From sky to bedrock, researchers near Crested Butte are resetting what we know about water in the West ~ The Colorado Sun


The mobile observatory is manned by 100 scientists who hope to show how the West can get a better handle on where and when water will be available

Mark Jaffe

Oct 24, 2021

With Gothic Peak in the background, Anna Hodshire, associate scientist for Handix Scientific, works on a climate study installation as part of the Atmospheric Radiation Management)study being conducted by the mobile laboratories at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory facility in Gothic, Colorado, on September 15, 2021. The mobile units are one of three portable units used to study climate change across the globe. The units study the atmosphere using equipment sophisticated enough to measure the size of raindrops and snowflakes. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CRESTED BUTTE – Eight white shipping containers, instruments spouting from the tops of some and a generator humming away in another, sit in the East River valley, on the outskirts of this mountain town, pulling data out of the air.

The containers, a “mobile atmospheric observatory,” will gather bits of information over the next two years about the winds and clouds and rain and snow and heat and cold above the silvery and serpentine waterway as it slides past the gray granite dome of Gothic Mountain on its way to the Colorado River.

“It is like a satellite, but on the ground looking up,” said Heath Powers, who oversees the atmospheric observatory program operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. “It’s a traveling scientific carnival.”

Traveling, indeed. The last assignment for the observatory, now in the old mining town of Gothic, 9 miles north of Crested Butte, was on the deck of a German research vessel icebound in the Arctic.

 “We’ve been to all seven continents with these observatories,” Powers said. “It is surprising to find such a remote and challenging place here in the old USA.”

The observatory, while in demand all over the world, is the centerpiece in an unprecedented effort to understand how — and how much — water moves from the sky to the rivers of the West. Three separate teams, nearly 100 scientists in all, are in the East River valley studying every facet of the question.

The researchers are employing an equally large array of instruments, from balloons to drones to aircraft to multiple kinds of radar to cloud chambers and flux sensors to stream gauges and rain buckets.

The goal is to better understand the “water story” so that water managers across the West can, from year to year, have a better handle on how much water will be available.

Those systems, however, are not well understood, hobbling forecasting. “We know the list of physical, chemical and biological processes that affect water,” Feldman said. “The question is how do they fit together?”

It is more than just a theoretical question. As the climate changes, and the world gets warmer, the Rocky Mountain snowpack, which provides 75% of the water for the Colorado River Basin, has already declined by a fifth in the past 30 years and by 2050 the flow of the river, supplying water to 40 million people, could drop by as much as 20%.

“We are moving into a no-analog future, where the past doesn’t tell the future,” Feldman said. “We are moving far and fast away from the past.”

And so, Feldman is leading a group of scientists in the Surface Integrated Atmosphere Laboratory project (SAIL), while Gijs de Boer, is heading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Study of Precipitation, the Lower Atmosphere and Surface for Hydrometeorology (SPLASH).

Both are seeking to better understand the atmospheric dynamics — clouds and rain, wind and snow.

A solar panel helps collect data on evaporation and undergrowth in a forest of aspen trees on Snodgrass Mountain near Crested Butte. Numerous instruments have been placed on Snodgrass by researchers from Northern Arizona University as part of an interagency group that is researching climate change as part of the Watershed Function Area project in Gunnison County. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The longest-running of the projects, dating to 2015, is the Watershed Function Science Focus Area (no neat acronym, just SFA), which is tracing what happens to the snow and rain once it falls to Earth.

“The goal is to improve water forecasting and water accounting,” said Ken Williams, lead researcher for the watershed project.

Can studying a single, small watershed — with measurements from the size of raindrops to the amount of water finding its way deep into bedrock — tell the tale for the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River and its 246,000-square-mile basin?

“The East River shares characteristics with the vast majority of headwaters in the Rocky Mountains,” Williams said. “What we are learning in the East River will be translatable to other mountain systems.”

“We are used to working in places where you can’t run down to the hardware store.”

The switch was flipped on at DOE’s mobile observatory Sept. 1 and it will gather data through the next seven seasons. 

During the winters the three technicians operating the site will be snowbound, save for a once-a-week snowmobile run to town.

“Lots and lots of ramen noodles,” Powers said. The observatory also comes with its own workshop and supply of spare parts. “We are used to working in places where you can’t run down to the hardware store.”

John Bilberry, a researcher for Atmospheric Radiation Management, stands on the roof of one of the mobile labs parked outside of the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic. During one of his previous assignments with the mobile observatory he was stranded in the Arctic by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The units collect precipitation data at ground level and in the atmosphere and contain equipment sophisticated enough to measure the size of raindrops and snowflakes. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Overseeing the operation is John Bilberry, 43, the lead project manager for SAIL. “I run the circus,” he said. Bilberry was with the mobile observatory in the Arctic (he had to hitch a ride on a Russian icebreaker to get there) and got stranded onboard by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his previous life Bilberry was a recording engineer for a record label and went on tour with the industrial metal band Ministry. “This is a lot like being on tour,” he said. “You’re given all this expensive equipment and you have to make sure it works.”

SAIL, which is being run under the auspices of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has deployed about 50 different instruments, some on the roofs or inside the shipping containers, some on valley hillsides.

The project also releases weather balloons twice a day and has a larger tethered balloon with an array of instruments that will be trucked around the watershed.

Those devices will gather detailed data on eight elements that affect the water cycle: the fine particles floating in the air called aerosols, clouds, rain and snow and the winds that drive them, sunlight, thermal energy and temperatures.

The total sky imager is tracking the horizontal distribution of clouds, microwave radiometers are measuring the water content of those clouds, doppler lidar radar is gauging the direction and speed of the wind, and a nephelometer is measuring the behavior of aerosols.

Wesley King, site tech for Rocky Mountain Biological Labs in Gothic, brings a research balloon to the launch site on Sept. 15,. Two balloons are released each day, coordinated with other balloon launches all across the globe. The balloons rise to a height of nearly 30,000 meters, gathering data from the atmosphere for transmission back to the ARM Atmospheric Radiation Management) mobile labs located in Gothic. The balloons implode after reaching their maximum height and fall back to Earth. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Other instruments will log ozone levels, the water content of falling snow, how much snowpack is lost to evaporation (known as sublimation) and the surface energy balance — heat coming in from the sun and that radiating back into the air.

Every hour a bank of computers, linked to the sensors, collects all the data and uploads it to the internet for use by SAIL and researchers around the world. “It is a virtual machine,” Bilberry said.

Each of these bits of information are like tiles in a mosaic. “Here we have an opportunity to piece these things together,” Feldman said.

Fitting the data into a big picture will be a challenge as the behavior of any one element can be complex.

Aerosols, for example, can, in the form of soot, warm the air, while sulfate aerosols can cool it. Dust covering the snowpack leads to a quicker melt. Aerosols create the nucleus around which moisture in the air forms rain and snow. Too little aerosol, no rain, too much and the moisture is disbursed and again there is no rain or snow, until it builds up and leads to really heavy downpours or snows.

“Aerosols have all these different effects that they are exerting on these mountainous watersheds,” Feldman said. “Aerosols are impacting the way water is delivered downstream.”

