We know that the health of our forests, our watersheds and our economy are deeply connected. Headwater watersheds are the natural infrastructure of western water supplies and the Colorado River has been described as the mother of all western rivers. According to a recent Denver Post article, “…the river remains the primary water source for an expanding population of 40 million people and 90 per cent of the nation’s winter vegetable production…with water taken out each year exceeding natural flows”. The downstream states of Arizona, California and Nevada arguably receive the majority of the benefits of Colorado River water, including municipal, agricultural, fish and wildlife, and recreational. Yet due to jurisdictional boundaries that segment the river, or simply a lack of understanding, the downstream states have little to no engagement, or investment, in securing the health of the Colorado River’s headwaters.
The vast majority of these headwaters are located in the national forests, federal lands under the care of the U.S. Forest Service. Nationally, the watersheds on Forest Service lands are the largest drinking water source in the United States, but 48 per cent of these watersheds are considered “degraded”. Unfortunately, that label applies to the headwaters of the Colorado River — and it is getting worse. The forests that shelter the snowpack are largely mature or over mature, overly dense, and therefore increasingly susceptible to either large destructive insects (mountain pine beetle, spruce beetle, etc.) or increasingly frequent and severe wildfire. A warming planet is accelerating the problems. The headwaters of the Colorado River need immediate action. Forest conditions must be improved so these ecosystems can adapt to these changes through healthy, resilient forests.