By NICK PENZEL
Colorado has a wealth of natural resources that have drawn people to the state for hundreds of years. In 1859, a decade after the California Gold Rush, an estimated 100,000 miners clambered to seek their fortunes in the Colorado Rockies. The miners, who were often quoted using the motto “Pikes Peak or Bust,” were part of the second largest mining rush in U.S. history, but they were not the last group of people drawn to Colorado for its natural resources and beauty.
Over the last century and a half, people have flocked to the state for its skiing and recreation. The population boom brought increased economic revenue to depressed mining towns like Aspen, and the state was soon recognized as a destination for people who wanted to live an active lifestyle and recreate in the mountains.
But today, Colorado is facing a serious problem. People have been pouring into the state, and this massive influx is detrimental to the things that we love about this place.
The state, specifically the Front Range, doesn’t have the infrastructure to support Colorado’s growth. All it takes to see this is being stuck in hours of traffic on I-70 on a Saturday morning. Once you make it through the traffic, if you are lucky enough to find parking, you are greeted by hours of lift lines at Breckenridge or Arapahoe Basin; being stuck waiting for hours doesn’t really fit the carefully cultivated image that Colorado has created as a mecca for adventure.
An even more troublesome example of this problem can be seen anytime you turn on your faucet. Colorado Springs has no good source of water nearby, so diversions bring water from as far as 200 miles away into the city. Tunnels and diversions, like those dug under the continental divide, pull water out of the Colorado River watershed, among others, and ship it to the Front Range. Because this water is moved under the divide, it is effectively removed from the watershed and can’t flow toward lower basin states like California and Arizona, which face a whole host of their own water problems.
The situation is severe enough that some have proposed a 600 plus mile pipeline from the Missouri River. Less far-fetched ideas, like pumping groundwater in the San Luis Valley, threaten Great Sand Dunes National Park and farmers who have been cultivating the land for four generations. Suffice it to say, we have overstretched our means. The very streams that carved the mountains we love are being sucked dry by our thirsty mouths. With climate change and increased drought, the situation can only worsen.
In 2016, Colorado had a predicted growth rate of 1.85 percent, making it the second fastest growing state in the country, behind Texas. With the 2020 census looming, the jury is still out on exactly how much the state has grown in the past 10 years. One thing seems certain though — as more people settle in the state, the ski areas will become more crowded, the roads more ridden with traffic, the rivers more tamed, and the wildness will slowly slip away.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to this problem. Nativists like to put “local” or “native” bumper stickers on their cars and tell people to leave the state, but this mindset fails to realize that no one, with maybe the exception of tribes like the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe, has more claim to this land than anyone else. Obviously, advocating for a zero population growth policy would help the situation, but that is just not feasible. Ultimately, we may have already overstepped the carrying capacity of sustainable living on the Front Range.
As is the case with climate change, we are living on borrowed time. We have a finite number of years to address the overpopulation and exploitation of natural resources in Colorado. If we really care about this state, we are going to have to work harder and faster than any generation before us to fundamentally change the way we interact with the environment.
We have to put the emphasis on conservation over our recreation. Our energy grid will need to be rapidly converted to run on renewable energy. We need to restructure how we live by choosing high-density urbanization over the endless sprawl. We have to drastically redefine how water is used in the West by rethinking our agriculture system and personal use. We have to push for public transportation and rethink our personal freedoms in favor of a collective and ecological mindset. It’s a big task, but not taking these actions means sitting by with paralyzing apathy as the state we love disappears.