Virtual Rivers

Written by Max Pivonka, ESLLC 2015-2016

Colorado has a vibrant and expansive river system – especially along the Front Range – which has been documented for decades beginning when the first European explorers attempting, and sometimes succeeding in finding the headwaters of rivers, up to the present with the building of numerous trans-mountain diversions. If we take to time to look at how rivers in Colorado have changed throughout history, it’s possible to have a nuanced view of what a healthy river versus an unnatural river looks like.

When humans started to migrate to the Front Range in greater numbers in the 1800s, the effects of their presence became more than evident, between mining, logging, damming, fires, and infrastructure.

Many of these changes lead to increased amounts of sediments, the lacking of sediments, more extreme flooding events, water shortages, pollution, and endangering species or even leading to their extinction. Rivers have handled these changes and adapted over the years, but the revisions have had their own negative effects on the land and the ecosystem, all of which have occurred in a relatively short amount of time, which begs the question of whether it’s possible to recover from the impact that humans have made?

Modern rivers along the Front Range today have become solely the means to transport water from the source to the consumer with flow restrictions, diversions, and storage sites along the way, removing much of what is considered “natural” about the rivers. As the book Virtual Rivers by Ellen E. Wohl points out, many people today perceive a crisp, clear, running stream as being a fully functioning ecosystem, when in all reality; these waterways are anything but natural.

This is a major issue for in Colorado, the general public doesn’t perceive there to be a problem with our rivers, and it is necessary to change public perception about the rivers they so many people rely every day which are often take for granted.

When it came to the floods in Colorado in September 2013, there were a lot of interesting things that occurred. That flooding event is considered a 100-year and even a 1000-year flood event, the impact was monstrous, yet minimal to what it could have been. Theoretically, the whole of the Front Range should have looked similar to Lyons, Colorado, where the rivers wreaked havoc, carving out channels and cutting the town off from the world. Because of our prior knowledge of flooding events, we have built up enough infrastructure to – for the most part – handle the incredible amounts of water that passed through the state with comparably minor damages occurring. This was because of things like floodplain management programs that prepared Colorado for flooding events, but this also severely restricted river’s natural courses and their impacts.

Rivers, left to their own devises, are organisms in their own right, they evolve as time wears on, adapt to drastic changes, boast ecosystems that can be self-sustaining, and so much more. Rivers today have been confined and altered, and the question needs to be asked whether it really is our right to control something as powerful as rivers – which we often lose control of in extreme events due to the measures we took to “control” them – because it would appear on an environmentally and sustainability level, we’re doing more harm than good.

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