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the environmental effects of the growing colorado population

written for:

yellow scene magazine

With Denver and Colorado Springs in the US News list of top five best places to live in America in 2016, it’s no wonder the masses are flocking to our great state. US News reported that two million people would be added to Colorado’s population by 2040, catapulting it far past seven million residents. Job prospects and quality of life are only second to Colorado’s stunning scenery and weather, up and coming restaurant and entertainment scene and natural playground for outdoor enthusiasts that are drawing so many to the west. But at what cost? The growth is already taking its toll. From declining water sources to forest degradation, national park vandalism to escalating traffic conditions and pollution, it’s clear we have a problem on our hands.

Take a look outside at the snow capped mountains breaking through the brilliant sun over the western horizon. With over 300 sunny days to relish in every year, is it possible that we’re taking for granted the natural resources so readily available for our use? Water, forests, trails, wildlife and farmland are feeling the affects of our booming population, and their integrity is at stake. With more people come more thirsty mouths, additional housing needs, longer traffic jams and intensifying pollution.

Every time you flush the toilet, wash dishes, throw in a load of laundry or turn on the sprinklers, water is siphoned from the Colorado River, Blue River, South Platte River, and streams of snow melt that flow west according to The Denver Post. It doesn’t come straight to your home though. Remember those breathtaking mountaintops you were just admiring? With 80 percent of Colorado’s population in the Front Range area according to 5280 Magazine, our water has to be carried over the mountains to reach us, expending an enormous amount of energy to move the water up and over the continental divide. The process of water getting to your home gets even more complicated. Denver Water transfers water from storage reservoirs and runs it through an intensive treatment and filtration system. Once the pH levels of the water are tested, it’s transported through piping to your home. With the increased demand for water, 5280 Magazine reports that we’ve already depleted our supply.

“Water and agriculture are critical for the rural economy to flourish,” reports Colorado’s own Governor John Hickenlooper to the Negative Population Growth. “Unlike many other states, and even some nations, we have the potential in Colorado to provide a sustainable food supply that is local and not imported. That’s an asset we need to recognize and support.” Unfortunately the strained demand for water is causing farmers to cave under the pressure and sell their water rights to growing urban communities. In turn, this renders the land ineffective for farming. When developers come and buy them out, they create further urban sprawl and encourage the cycle to start again. According to the Denver Post, 191,000 acre-feet of water has transferred from farmers to suburbs in the last twenty-five years, meaning farmers most lucrative crop has effectively changed from food to houses.

While farmlands are selling out to water suppliers and land developers, the recent upsurge of marijuana grow sites since the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado is also disturbing our environment. A thirsty plant, marijuana requires enormous amounts of water, and to meet the needs of the demanding market, many growers resort to using toxic chemicals and enormous amounts of energy to increase their production. “These million-dollar growers up here are using millions of gallons of water,” marijuana grower Chuck Lyon reported to Weed Rush News. “They’re pumping directly out of the river. They’re pumping directly out of the springs.” The local wildlife, soil, and plant life are harmed as well, often in lethal ways, with grow sites spewing pesticides, herbicides, and rodenticides, and leaving behind excessive trash and non-biodegradable waste. What Colorado may be gaining from the marijuana industry, it’s losing by the damage being done to our fragile ecosystem.

So everything comes down to water, right? Not necessarily. The condition of the forests and mountains directly influence water sources and effectively, the population. If able to respond positively to climate change, disease, drought, and human destruction, our forests and mountains can keep the eco system in balance, and are just as important as preserving our water. The systems of natural resources are very complex and understanding and respecting them is the most effective way to maintain their integrity.

Mary Grace Stocker, a Colorado resident of three years and outdoor enthusiast, has noticed significant overcrowding in national parks, on the ski slopes, and traffic on the highways heading into the mountains. “I’ve seen instances of overcrowding where I was disgusted with the fact of skiing amongst so many people,” she says. An avid climber and skier, Stocker started backcountry skiing to enjoy the mountains without the crowds, after a frightening accident on the busy slopes where another skier ran her over in the mob trying to get down the mountain. Stocker has also noticed fellow hikers disrespecting the parks and trails, recklessly veering off the path and leaving trash in their wake. “It’s good for people to get outside, but they need to do so responsibly.” Colorado boasts its vast and accessible options for outdoor recreation, a huge draw for those relocating, but the state of these resources is based on effective stewardship of them. With 90 percent of Coloradans engaging annually in outdoor recreation, national and state parks, ski slopes, trails and fourteeners are all exhibiting negative effects due to the population growth according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a Denver based non-profit, recently put together a report card for trails on 14,000-foot summits, an analysis of trail conditions and sustainability, finding that excessive use is contributing to erosion and disrupting trails and surrounding habitats. They estimated that $24 million would be needed to repair forty-two of the fourteeners, with $5 million set aside for the five peaks nearest Denver that Lloyd Athearn, the executive director of Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, describes as “the crown jewels, the iconic backdrop, of Colorado.”

Fourteeners are not the only ones feeling the affects. With the overuse of trails, soil, vegetation and natural objects, habitats are at risk. Recent reports show that vandalism in parks is becoming progressively more common as well. In 2014, Casey Nocket gained overnight fame for posting photos to Instagram of graffiti she had done on famous national park landmarks according to Grind TV. While widely reported, unfortunately this was not a one-off occurrence. National Parks have seen a rise in vandalism over the past few years, with the ease of social media enabling widespread attention of these crimes. Utah, California, Arizona, and Nevada join Colorado in fighting vandalism of natural monuments and trails within parks, seeking to preserve these irreplaceable treasures. With tax dollars helping keep the parks alive for future generations, it’s wasteful to see those dollars being put toward removing graffiti and repairing vandalism.