While SAIL efforts are centered in Gothic, NOAA’s SPLASH gear will be arrayed over more than 10 miles and will be focused on gathering data to help improve the administration’s forecasting tools.

These include the Unified Forecast System, which makes up to 14-day forecasts, the Rapid Refresh Forecast System, which provides hourly updates, and the National Water Model, which predicts stream flows.

“SPLASH was born out of a desire to build upon SAIL and tune things to be more specific to NOAA needs,” de Boer said. “That has turned into a very significant investment from NOAA.”

The project is being led by NOAA’s Physical Science Laboratory in Boulder and the University of Colorado, in collaboration with about a dozen other institutions, including Colorado State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Among SPLASH’s installations will be a 33-foot tower to measure winds, turbulence, radiation and temperatures. It will also deploy three drones to measure things such as soil moisture and snow reflectivity.

“When combined, SPLASH and SAIL provide what may be the most comprehensive study of the physics of the lower atmosphere and exchange with the surface, including water, ever conducted in areas of complex terrain,” de Boer said.

Some water near Gothic has been underground for 2,000 years

On a late summer morning, the SFA’s Williams was up on Snodgrass Mountain drilling a deep well into the mountaintop — SAIL’s white shipping containers could be glimpsed down below.

Granite dust billowed from the hole as the drill pounded away searching for groundwater.

Williams, a Berkeley Laboratory geologist, has drilled wells across the East River valley — into the shale beneath Aspen forests, the loose landslide deposits of Alpine meadows and hard granite of conifer forests — in search of groundwater.

That mixture of granite, shale and soils from mountainside erosion, and the spruce, aspen and evergreen forests, along with Alpine meadow sitting atop them, is a terrain widely shared by Rocky Mountain watersheds.

“The work we are doing is broadly representative of the Rocky Mountains in general,” Williams said, “and will enable us to get a handle on the structure of that system and how physical processes play out in that system.”

Seth Escudero, a driller for the Authentic Drilling Company, shields his face as ground water spews from drilling rig during the Watershed Function Area project on Snodgrass Mountain near Crested Butte on Sept. 11. In order to send a camera down the drill hole, ground water seeping into the hole had to be blown out so the camera would have a clear view of the strata being drilled through. Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory drilled four different sites to a depth of 100 feet in order to find out what the flow of groundwater. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Williams’ wells have hit groundwater 15 to 20 feet below the surface, but in the well atop Snodgrass Mountain they found no water even at 300 feet. A dry hole. Williams lowered a borehole camera and found only fractures with seepage. Still, they are being monitored. “All data is useful data,” he said.

Once the water is found in a well, sensors are lowered to measure the soil moisture content at different depths. Samples are also taken for geochemical analysis, such as water dating. Some of the groundwater SFA has found has been down there for as long as 2,000 years.

Williams’ team of 55 scientists, buttressed by collaborators at universities around the country, is trying to write the last chapter in the mountain water story, how a mountainous watershed retains and releases water and how much actually gets to the river.

SFA researchers are trying to measure every drop from tree top to bedrock, down to the role microbes play.  

“SAIL and SPLASH are providing a much higher resolution understanding of how and where precipitation is falling,” Williams said. SFA is “taking that handoff” and tracking the water flows.

“This is the first study going from the atmosphere to bedrock,” he said. “It has never been done before in a mountainous system.”

Among the questions Watershed Function is trying to answer is how much of the precipitation is lost to trees and plants sucking it up. In one experiment flux meters have been attached to trees to chart the water flowing from roots to leaves and out as water vapor.

Another question is how much water ends up in aquifers and how long does it stay there? While snowpack runoff feeds the river in the spring, by late summer more than 50% of the East River’s flow is coming from ground water, Williams said.

All the SFA data is also being put up on the internet — so far 69 data sets containing millions of data points — although not by the hour.

Data for modeling for everything from next week’s weather to climate change

The tools for understanding the massive amounts of data being collected by the three projects are computer models that aim to reflect everything from how much water flows in a stream, to next week’s weather, to the future impact of climate change on the world.

The models, however, are vulnerable in two ways. First, they are based on assumptions about how the world works — how much water vegetation absorbs or how snow gathers on mountainsides — and then they are only as good as the data they crunch.  “Garbage in, garbage out” is an idiom in computing that goes back, in idea if not the exact words, to Charles Babbage, the 19th century father of the computer.

“There is a critical linkage between measurement and modeling,” Williams said. “The models need to be informed by the data being collected, to show they are anchored in reality.”

“It is data gathering not for the sake of data gathering, but to assure that our predictive models are as accurate as possible,” he said. Scientists call it “ground truthing.”

A computer display shows data being collected in one of the mobile lab units that is part of Atmospheric Radiation Management research taking place in Gothic. The units study the atmosphere, collecting precipitation data at ground level and in the atmosphere and contain equipment sophisticated enough to measure the size of raindrops and snowflakes. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The data can aid in refining the assumptions and algorithms that run the model. “They can help improve our knowledge of the chemistry and physics of how the world works,” said Alejandro Flores, associate professor of geoscience at University of Idaho and a SAIL researcher focused on models.

Mountains have been particularly difficult to model.

“We have a big blind spot in terms of precipitation and how the models retain and release water,” Flores said. “We need to get a handle on precipitation in mountain landscapes which controls that precipitation.”

SPLASH, de Boer said, is seeking a better understanding of the “physics of key processes,” such as sublimation of snow, snow crystals and rain-on-snow events, that govern how much water ends up in the river.

Those data and insights will be used to evaluate the performance of the Weather Service forecasting and other NOAA models.

Ultimately, the data and knowledge of chemical, biological and physical processes gleaned from the East River could inform the Earth Systems Models that project the world’s climate.

“We currently do not have a good ‘truth’ (for these models), since we don’t have the ability to verify the projections as we do with weather models,” de Boer said.

Getting the model right is a bit like getting the recipe for a cake right, Powers said. “You need to know and understand the ingredients, the proportions,” he said. “If you get it wrong the cake is too sweet or it collapses.”

And it is not just a question of what happens in the West. Between 60% and 90% of the world’s water comes from mountainous watersheds. “Mountain environments are important and they are changing rapidly,” Flores said. “This is an important part of the world and it is important to focus on it.”

“Understanding the physical properties of the East River will help us understand what is happening across the Rockies and all the way to the Urals in Russia,” he said. “It will help anywhere there are mountains and people depend upon mountain snow for water.”


The search for the new era in Chile has two important avenues: the writing of the new constitution, which is what the 155 members of the Constitutional Convention are doing, and the presidential election to be held on November 21, 2021

by Vijay Prashad

Chileans celebrate the results of the national plebiscite on setting up a Constitutional convention in October 2020. Photo: AS Chile 

“It feels like we are at the end of an era,” Bárbara Sepúlveda tells me on October 12, 2021. Sepúlveda is a member of Chile’s Constitutional Convention and of the Communist Party of Chile. The era to which Sepúlveda refers is that of General Augusto Pinochet, who led the US-backed coup in 1973 that overthrew the popularly elected government of president Salvador Allende. During the Pinochet era, the military acted with impunity, and the left was assassinated and sent into exile—while big business (both Chilean and foreign) received all the blessings of the dictatorship. That’s the era that has slowly been sputtering to a halt since Pinochet’s removal in 1990 and since the Chilean people voted to throw out the dictatorship’s constitution of 1980 and write a new one.

