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All things considered, we’re still ahead

Our sleepy little town, perched beautifully upon the headwater banks of one of the greatest rivers in the nation, is fast becoming a trend setter.

Recall that, in 2009, National Geographic magazine called us one of the nation’s top adventure towns. People flock here to enjoy our geothermal hot springs, abundant snowfall, idyllic river and breathtaking views.

Thanks to the almost half million acres of wilderness that surround us, our watershed is one of the most pristine and untouched areas in the lower 48. All of these are things to be proud of. As the world around Pagosa changes and grows, the importance and value of these things will become evidenced and envied.

The big picture

Water is essential to life. There is no substitute for it. There is a finite amount of fresh water available on the planet.

The demand placed upon this finite resource is a variable that shows no signs of decreasing. The U.S. Census Bureau currently estimates the world’s population to be approximately 6,884,700,000 with an annual growth rate of 1.8 percent. The UN World Population Prospects predicts that by 2050 there will be 9,150,000,000 people on the planet. This represents a 25-percent population increase over today’s population; and more people means more mouths to feed.

Currently, about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water withdrawals are for agriculture, 16 percent are for energy and industry, and 14 percent are for domestic purposes. If 70 percent of the fresh water is used to provide food for the current population, what can we expect to happen when the population increases by 25 percent?

This presents quite a conundrum. The International Energy Agency forecasts that by 2030 the world economy will demand at least 40 percent more energy than is currently being produced. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the water used to cool the electricity generating stations amounts to 55 to 75 trillion gallons annually. That is slightly less than the six-month average flow of water that pours over Niagara Falls. At a recent congressional meeting, the U.S. Department of Energy stressed that energy production is at the mercy of water availability.

The Colorado River hasn’t reached the Sea of Cortez in over a decade. Lake Mead is at an unprecedented low, prompting reports that claim it may very well become the world’s largest cesspool by 2025. U.S. groundwater withdrawals of 75 billion gallons per day have far exceed natural recharge rate (e.g., the nation’s largest aquifer, the Ogalalla, has dropped over 300 feet since 1955). The climate change debate continues and we could all play Chicken Little and proclaim the sky to be falling.

Yet, here we are, in our little town, poised to be an unprecedented trend setter.

The silver lining

We, who have an abundance of fresh, clean water, are working to protect our water resources and ensure the vitality of the San Juan River as it makes its way to Lake Powell, eventually sustaining the 40 million people downstream. Since 2002, Pagosans have drastically reduced their water consumption. As a community, we are embracing efficiency and teaching others to use our resources with care and intention; recognizing that ignorance and wastefulness walk hand in hand. Improvements in efficiency not only save water and energy, they also save money, and that makes sense.

It is easy to look at the large urban centers of Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas, and criticize and critique their wasteful habits (misters and golf courses in the desert … come on!). But, they, too, are learning the necessity of conservation and efficiency. Between 2002 and 2008, Las Vegas decreased its gross water consumption by 20 percent even as the city added 500,000 new residents. The basic fact remains that uncontrolled growth in places with a finite water supply is problematic.

Ed Abbey once said, “There is no shortage of water in the desert, unless you try to put a city where no city should be.” Like it or not, those cities are there. And, like it or not, they rely on our water for their survival. Let us be the change that we hope to see in the world.

It is imperative that we value and protect the irreplaceable assets that make our little town so special and appealing.

Growth will return to Pagosa and with it will come people from places with a different water ethic. They will see our beautiful and regionally appropriate landscapes. They will take notice of the water efficient fixtures in our homes and businesses. They will enjoy our majestic mountains, clear rivers and fresh air. And they will join our community because they see in us a beautiful future where all of the elements essential to a life of quality are inextricably ingrained in the fabric of our little mountain town.