have to comply with a broad array of federal, state, and local laws including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

Those three laws, and others at the state and local level, are part of the backbone of our democracy, and when congress passed those laws, they also gave we the people the right to enforce those laws for the future benefit of people and non-human critters we share this planet with.

Second, the problems with the Moffat Project and the Fraser River are not just limited to the people of Grand County as was suggested in the article. Other people and groups have a stake in this issue: 

• As this newspaper has previously reported, the Moffat Project will dramatically and negatively impact the people of Boulder County — it is a massive dam enlargement and would be the biggest construction project in the county’s history. The people of Boulder County have extraordinary legal power to decide what happens in their county and have the right to exercise it.

• The project will primarily support wasteful water use and lawn watering in the metro Denver area, both of which represent bad water policy by one of the most high-profile water agencies in the American West. Our organization — the Save The Colorado River Campaign — and others have spent years promoting alternatives to these projects, including conservation, efficiency, recycling, better growth management, and cooperative agreements with farmers. Federal and state laws require that those alternatives be considered and evaluated when dams are proposed.

• If Denver gets to set a precedent of completely killing a river, then every city in the Colorado River basin (the entire Southwest U.S.) will see that as an example of not only how to act, but of how the public — including environmental groups — will respond. The people of the West Slope of Colorado and conservation groups throughout the Southwest have the right to respond differently, to exercise their voices and the political will to address this threat.

Finally, there’s an underlying feeling in this “obituary” of extraordinary disempowerment, and even more surprising is that it comes from the West Slope of Colorado, which is partly a libertarian bastion of the American West. Does Grand County have the Stockholm Syndrome? Conversely, not too far downstream in western Colorado there’s a very different and more empowered discussion about a “Not One More Drop” campaign, meaning that some folks in Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction and farther west don’t want one more drop of their rivers diverted over to Denver and the Front Range. The folks in Grand County ought to look west, not east to Denver, to solve their problem — spirited voices to save the rivers of western Colorado are alive and well downstream.

Which brings me back to the vaquita. 

What an amazing little critter. Cute, shy, nearly extinct, and completely voiceless without our help. Whether these rivers live or die, whether this little porpoise lives or dies, is up to us. We need to unite together from the Front Range to the West Slope, and downstream to the Gulf of California, to keep our rivers, our culture, and our wildlife alive.

To get more involved, sign up for email alerts from the Boulder County group fighting this project,, and from the Save The Colorado River Campaign,

Gary Wockner, PhD, is the Coordinator for the Save The Colorado River Campaign,based in Fort Collins. Contact:


This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.


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