Neoliberalism was born in Chile, as the popular slogan goes, and it will die in Chile. This slogan seems to have come true with the ending of the Pinochet era.

But Sepúlveda is not sure about what comes next. “Everybody knows everything is uncertain,” she says frankly. “That is an opportunity to begin a new era.” The first decade and a half after Pinochet’s removal seemed bleak. Then, in 2006, a cycle of student protests rattled the country. These were led by young students, whose black-and-white school uniforms gave the protests a name—La Revolución Pingüina, or the Penguin Revolution. The young people demanded a new national curriculum as well as a reduction in public transportation fares and examination fees. When the government failed to deliver on these demands, a second cycle of protests mobilized in 2011-2013 with the same demands. Their leaders—including Camila Vallejo of the Communist Party and Giorgio Jackson of the Democratic Revolution—are now important figures of the left project in Chile. Once more in 2011-2013, the students were met with a stalemate, with the constitution of 1980 being a barricade to their ambitions.

A third cycle of student protests began in early October 2019 following a hike in public transportation fares. The “penguins” led a campaign of fare evasion (under the slogan ¡Evade!). The protesters were met with a harsh repression campaign including violent clashes with the Chilean police. On October 18, the right-wing government, led by president Sebastián Piñera, issued a two-week state of emergency, authorizing the deployment of the Chilean army against the protests, which only intensified. The violence used to suppress the protests resulted in the emergence of the slogan Piñera Asesino (Piñera the assassin) among protesters and their supporters.

Sepúlveda says of the 2019 mobilization that the breaking point on “October 18 moved the axis [of Chilean politics] further to the left.” Although the third cycle of protests had initially been a response to the transportation fare hike, the government’s reaction made it clear that the country faced much deeper underlying structural issues including, Sepúlveda says, “overwhelming inequality” and corruption. Sepúlveda, a lawyer who co-founded Chile’s association of feminist lawyers (ABOFEM) in 2018 and was its executive director during the 2019 protests, saw at the time that changing these structural issues could not be done from within the existing system; at the very least, the country needed a new constitution and a more progressive government. And so the protest expanded to include the demands of the feminist movement and the Indigenous movement, pushing for broader economic and social changes to address the inequality at the root.

Two sites of struggle

The search for the new era in Chile has two important avenues: the writing of the new constitution, which is what the 155 members of the Constitutional Convention are doing, and the presidential election to be held on November 21, 2021.

The convention began work in July 2021 by voting in its president (Elisa Loncón) and vice-president (Jaime Bassa); both Loncón and Bassa lean toward the left. So far, the convention has drafted its rules, which—Sepúlveda says—is more than half the work. Discussion about substantial issues began on the symbolic date of October 18, 2021, two years after the turning point of the third wave of protests. Sepúlveda is confident that agreements on social rights—for gender parity and for the environment—will happen. She says that “social changes of [these kinds] are inevitable”—even if there will be a fight from the calcified right wing to block them. The real dispute will take place around a new development model. Will the new constitution roll back the structural austerity program that the post-Pinochet period so far has not been able to undermine?

On October 14, I spent a few hours with Giorgio Jackson, one of the student leaders from the 2011-2013 protests, who is a member of Chile’s Chamber of Deputies and a close adviser to Gabriel Boric’s presidential campaign. Boric, a leader of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) party and the Apruebo Dignidad (Approve Dignity) coalition, is the candidate of the left in the November presidential election. Jackson shared some elements of a new development model that a Boric administration would adopt, if Boric wins the presidential election. In the first year of the next presidency, the budget of Piñera would have to be followed, so only small changes can be made. From the start, Jackson told me, a priority for the Boric government would be to push to reform the health and pension systems, two arenas of great distress for Chile’s people. Building robust public health and pensions systems will require funds, which a left government would raise from royalties on copper extraction and by ensuring better prevention of tax evasion. Such an agenda would deepen a debate over a new development model, Jackson said.

But, Jackson admits, people are uneasy with the idea of having public provision of goods. Daniel Jadue, the communist leader and mayor of Recoleta, agrees that the real dispute will be over economic and social policy. He tells me that the answers to Chile’s problems could emerge from close cooperation between municipalities. If people have a positive experience with local public provision of social goods, it might change the general sentiment of suspicion surrounding the expansion of public health and pensions systems in the country, he noted. The work of mayors such as Jadue is crucial to the overall project for the construction of a new development model.

As far as the upcoming presidential election is concerned, Piñera cannot run for reelection, and besides, he is deeply unpopular. The open fascist in the race—José Antonio Kast—is popular, but he is being challenged by the center-right’s candidate Yasna Provoste for the right-wing votes. Meanwhile, capital has begun to flee Chile in anticipation of the introduction of a more progressive constitution and the potential ushering in of a Boric presidency after the November election.

In one corner of Bárbara Sepúlveda’s living room sits her collection of Rubik’s Cubes of varying difficulty. She’s a whiz at them. Sepúlveda picks one up and toys with it. “This one is easier to do,” she says of a cube that seems impossible to untangle. The cube is a great symbol for Chile. If people like Sepúlveda, Jadue, Jackson, and Boric can find a way to solve the puzzles before them, then perhaps there will be greater clarity on Chile’s new era.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

On The Poetry of Simon J. Ortiz ~ The Land Desk



Like an atlas of the Four Corners Country in verse

Jonathan P. Thompson
Oct 20

Note: I wrote this piece in 2013 and it first appeared at and remembered it while reading some of Ortiz’s poetry recently. I figured I should re-up it here.

About 20 years ago, my father gave me the book, Woven Stone, by Simon J. Ortiz. I was reading a lot of Indigenous writers at the time, such as Leslie Marmon SilkoN. Scott Momaday and Sherman Alexie. I was also reading a lot of poetry, from Richard Shelton to Rilke. Ortiz, a poet from Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, fit right in.

Woven Stone, more than 300 pages long, includes poetry written over many years.

As I tend to do with poetry, I also have read it over many years, picking it up from time to time, flipping to a random page, and reading a few poems. Mostly I’ve been drawn to those with vivid imagery and clear, simple emotion. “My Father’s Song”is perhaps my favorite. “Wanting to say things,” writes Ortiz, “I miss my father tonight.” He goes on to recite his father’s song, which is about planting corn at Aacqua (Acoma) and coming across the burrow nest of a mouse:

Very gently, he scooped tiny pink animals
into the palm of his hand
and told me to touch them.
We took them to the edge of the field and put them in the shade

of a sand moist clod.

I remember the very softness
of cool and warm sand and tiny alive
mice and my father saying things.

More recently, however, I’ve relied on Woven Stone as a reference book of sorts, giving me new insight into the Four Corners County. Amidst the evocative imagery and the powerful emotion is a chronicle of the Southwest, a clear-eyed historical account of environmental plunder, exploitation, oppression and the plight of the Indigenous people. 

