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Water Law

Headwaters--Winter 2011 Ecosystem Services

CoverImagePlanet earth gives us more than a place to hang our hats. From forests that regulate the water cycle and the climate, to wetlands that cycle nutrients and act as natural filtration systems, the complex interactions that occur within living ecosystems provide essential services that directly support, not only our very existence, but our quality of life and our livelihoods as well. Us Earthlings are utterly dependent on the continued persistence of Earth’s diverse ecosystems, in all their amazing complexity. 

In this issue of Headwaters, Water Education Colorado looks at the power of valuing "ecosystem services" from wetland mitigation banks to ranchers-as-conservationists as innovative tools to protect the functions of natural systems for the good of mankind, as well as Colorado.

Read selected articles below, or view the online version here.

The Power of Ecosystem Services

Why conservationists are translating “environmental integrity” to read “human quality of life”

By Jayla Poppleton

 The great wonder of the blue planet is that life is made possible. From forests that regulate the water cycle and the climate, to wetlands that cycle nutrients and act as natural filtration systems, to bats and butterflies and bees that pollinate crops that we harvest for food, the complex interactions that occur within living ecosystems provide essential services that directly support, not only our very existence, but our quality of life and our livelihoods as well.

 While as a species, Homo sapiens have grasped at some level the need to harvest the Earth’s resources sustainably, to conserve biodiversity for future unknowns, and to stabilize the climate, the question remains: Have we truly accepted our utter dependence on the continued persistence of Earth’s divers eecosystems, in all their amazing complexity?

 Although the concept of this dependence and the need to protect these natural systems for their related functions and values isn’t new, there is a growing cadre of natural and social scientists and economists who have joined forces to promote a slightly altered version of conservation, tapping an instinct greater than philanthropy or moral imperatives: that of human survival and well-being.

Read more: The Power of Ecosystem Services

It's Not Too Late

By Rachel Odell Walker

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina stormed into the Gulf of Mexico, ravaging coastal communities with gale-force winds and sheets of rain. The tempest would prove to be the second deadliest hurricane in American history. More than 1,800 people died, and thousands more were displaced or left stranded for days amidst threatening floods. Much of the destruction occurred in New Orleans, where floods breached the city's levees and the system failed catastrophically. All told, the hurricane caused an estimated $81 billion in damages.

Nearly as tragic was the fact that much of the destruction might have been prevented. Immediately after the hurricane, experts pointed to the loss of roughly one million acres of coastal wetlands as the major chink in the regional armor. Rather than absorbing rain and wind, buffering the wrath of the storm and protecting nearby land and communities, what remained of the wetlands was battered into smithereens. Had the wetlands' flood protection value been calculated long before a web of canals were built through them to accommodate the oil and shipping industries and flood control measures cut them off from the Mississippi River’s natural sedimentation, it is possible that the land would have been more valuable in its natural state than as commercial and industrial real estate.

Unfortunately, it took the dramatic consequences of the hurricane to make that apparent. In ecological jargon, the protection those wetlands originally provided is known as an ecosystem service, a valuable role played by nature that offers extraordinary benefits to humans. Clean air. Medicinal plants. Recreational opportunities. Flood protection. Water filtration. Nutrient cycling.

Read more: It's Not Too Late

Ecomarkets and the Farm of the Future

By Joshua Zaffos

Terry Fankhauser is one of those rare breeds of people who seem at ease talking about both livestock production and wildlife conservation whether speaking to ranchers or environmentalists. With his handlebar mustache and cowboy hat, Fankhauser displays his roots: He grew up in the Flint Hills of Kansas on his family’s ranch, but after completing a graduate degree in animal sciences at Kansas State University, returning home wasn’t an option. The family livestock operation didn’t generate enough money to support several generations. Instead, Fankhauser came west and took a job with the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.