While each person needs a place to live, a place to work and a way to get to work, those structures and roads are slowly eating away at land that was once a natural habitat and home to precious wildlife. The survival of wildlife is directly impacted by the condition of their natural habitats, which is why the Colorado Wildlife Habitat Protection Program works with local landowners, governments, and organizations to protect wildlife. They have identified energy development, encroachment of non-native vegetation, irrigation return, and groundwater depletion as some of the top factors that are severely impacting river and stream basin habitats. As cities along the Front Range are growing, affecting wildlife and disturbing natural habitats, it’s not surprising that human encounters with wildlife are increasing. Colorado Parks and Wildlife recorded 2015 as the most active bear season possibly ever recorded in the Front Range, with approximately 250 calls on bear activity in Boulder alone.

Last fall, a mama bear named #317 and her two cubs, brought quite a disturbance to the Boulder area. After reaching the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s two-strike policy, #317 was rendered a danger to the area’s residents and was put down while her two cubs were relocated. Larry Rogstad, wildlife manager for the area reported to Daily Camera, “I wanted to be a wildlife officer since I was in third grade. I wanted it because I had a deep and abiding love for the outdoors and for making the world a better place. Now, we’re relegated to this position because people don’t care enough to store their trash.”

Moose, the largest wild animals in Colorado according to Your Boulder, have also been rising on the charts for sightings and encounters in Boulder. In July 2015, Daily Camera reported that a family was kept safe by their faithful golden retriever when they encountered a moose and its calves. Startled by the intrusion, the moose’s protective instincts kicked in and started to charge. When the dog darted in front of the family, a brief brawl with the moose ensued, but allowed the family to run to safety. Respecting wild animals and being respectful of them is the only way to live peacefully together with them. With expanding cities cutting in to natural habitats, animals are curious about their new neighbors. Dangerous situations occur and become exacerbated when humans don’t leave wild animals alone. Wildlife should be treated as just that – wild. Harassing or feeding them, intentionally or inadvertently, is the main cause of wildlife problems according to the Parker police department.

Journey back to the Old West era, when cowboys and gold miners were settling Colorado’s main cities, laying the foundations of the state’s infrastructure with limited resources. We’ve come a long way since the mid 1800’s, and yet in many ways are still functioning within a system built over 150 years ago. Outdated infrastructure is already showing signs of friction and imbalance from the recent rise in population. Schools, roads, housing, water and waste developments and police forces must expand to accommodate, not always a simple or graceful process. Rising costs of services and living is placing tax burdens on communities, effectively outweighing the positive aspects of a growing population.

With an already gridlocked traffic system in the Denver metro area, additional commuters will exacerbate the problem, spreading it even farther across the state. If nothing is done to address the situation, Negative Population Growth says that Denver metro commuters will be spending twice and much time in traffic in as little as five years. Boulder is quickly approaching the Transportation Master Plan’s projection for 2020’s population, but their transportation system has not caught up and the disparity is causing motorists great frustration. Colorado Department of Transportation reports that they plan to spend $240 million on treating the conditions of the roads over the next handful of years, and adding toll lanes across the area to accommodate the expanding amount of drivers. With additional people, come additional cars and additional cars means greater pollution. Denver is already reported to be violating the federal standards for ground level ozone on a regular basis. “[T]he brown cloud no longer is a winter phenomenon limited to Downtown, but a year-round problem blanketing the entire area,” CDOT reports.

Urban sprawl is one of the more significant issues that affects nearly each other problem arising, with 28 percent of voters in a Colorado poll naming it the most concerning environmental issue, according to Negative Population Growth. Successful planning and management of the growth is needed, because as long as the population is growing, there is going to need to be enough places for people to live. To escape rising rent prices, many residents are moving to the suburbs, creating even greater sprawl. Denver and its surrounding suburbs are quickly starting to appear as one large city with many extensions. And with land developers building farther away from city centers, natural resources and wildlife habitats are disturbed.

While developers are significantly adding to the urban sprawl problem, they are simply trying to keep up with the demand of the market. “There are a lot of first-time buyers,” says Toby Waters, a real estate agent with Vision Denver Homes. “The rental market is insane, you can save money by buying a house.” And although this may be true, home prices are climbing to record highs with a shrinking inventory of homes, causing a significant imbalance. Rent prices are up an average of 10.5 percent across Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins, and a Denver Post report shows that the Denver metro renter needs to make $35 an hour in order to afford a mid-range priced rental which is nearly 4.5 times the state minimum wage.

The verdict is in. The negative effects of the growing population in Colorado are numerous and sobering. Depreciating water sources, run-down trails, a damaged ecosystem, failing infrastructure and advancing urban sprawl show that the current framework is failing. What lies ahead for Colorado? The key to a sustainable future is living in a conscious and respectful way, stewarding the energy and resources we use, and wisely planning for current and prospective needs. As individuals, as communities, and as a state, let’s welcome our incoming neighbors and work together to preserve natural resources, because as Henry David Thoreau once said, “We need the tonic of wilderness…We can never have enough of nature.”

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