Nor is Ortiz’s work limited to poetry. Several years ago, as I researched a story about Gallup, New Mexico, John Redhouse, a Navajo who has long fought against reservation border town racism and uranium mining, sent me a packet of stories about Larry Casuse, a Navajo activist who was killed in a firefight with Gallup police back in 1973. The packet included stories from a variety of media, even a New Yorker piece by Calvin Trillin. Because of the way the packet was put together, I began reading “We Shall Endure”—an account of a march memorializing Casuse—without knowing who wrote it. It turns out the author was Ortiz.

“Gallup is a Fever,” he wrote. “Being in Gallup is always pretty much the same feeling. It is a feeling of something not balanced well in the belly.” I had read a number of news pieces about Gallup during the 70s and 80s, but this spoke volumes. And that’s when I went back to Woven Stone and started reading, really reading, the poems.

Gallup, Indian Capital of the World,
shit geesus, the heat is impossible,
the cops wear riot helmets,
357 magnums and smirks, you better
not get into trouble and you better
not be Indian. Bail’s low though.
Indian Ceremonial August 7-10,
the traders bring their cashboxes,
the bars are standing room only
and have bouncers who are mean,
wear white hats and are white.

Gallup is a complicated place, and its relationship with the Navajo and Pueblo people native to the area is especially complex, a phenomenon perhaps best witnessed in the reaction to the Indian Ceremonial, which has taken place every year for decades. It showcases the dances and cultures of a number of tribes, and draws some 50,000 spectators each year, many of them Indigenous. But, to the bafflement of many white people, it was also the main target of the 60s and 70s activists like Redhouse and Casuse, who protested against the event under the banner of Indians Against Exploitation, or IAE. Redhouse explained in 1973 that the ceremonial exploited Indigenous culture for the benefit of local businessmen, with none of the profit going back to the Indians: “The original idea of the ceremonial is beautiful, but it’s been twisted around into something ugly.”

In just a few verses, Ortiz captures the complexity, and helps us understand what it felt like—and still feels like—to be an Indigenous person in Gallup. While he could be talking about almost any reservation border town in these verses, he’s not: Nearly every Ortiz poem is grounded in a specific place. “Ten miles / the other side of Nageezi, / we stopped / a mile south of the highway,” he writes, in “Buck Nez.” One could almost navigate the Four Corners region using Woven Stone as a poetic roadmap.

Before he became a poet, Ortiz worked for in the uranium mines and mills near Acoma. That work later inspired some of his fiercest work, in Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land. This is not the fiery rant one might expect from the title. These poems are instead calm and circumspect, matter-of-factly detailing the ways corporations used Indigenous people—and sometimes others—as cheap, disposable labor to man the mines that tore up and poisoned the land and people. When the other miners, those from Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, and beyond, tried to organize and better the unsafe working conditions, writes Ortiz, “that jail full of Indians sure came in handy … The unions didn’t have much of a chance, and Grants just kept on booming.”

The poet’s worker’s-eye perspective is especially revealing in poems like “Ray’s Story,” in which he relates the story of Lacey, an Indian from Muskogee who worked on the crusher, the first place you worked after graduating from the labor crew.

Dangerous, no shit about that,
and you had to pick that stuff out
of the ore
before it went through the crusher
and plugged it up.

“Anyway, one night — I wasn’t on that shift — he was down there and I guess a mess of steel cable came through.” Lacey apparently grabbed the cable to keep it from going in the crusher and

then a curl
of the heavy cable must have tangled him up
and pulled him—yeah pulled him—
right down into the jaws
of that crusher.
It makes a hell of a racket
that nobody can hear nothing
and nobody heard Lacey
if he had a chance to yell at all.

In Woven Stone’s introduction, Ortiz writes about how he identified with the people he worked with in the uranium industry, mostly working-class white men from all over, because they weren’t far removed from their land-based backgrounds. They had followed the boom not to get rich, for the most part, but just to save up enough cash to go back home and buy some land or a house. In his poems, Ortiz sometimes expresses exasperation at their ignorance, especially of his and other Native cultures. But he also writes about them with deep compassion and sensitivity.

“To Change in a Good Way” is about Bill and Ida, two white Okies who came to work the mines. They befriend Pete, who also works at the mine, and Mary, who are from Laguna Pueblo. While the piece is fictional, its portrayal of everyday life is remarkably accurate, giving weight to the mundane without overdoing it. It reminds me a bit of Raymond Carver’s short stories in subject and style—or maybe I should say Carver’s stories reminds me of Ortiz’s work.

Finally, “Our Homeland, A National Sacrifice Area” should be required reading for anyone wanting to know about the history of the Southwest and the Pueblos, Acoma in particular. You might say it is Ortiz’s version of his own creation story, tracing his ancestral line back to those who built the structures at what are now known as Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, in the context of colonialism. But it’s also a eulogy for the land from which he came, told with a mixture of verse and prose, jumping back and forth between imagery and exposition. An acerbic wit peeks through the poetry from time to time, as seen here in his description of Chaco and Mesa Verde:

The park service has guided tours,
printed brochures, clean rest rooms,
and the staff is friendly, polite,
and very helpful.
You couldn’t find a better example
of Americanhood anywhere.

Ortiz ends “Our Homeland” with a rallying cry:

We must have passionate concern for what is at stake. We must understand the experience of the oppressed, especially the racial and ethnic minorities, of this nation, by this nation and its economic interests. … Only when we are not afraid to fight against the destroyers, thieves, liars, exploiters who profit handsomely off the land and people will we know what love and compassion are. … And when we fight … we will win. We will win.

Ortiz is far more than just a poet—he is an observer, chronicler, historian, storyteller and, most importantly, a voice for the people and the land. As a journalist of the Southwest, I find Ortiz’s work informative. More than that, though, it’s humbling: No matter how much I struggle to find the right combination of words to communicate this land and its people, I know I’ll come up short. Ortiz shows us that the best, most truthful language with which to communicate this harsh and rich landscape is poetry.

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Ridgway Town Council Workshop Meeting Agenda Thursday, October 21, 2021

Due to COVID-19, and pursuant to the Town’s Electronic Participation Policy,
the meeting will be conducted both in person and via a virtual meeting portal. Members of the public may attend in person at the Community Center, located at 201 N. Railroad Street, Ridgway, Colorado 81432, or virtually using the meeting information below.

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 851 9569 0021 Passcode: 514926 Dial by your location

+1 346 248 7799 US +1 253 215 8782 US

6:00 p.m.
Councilors Adam Beck, Angela Ferrelli, Kevin Grambley, Beth Lakin, Terry

Schuyler, Mayor Pro Tem Russ Meyer and Mayor John Clark


  1. Presentation of preliminary design for Amelia Street Project
  2. Questions to staff from the Town Council
  3. Public comments (Public comments will be limited to 5 minutes per person)
  4. Direction to staff from the Town Council


Honorable Mayor Clark and Ridgway Town Council
Preston Neill, Town Manager
October 18, 2021
Presentation of preliminary design for Amelia Street Project


In the FY2021 Budget, the Town budgeted for a design of Amelia Street from the County Road 5 turn off on the south to the north end of Yates subdivision. At the April 14, 2021 Council meeting, the Town’s engineering consultant presented the project scope, existing conditions and typical sections in an effort to obtain collective input from Council to inform next steps on the design process. At that point, the scope for the design included as much curb, gutter, sidewalk, parking, and roadway as practical. The collective input from Council at that meeting was as follows:

  • Design two 12-foot driving lanes
  • Keep and work around all existing sidewalk and valley pan
  • Design additional sidewalk on the east side of Amelia Street to make for a continuous pedestrianwalkway
  • Design additional valley pan on the west side of Amelia Street, if feasible
  • Scope for project should start with Sabeta Drive on the south and end at Yates subdivision on thenorthSince that meeting, the Town’s engineering consultant has done a tremendous amount of work in producing the current design iteration. Work completed to date includes a topographic survey, ownership mapping, modeling of existing conditions and identification of encroachments. The design includes curb, gutter/valley pan, sidewalk, asphalt and ADA elements.On April 29, 2021, staff met with Ridgway School District representatives, including Susan Lacy, and a few neighborhood residents to discuss Council’s priorities for improvements, along with walkability and pedestrian access in the area around Ridgway Elementary School.On September 20, 2021, the attached letter was sent to property owners along Amelia Street to make them aware of this project and provide them with an opportunity to learn more about long-term impacts of this project and specific impacts to their properties based on the current design. At the time of writing this memo, staff has held two meetings with various property owners and interested individuals to review and discuss the design.
  • SUMMARY:The purpose of Thursday’s workshop is for the Town’s engineering consultant to present the current design iteration, and for Council members and members of the public to ask questions and provide input. Council will be asked to provide collective direction on the design either at Thursday’s meeting or later during the budget process.The Town’s engineering consultant is still developing the PowerPoint and other materials that will be presented on Thursday evening. Once finalized, they will be added to Dropbox and Council will be informed that they are available.


September 20, 2021

RE: Amelia Street Preliminary Design

Dear Ridgway resident,

Next month, the Ridgway Town Council is expected to review a preliminary design for Amelia Street from Sabeta Dr. on the south to the north end of Yates Subdivision. The Town’s engineering consultant, Consolidated Consulting Services, Inc., has done a tremendous amount of work in producing the current design iteration. Work completed to date includes a topographic survey, ownership mapping, modeling of existing conditions and identification of encroachments. The design includes curb, gutter/valley pan, sidewalk, asphalt and ADA elements.

The Town would like to give you an opportunity to learn more about long-term impacts of this project and specific impacts to your property based on the current design. The Town Council is slated to review the design in a Workshop on Thursday, October 21st at 6:00 p.m. at Ridgway Town Hall. A virtual attendance option is available. Subsequent to that, they will discuss cost estimates for construction during the annual budget process. It remains to be seen when these improvements will take place.

If you have questions, concerns, or an interest in meeting with Town staff to discuss the design in advance of the Town Council workshop next month, please contact Preston Neill, Town Manager, at or 970-626-5308, ext. 212.


Preston Neill
Ridgway Town Manager

To: Mayor Clark and Ridgway Town CouncilFrom: Angela Hawse, 1029 Clinton StreetDate: October 19, 2021RE: Proposed Amelia Street Improvement Project


Dear Councilors,
Thank you for your service to our community and stewardship of our Vision and Values as outlined in the recent Master Plan v.2019.  I would like to comment on the Proposed Amelia Street Improvement Project (ASIP) and ask a few questions in advance of your workshop Thursday.  I will present these at public comment period unless they are addressed during the preceding agenda topics.
I assume Town leadership uses the Master Plan (MP) to guide and inform decisions. I’m not familiar how you use it in your decision making framework.  I have included references from our MP in this letter in italics that I will reference for my points regarding the proposed ASIP.
Quoted from our Vision in the MP: “We are committed to being economically and ecologically sustainable”.
Questions for Town Council on Economic Sustainability in regards to the ASIPI understand the cost of this project could exceed three million dollars.  Taxpayers currently have 2 mill levies and a health care tax on the ballot.  

  • Where will the funding come from to support this project?
  • What other paving projects and estimated costs are planned?
  • If this is taxpayer funded, how is this economically sustainable?
    • With consideration of future Town paving plans

Have business owners in Ridgway’s Core District had an opportunity to provide input on Town priorities for paving projects and sidewalk development?  The following statement from the MP contradicts the ASIP being proposed as the next infrastructure improvement as Amelia Street is not in the Core Zone.
Key Objectives for the Growth Framework (Part IV of the Master Plan) are to: • Encourage infill and redevelopment within the Town’s existing limits and where infrastructure and services already exist; • Grow in an orderly, logical and sequential pattern outward from the existing Town core.

  • Why has the Amelia Street Project been prioritized by Town Council?

Questions for Town Council on Ecologic Sustainability regarding the ASIPIt is a fact, that asphalt and paving are significant contributors to climate change.  It is also a fact that traditional asphalt absorbs heat, resulting in locally increased temperatures.  It is a fact, that asphalt pollutes water and generates harmful emissions.  Asphalt is made from fossil fuels.

  • What research and design factors have gone into the ASIP to mitigate or minimize the above impacts?
  • “Cool paving” techniques are available.  To uphold our Value of ecologically sustainable development will these products be used?
  • Has Town Council discussed the affects of heat absorbing asphalt and paving projects as contributors of climate change and locally increased temperatures?

Ridgway is home to native deer and other animals who roam our streets throughout the year.  Amelia Street is a signicant wildlife corridor from natural areas surrounding it in every direction.  The proposed ASIP cuts into a community member’s conservation easement to pave 100 feet of CR5 from the intersection of Amelia and proposes removing the stop sign which would increase speeding in an area with abundant wildlife.  
We are a headwater community of the Colorado River.  It is a fact, that asphalt emits toxins with runoff and high temperatures increase toxic emissions (ie. summer monsoons).  These two factors are not supported by our Value statement #1 and Goals in the MP:
Community Value #1 Health Natural Environment
Protecting both the scenic values and ecological functions of natural areas in and surrounding Ridgway through responsible environmental practices is something the community values strongly. Ridgway must grow in a way that is attuned to its natural environment to protect these valuable resources. Ridgway residents must also be aware of the changes to our local environment that could arise as a result of climate change. Goals: ENV-1: Preserve, protect, and restore natural habitats, including for wildlife and ecosystems. ENV-2: Strengthen the Uncompahgre River corridor as a community asset and environmental resource. ENV-3: Proactively manage and protect Ridgway’s water resources. ENV-4: Advocate for the efficient use of resources and sustainable practices that work to eliminate harmful impacts to the health of the community or natural environment…

  • What considerations were made in the project proposal to address these impacts on wildlife and Rights of Nature?
  • What water capture and filtration systems will be in place to remove toxins and high flow runoff from flooding events?
  • What discussions and considerations have taken place to remove trees in a conservation easement to be replaced with sidewalks and “improvements” for paving 100’ of CR5?

The Dust Problem
Ridgway is located on the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau.  The Colorado Plateau is a desert.  Prevailing winds from the west and southwest transport dust.  Dust caused by dirt roads in Ridgway is minor and possibly negliable compared to the dust to our region from the Colorado Plateau. The Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies (CSAS) located in Silverton is home to the Colorado Dust-On-Snow (CDOS) program where they study dust transport well away from the influence of unpaved roads.  According to the CSAS CDOS findings “The movement of dust around the West has increased 300% in the last two decades alone with no signs of abating.”
Paving roads is not the solution to reducing dust in the Town of Ridgway and the fact that asphalt absorbs heat, further leading to desertification and climate change is an alarming prospect for a Town that relies on snowmelt and surface runoff for it’s water source.

  • What data supports paving roads in rural communities in SW Colorado decreases dust?
  • Have Ridgway residents been surveyed regarding dust, for example do residents in River Park with paved roads have less dust in their homes  than residents that live on unpaved roads?
  • What discussions has Town Council had on incorporating consideration of impacts of climate change on our development and improvement projects?

Public SafetyI am in support of improving the safety of pedestrians in our Town with increased sidewalk projects that are built to ADA standards including crosswalks where needed.  Sidewalks do not require paved roads.  I am in favor of continual sidewalks (and crosswalks) on Amelia Street, specifically on North Amelia for pedestrian safety, walkability and access to the Ridgway Elementary School.  I am in favor of increased signage and street design to slow traffic on Amelia Street and throughout Town.  I am in favor of speed bumps in zones with greater pedestrian use if street design speed mitigation is not considered.
Speeding ConcernsDirt and gravel roads naturally curb driving speeds.  They lend to the character and identity of rural communities which our community prioritized in the MP:
Community Value #3 – Small Town Character & Identity – Although they may differ on how to define “small town character,” residents feel strongly that it’s a key part of Ridgway’s identity. This small town character is evident in the size of the community, the slower and more laid back pace of life, the unpaved streets, the surrounding ranch land and associated activities, the ability of residents to easily walk from one end of town to the other, and the many activities and businesses that are geared toward locals. Although these characteristics are common among many small towns across Colorado, Ridgway stands out from other tourism-dependent communities as a town that relies on tourism to some degree—but retains its commitment to locals and still feels very much like a “real” community. 
Paved roads enable speeding.  I expressed concern to Town leadership recently regarding speeding traffic on the west end of Sherman/Hwy 62.  For a short time a speed indicator was present, which slowed traffic significantly.  Since it’s removal speeding is a regular occurrence on this end of Sherman/62.  The 25 mph speed limit sign for inbound traffic, after the crosswalk at Amelia is often overgrown with vegetation and not visible.  Few pedestrians use the sidewalks on this side of Town along Sherman.  Possibly due to speeding traffic concerns?  It remains an issue. Community members have suggestioned solutions to signage or law enforcement presence.  Community members have also expressed the same concerns on North Amelia.

  • What considerations have gone into the design of the Amelia Street Project that slow traffic?
  • Have design factors been considered that narrow the streets such as our downtown area?  

A 24’ wide street as I understand from the plan, may as well be a highway, as is Sherman Street, with little to no design factors to naturally slow traffic.  Does the budget include more infrastructure to mitigate speeding traffic such as additional law enforcement and more signage?
In ClosingI understand on Sept. 8, 2021 the Town adopted an Emergency Ordinace based on the unprecedented growth and development over the past twelve months, with numerous subdivisions, sketch plans, preliminary pats and planned unit developments being submitted for review by the Town Staff, Planning Commission and Town Council.  
Clearly these are unprecedented times that call for informed and dedicated leadership to maintain our Community Vision and Values.  Our Town and community  invested significant time and resources developing the current version of the Master Plan v.2019, which should guide development and decision making from Town leadership.  I urge you to consider the above points in your decisions for the ASIP and future improvements to our Town’s character, economically and environmentally sustainable future in steering your discussions.
I applaud the Town’s adoption of Resolution No. 21-06 supporting the June 2021 updates to the Colorado Communities for Climate Action Policy Statement.  I ask that you reference this commitment as well to inform and guide your decision making on future projects and now specifically the proposed Amelia Street Improvement project.

Thank you for your attention and stewardship of our unique, small rural community.

Angela Hawse

Resident of Ridgway for 20 years


An extremist candidate for Idaho governor has backing from one of Donald Trump’s most trusted advisers.

Ammon Bundy announces his candidacy for governor of Idaho on June 19, 2021 in Boise, Idaho.Nathan Howard/GettyFight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

Anti-government extremist Ammon Bundy, who is running for governor in Idaho, is celebrating an endorsement from longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone—a step that unites what might seem like disparate strands of the American right.

“He is a renowned infighter, a seasoned practitioner of hard-edge politics, a veteran strategist and a political fixer,” Bundy said in a statement Sunday. “Roger Stone understands clearly the threat freedom in this country faces and is confident that I will not compromise in securing liberty for the people of Idaho.”

Boosted by anti-maskers, Bundy is waging a long-shot bid to unseat Republican Idaho Gov. Brad Little, who is expected to seek reelection, with a “Keep Idaho IDAHO” slogan and pledges to take illegal actions like immediately banning all abortions and seizing all federal land in the state if elected. Bundy led the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and was involved in a 2014 showdown in Nevada pitting his father, Cliven Bundy, against agents from the Bureau of Land Management. Last year, he took part in an armed invasion of the Idaho state legislature related to COVID restrictions. But, as Stephanie Mecimer detailed in Mother Jones earlier this year, Bundy is also a seemingly earnest proponent of libertarian views. He had planned to join a Black Lives Matter protest in Boise last year, though it didn’t work out because he refused to wear a mask. And Bundy has damaged his own standing on the right by criticizing some of Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies—in 2018, he compared Trump to Hitler, and he has faulted January 6 rioters as “confused” and “Trump worshipping.” 

Stone, a self-styled dirty trickster, is not earnest. Stone is a liar. In 2019, he was convicted of five counts of making false statements to Congress about his efforts to act as go-between for the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks in 2016. He was also convicted of obstructing a congressional investigation and witness tampering. Trump pardoned Stone late last year, just as Stone was promoting Trump’s efforts to use lies and anti-democratic means to remain in power. Stone amplified Trump’s false claims about election fraud and mingledwith Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, including several who are now facingconspiracy charges for the January 6 attack. Stone also raised money for “security” for the January 6 protest and urged Trump backers to help stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s electoral win that day. “This is nothing less than an epic struggle for the future of this country between dark and light, between the godly and godless, between good and evil,” Stone said in a January 5 speech in Washington. “And we will win this fight or America will step off into a thousand years of darkness.” 

Stone is a hustler who currently earns a living by peddling his brand as a hard-edged Trump booster and libertine at various far-right conferences, where he calls Trump “the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.” Ammon Bundy, by contrast, offers himself as a true believer, a family-man, a Mormon devotee, and a committed ideologue who is willing to go to jail—or to cause the cancelation of his son’s football game by refusing to wear a mask. 

But as Mecimer notes, Bundy is “oblivious or indifferent” to the reality that he is enabling right-wing fans who do not share his scruples. Bundy practices nonviolent resistance. But he doesn’t always advocate that others follow suit. “I’m worried about violence not being used when it should be used,” he said. “Violence is not necessarily a bad thing when it’s used correctly.”

Betsy Gaines Quammen, author of American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, and Public Lands in the West, told Mencimer that Bundy has “tapped into a very angry group of people who, like him, think they’re victims. He told me very clearly, ‘I’m not the conspiracy theory guy, I’m not the QAnon guy.’ But what he is is this guy who is helping with cross-pollination. He’s got the militia people, the anti-vax people, the people who are pro-Trump no matter what—even though he isn’t. These are the guys that Ammon is inspiring.”

A pardoned felon and former adviser to a disgraced president endorsing a long-shot candidate in Idaho doesn’t matter much on its own. But Bundy is continuing to cross-pollinate, uniting with Stone—and the authoritarian Trumpism he has faulted in the past—in a far-right coalition that includes some of the most extreme elements in American politics. That’s more than a little scary.


Conservation groups say revised Bureau of Reclamation predictions are welcome realism showing Colorado needs to save water now

Michael Booth

Oct. 20, 2021

A pair of fisherman cast lines into the Gunnison River as it flows into the eastern edge of the shrinking Blue Mesa reservoir Monday September 6, 2021aerial photo. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

A new federal system for projecting Colorado River water flows in the next two years confirms dire news about drought draining the West’s key reservoirs, and increases pressure on Colorado to conserve water immediately to avoid future demands from down-river states, conservation groups say. 

The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s new system for projecting vital Colorado River flows in the next two years drops earlier, wetter years out of the historical reference, and gives more weight to two recent decades of drought. The regular October update this week shows water runoff into Lake Powell, the storage basin for four Upper Colorado Basin states, was only 32% of average for the 2021 water year, which runs from October to September. 

The new projections for the next two years show that even with federal officials draining portions of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to get more water to Lake Powell’s hydroelectric generating station, a moderate winter would leave the Colorado River in the same crisis a year from now. And a low-water scenario this coming winter season would drop Lake Powell well below the minimum level required to generate electricity by November 2022

In addition to federal officials trying to protect hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell, and at Lake Mead as the downstream water bank for the Lower Basin states, water compacts govern how much Colorado River water needs to go downstream for use by agriculture and cities. 

Colorado and the other Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico are required under interstate compacts to deliver 7.5 million acre feet of water a year into Lake Powell, in a 10-year rolling average. If enough bad water years ruin that average under the compact, Colorado must find water to send downriver to Nevada, Arizona and California — and 80% to 85% of Colorado’s available water is used for agriculture. The great majority of Upper Basin water originates from Colorado’s high country snowpack.

“We don’t have any more time to talk about it,” Matt Rice, co-chair of the Water for Colorado Coalition and Director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Programs, said after reviewing the latest Bureau of Reclamation update. 

Starting with the October update, the bureau begins the historical average calculations in 1991, instead of the 1981 cutoff used until now. The 1980s were much wetter in the Colorado River Basin, Rice said. 

“These projections are worse than they have been in the past, but they’re also more realistic,” Rice said. Many conservation groups find that a positive step despite the bad news, Rice added, because it increases pressure on state water officials, local water conservancy districts, agriculture interests, cities and environmentalists to work faster on solutions. 

At the same time, Rice said, the updated numbers should drive home the reality that there is 20% less water available now in the Colorado River than as recently as 2000. “There’s no more flexibility in the system, right? We’re looking over the edge of the cliff.”

Water conservation experts in Colorado have worked for years to avoid their worst-case scenario, which is a “call” or a sudden demand from federal managers to deliver more water for hydropower or to satisfy the compacts with the Lower Basin. Without advance planning, a call would force the state water engineer and local conservancy districts to cut irrigators’ water rights based only on the seniority of their water-use rights. 

While state and local officials have been working with nonprofits on conservation plans, there are legal tangles that could require new legislation, and seemingly endless ethical questions about which parts of the state would suffer the most water loss, said Sonja Chavez, director of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. 

Blue Mesa Reservoir in her region has been nearly drained by drought and by federal officials taking extra from Western reservoirs to solidify Lake Powell’s power pool. Blue Mesa is projected to soon be down to 27% full, Chavez said. Blue Mesa was 33% full in mid-September, according to Bureau of Reclamation records. 

State and private officials have cooperated to experiment with “demand-management” programs, where instead of buying agriculture land and its accompanying water rights outright, they buy the right to rent the water for a few years out of a decade. That rented water can be sent downstream in dry years, and in theory the restoration of water in other years should preserve the farm or ranch land while providing income for the farmer. 

But renting or buying of water rights on the scale to meet compact demands would require hundreds of millions of dollars, with no current pot of money to pull from, water experts say. Colorado officials have mentioned the possibility of using money from the infrastructure stimulus plan currently under debate by Congress, but it’s uncertain whether the bill will pass, and how much water-related money will be in it if it does.

“There are a lot of questions that really haven’t been resolved,” Chavez said. “Who are the cuts going to come from? How’s it going to be distributed equitably? Who’s going to shepherd that water?” 

Gunnison officials have also spent much time and energy to protect the sage grouse, a threatened species, Chavez noted. If a statewide demand management program sought across-the-board cuts, and “if we got rid of 10% of our wet meadows, how does that impact the bird?” she asked.

The largest amounts of water to be conserved are in agriculture, by far, but Front Range residents must be part of the statewide discussion about finding more water for the downstream Colorado River, Rice and Chavez said. 

“You’re not going to get as much out of a city compared to what is the amount of irrigation water diverted for agriculture,” Chavez said. “But there’s also agriculture on the Front Range that benefits from our transmountain diversions,” some of which are created and controlled by urban water departments. “That has to be part of the picture.”

San Juan Mountains 2020-21 WATER YEAR RECAP ~ The Land Desk




Happy (belated) Water Wonk New Year! Okay, maybe water wonks don’t get all tipsy and start reciting Western water law at midnight on Oct. 1, but it does mark the beginning of the new water year. That means we can all dump out those precipitation gauges and reset the snowpack statistics and hopefully put the past year behind us. But before we do, let’s take a look back at Water Year 2021 and the good, the bad, and the oh so ugly. 

Pretty much everyone west of the Continental Divide—as well as some to the east—will be happy to bid the past water year adieu. Streamflows across the region shrunk; fish died off; reservoir levels declined, taking hydropower generation down with them; irrigators watched their ditches run dry long before harvest time; the bathtub ring around Lake Powell grew to 160 feet high; wildfires raged with unprecedented intensity in northern California, Oregon, and Montana; and a Tier 1 shortage was called on the Colorado River for the first time ever, meaning some users will see cuts next year.

What strikes me most is that seven months ago, as winter turned to spring, the snowpack levels—i.e. the giant reservoir that feeds those depleted streams—did not foretell the dryness to come. Sure, the snow water equivalent was below average at most San Juan Mountain SNOTEL sites, but not disastrously so. The skiing was decent as long as you didn’t get hit by an avalanche and the high country remained blanketed in white into the spring—at least in Colorado. 

Columbus Basin is in Southwest Colorado’s La Plata Mountains, which seemed to repel storms last winter, making it one of the driest areas of the state. Other sites further north in the San Juans recorded snow levels as high as 85 percent of average and the Rio Grande headwaters to the east even saw above average snow levels.¹ One might have expected the rivers fed by that snowpack to run at 85 percent of average, as well. For the most part, they did not. 

It was as if the snow, instead of melting and running off down mountainsides and into reservoirs, just evaporated or soaked into the ground. And that’s pretty much what happened. “It didn’t feel like a low winter to me,” Darrin Parmenter, La Plata County director for the Colorado State University Extension Office, told me this spring. “It just didn’t run off. You have to recharge soil moisture. It has to go through that sponge before it gets to the water table. The Animas didn’t come up until we had our only rain.” 

What didn’t soak into the ground, which was parched due to the lack of a 2020 monsoon and two decades of aridification, wafted into the air via evapotranspiration and snow sublimation, phenomena enhanced by dry air, incessant spring winds, warming temperatures, and dust on the snow, which reduces albedo. That left less snowmelt to feed the rivers and reservoirs and left many farmers high and dry early in the growing season. 

Animas River flows as it runs through Durango, Colorado, for water year 2021, 2020, and median for the period of record (1896-2021). 

As you can see from the above graph, the Animas River was unusually low through the spring and early summer. It wasn’t until the monsoon arrived in full force in late July that it showed some signs of recovery. But even that wasn’t enough to replenish reservoirs, especially since the monsoon was not distributed equally across the West

And even though the rains were plentiful in some areas, so too were the above average temperatures, thus offsetting some of the rain gains. 

The result? Widespread drought conditions across most of the Western U.S., with a few exceptions. Over the last year, drought has intensified dramatically in California and the Northwest, while subsiding slightly in Colorado and Arizona. Nevertheless, only a few patches of land remain that aren’t in some stage of drought. 

The good news is we are going into the new water year with some new water: A storm just blanketed the San Juan Mountains with white, pushing the snow water equivalent up to two inches at the Molas Pass SNOTEL site. The bad news is, we are in a deep, dry hole left by 22 years of aridification. It will take a lot of big storms, all winter long, to get us out of it.



Illustration by Simon Roussin

~~~ LISTEN ~~~

Thomas McGuane reads.

Cary was out of likely places to cross. The five-strand ranch fence was on the county line, ran south, and would guide him to the canyon and the wild grasslands beyond. He could go all the way to Coal Mine Rim and a view dropping into the Boulder Valley. Due south he could see the national forest, the bare stones and burned tree stubs from the last big forest fire. After the fire, a priest who loved to hike had found nineteenth-century wolf traps chained to trees. The flames and smoke had towered forty thousand feet into the air, a firestorm containing its own weather, lightning aloft, smoke that could be seen on satellite in Wisconsin. The foreground was grassland but it had been heavily grazed. In the middle of this expanse, a stockade, where sheep were gathered at night to protect them from bears and coyotes, had collapsed. The homestead where Cary’s dad had grown up and where Cary himself had spent his earliest years was in a narrow canyon perpendicular to the prevailing winds, barely far enough below the snow line to be habitable. Around his waist, in a hastily purchased Walmart fanny pack, he carried his father’s ashes in the plastic urn issued by the funeral home, along with the cremation certificate that the airline required.

Once, these prairies had been full of life and hope. The signs were everywhere: abandoned homes, disused windmills, straggling remnants of apple orchards, the dry ditches of hand-dug irrigation projects, a cracked school bell, the piston from an old sheep-shearing engine. Where had everyone gone? It was a melancholy picture, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. Perhaps everyone had gone on to better things. Cary knew enough of the local families to know that things weren’t so bad; some had got decidedly more comfortable, while claiming glory from the struggles of their forebears. Where the first foothills broke toward the Yellowstone, a big new house had gone up. It had the quality of being in motion, as though it were headed somewhere. It had displaced a hired man’s shack, a windmill, a cattle scale, and had substituted hydrangeas and lawn.

Thomas McGuane on the American West.

After his father died, Cary had flown to Tampa and then driven north to the retirement community where his dad had ended his days in a condominium that had grown lonely in his widowhood. Cary sped through the Bible Belt, where “we the people” were urged to impeach Barack Obama. The billboards along this troubling highway offered a peculiar array of enticements: needlepoint prayers, alligator skulls, gravity deer feeders, pecan rolls, toffee. “All-nude bar with showers.” “Vasectomy reversal.” “Sinkhole remediation.” “Laser Lipo: Say goodbye to muffin tops and love handles!” “It’s a Small World. I know. I made it.—The Lord.” A car displayed a sign that said “I work to cruise” and a cartoon ocean liner running the full length of the rear window, with an out-of-scale sea captain waving from its bridge.

We the people.

Cary thought that his old man had had a pretty great American life. He’d lived on the homestead through grade school, attended a small Lutheran college in the Dakotas, flown a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk named Tumblin’ Dice in Vietnam, worked as an oil geologist all over the world, outlived his wife and their mostly happy marriage by less than a year, spent only ten days in hospice care, watching his songbird feeders and reading the Wall Street Journal while metastatic prostate cancer destroyed his bones. “Can’t rip and run like I used to,” he’d warned Cary on the phone. He’d died with his old cat, Faith, in his lap. He’d once said to Cary, “In real psychological terms, your life is half over at ten.” For him, ten had meant those homestead years, wolf traps in the barn, his dog, Chink, a .22 rifle, bum lambs to nurture, his uneducated parents, who spoke to him in a rural English he remembered with wry wonder: as an adult, he’d still sometimes referred to business disputes as “defugalties” or spoken of people being “in Dutch.” The old pilot had observed himself in his hospice bed, chuckled, and said, “First a rooster, then a feather duster.” His doctor had given him a self-administered morphine pump and shown him how to use it sparingly or on another setting: “If you put it there, you’ll go to sleep and you won’t wake up.” His warrior buddies at the retirement community had held a small service, with tequila shots and music on a homemade CD that finished with a loop of “The Letter,” which played until a carrier mechanic who’d serviced Tumblin’ Dice replaced it with “Taps.”

Cary didn’t spend long at the condo—long enough to meet the Realtor, long enough to pick up a few things, including photographs of himself up to sixteen. What an unattractive child I was, he thought. The rest were shots of aircraft, pilots, crews, flight decks. Judging by the framed pictures, his mother was forever twenty-two. He took his father’s Air Medal, which was missing the ribbon but had fascinated him as a child, with its angry eagle clasping lightning bolts. “That bird,” he’d called it. He put it in his pocket and patted the pocket. He took the black-and-white photograph of his great-grandfather’s corral, with the loading chute and the calf shed, and the distant log house. “We lived in the corral,” his father had joked. He’d told Cary plainly that he had grown up poor. He remembered his grandfather, who’d started the ranch, prying the dimes off his spurs to buy tobacco, sticking cotton in the screens to keep the flies out. The old fellow had spanked him only once, and it was for deliberately running over a chicken with a wheelbarrow. Cary’s great-grandfather was a cowboy, who moved through cattle like smoke, who could sew up a prolapsed cow in the dark with shoelaces and hog rings. His only child, Cary’s grandfather, had detested the place, had done almost no work, and had lost everything but the homestead to an insurance company. A tinkerer and a handyman, a tiny man with a red nose in a tilted ball cap, he ran the projector at the movie theatre in town. When Cary’s father was home from the war, he took him to see his grandfather up in the booth; Cary remembered the old man pulling the carbon rods out of the projector to light his cigarettes. An unpleasant geezer, he’d peered at Cary as though he couldn’t quite put his finger on the connection between them, and said, “Well, well, well.” