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We put our toes in, and the water wasn’t bad

Article by Clint Driscoll

Arkansas River Forum – July 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Attending the second annual Upper Arkansas Watershed Forum in Cañon City April 19 and 20 felt like riding a raft down the river during spring run-off. There were as many differing opinions and expectations among the participants as there are rocks and whirlpools in the Numbers. If you weren’t paying attention while making small talk during breaks and meals, you would find yourself floundering between a wake of property-rights proponents and an eddy of no-growth wilderness advocates.

This year’s forum was expanded to include not only water issues but concerns on public land management and growth in the area. As a result, there were over 170 participants representing just about every conservation, recreation, agricultural and business/resource development interest group from Leadville to Florence. In addition, federal, state and local government agencies, law firms, contractors and out-of-basin water users had sent delegates. I counted over 60 agencies or groups participating.

Jeff Keidel, forum organizer and ramrod, kept the program moving with the help of his capable, volunteer staff. They had gathered some excellent speakers, including Dan Kemmis, author of Community and the Politics of Place, and representatives from the Yampa Valley Partnership in northwestern Colorado and the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council in eastern Idaho. They defined and provided background for the forum theme, “A Watershed Community Envisioning its Future.” While listening to their presentations I kept thinking how similar our problems were: loss of agricultural land, water rights versus stream flows and growth controlling residents rather than the other way around.

Kemmis has a firm belief that the only way western regions can claim their independence from outside forces, both regulatory and economic, is to seriously work at forming viable communities. Only then will local decisions, based on the consensus of local players, solve local problems.

As far as Kemmis concerned, westerners have relied for too long on outside, third party regulators to resolve their conflicts and subsidize their way of life. That reliance has perpetuated the myth of western rugged individualism, and has allowed outsiders to mandate solutions that are detrimental to the economic and ecological health of the region. In essence, outside regulators have effectively kept local citizens divided.

After a day listening to presentations, Keidel put the attendees to work creating an ideal watershed future. We began by listing present trends affecting the basin and what we hoped would exist in the basin in 2020. Everyone was polite, appearing tolerant of all opinions, but the undercurrent of disagreement over the positive or negative value of each entry was apparent. I heard a lot of muttering and saw a lot of eye-rolling as myriad sheets of easel paper filled with present factors and future desires.

Finally, breakout groups (a poor term to use in a town whose main industry is prisons) hammered out goals all participants agreed should be in place in 25 years. The watershed should have a sustainable ecosystem and economy, a socially balanced community, an infrastructure which keeps pace with development and an integrated government for the watershed.

Of course the goals are general and open to interpretation. One person’s sustainable ecosystem is another person’s loss of livelihood. Agreement on what is meant by the goals and how to implement them are supposed to be discussed among committees during the coming year.

By the time we finished, I wasn’t sure if we had accomplished anything. I think if the delegates are honest, not many of them are sure. Like the headwaters area itself, the forum was big and full of variety. There are so many interest groups with differing values and assumptions within the watershed that it may take until 20202 to sort them all out.

But the meeting highlighted some common themes among the participants. Even though delegates had widely differing agendas about dams, transmountain diversions, property rights, minimum flow rates or subdivision development, they all voiced a desire to preserve the small town/rural atmosphere and the natural beauty of the basin. Open space, clean air, flowing streams and the general ambience of mountain life were important to all the residents and at least given lip service by out-of-basin water users.

There was no sense of coming together at this meeting. At the beginning it seemed to me most of the special interests came to see what the other groups had up their sleeves. (The region resembles what George Sibley describes as towns beginning to come out of economic depressions and “existing in smug isolation” while special interest “communities” jealously guard their turf or demand their rights.)

There is no recognition as yet of the need for what Kemmis calls old-time, barn-building neighborliness in our canyons and valleys. The repercussions of building an Elephant Rock Dam are not seen as important in Penrose. The growth problems of Florence are not a concern in Salida.

But sometime in the near future, a town will face a challenge that requires cooperation form the neighbors, whether they approve of them or not.

No community envisioned a future this year in Cañon City. And the goals developed probably aren’t that important — they’ll change over time.

But the collaborative atmosphere Keidel is trying to foster is important. Impersonal groups became real people with real concerns. I believe the forum made us realize we have a common sense of place, and a love of it. Future conferences (if there are any, funding is in doubt) must cultivate that commonality and provide an environment in which cooperation allows real decisions to be made. Over time that can produce a watershed community.

At last report, Clint Driscoll was still above water in Buena Vista.