Today, as the association’s executive vice president, Fankhauser represents the oldest—and one of the most innovative—organized statewide groups of ranchers in the country. Founded in 1867, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association works to promote the interests of the beef industry, but it has also recognized the inherent benefit in conserving the state’s land and water resources. The Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, which was among the first of its kind, has helped permanently protect more than 350,000 acres of working farms and ranches in the state from development since 1995.

Read more: Ecomarkets and the Farm of the Future

From Forests to Faucets

By Emily Palm

Long before accelerated climate change, epidemic pine-beetle infestations and unprecedented population growth threatened to change the Western way of life, the framers of the 1897 Organic Act understood the connection between a healthy forest and a quality water supply. The purposes they hoped to achieve through the inaugurated Forest Reserves, which preceded the National Forest system, included "securing favorable conditions of water flows."

Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Rick Cables wants to bring water back to the forefront of the United States Forest Service’s charge. “I think that the value of water as we move forward into this century is going to increase exponentially,” he says, “It’s already huge, and people don’t necessarily understand that.”

As population grows in the Interior West, the arid region is also expected to be hard-hit by climate change, Cables says. “That’s pretty spooky. We have to be thinking ahead.”

Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst with The Wilderness Society, echoes Cables’ concerns, noting that declining water supplies during parts of the year coupled with rising demand for water will require some careful planning.

With such changes on the horizon, maintaining healthy forested watersheds will be essential. Not only do forested ecosystems provide filtration services, they also serve to lock in the soil, preventing the migration of sediments that can clog waterways and water supply infrastructure.  In addition, by absorbing and slowing the path of rainfall, forests mitigate floods, protecting stream and river channels from erosion. As water moves through the forest, pollutants such as metals, viruses, oils, excess nutrients and sediments filter out.

Read more: From Forests to Faucets

The Cost of Recovery

By Rebecca L. Olgeirson

When it came to water, our predecessors made survival choices with little thought of implications to the ecosystem. More recently, 20th century dams were built for human needs—without considering native fish and their habitats.  Decades of water diversion and manipulation have altered the natural flow cycles fish depend on, often bringing river levels dangerously low or sometimes even releasing too much, too fast from reservoirs so that fisheries are destroyed.

Obstructive dams and less water in the meandering Colorado River system meant large fish such as the Colorado pikeminnow were unable to travel the long distances required for spawning. Lower water levels also disrupt spawning cues, making reproduction even more difficult. And without any natural predators, populations of non-native fish such as channel catfish and smallmouth bass—originally stocked for sport—skyrocketed, competing for resources. Ultimately, four native fish populations shrank to alarming levels, earning them a spot on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list: Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail.

Read more: The Cost of Recovery

Simply Irreplaceable: Wetlands

By Cally Carswell

Those working to repair damage done to Warm Springs Fen shy away from the term “restoration” when discussing their efforts. A 198-acre groundwater-fed wetland in central Colorado’s South Park, Warm Springs was mostly intact when it was protected about 10 years ago. An irrigation ditch cut through a small portion of the fen, intercepting shallow groundwater needed to support the wetland. But only 11 acres, which had been mined for peat, to be used as a soil amendment, were severely degraded.

Still, claiming that the fen could be restored on a human time scale would be disingenuous. Fens like Warm Springs, which are found only in a few spots worldwide, contain thick seams of peat formed by plants decomposing in saturated soil over thousands of years. Peat formation can’t be sped up or engineered. So for now, rehabilitation is the best conservationists can hope for.

Read more: Simply Irreplaceable: Wetlands

Water Law Resources

Guide to Colorado Water Law explores the basics of Colorado water law--learn how it has developed and how it is applied today. This, WEco's most popular Citizen's Guide, was authored by Colorado Supreme Court Justice, and WEco Board Vice President, Gregory Hobbs. Take a look or purchase a copy.


Law Supplement Headwaters magazine a special edition of Headwaters that provides an in-depth look at Colorado water law. Browse the magazine to supplement our Citizen's Guide and your knowledge. View it here

Administration Headwaters magazine read how enforcing the law in our water-scarce state can get tricky and meet the men and women who allocate Colorado's most precious resource. Browse the issue here.

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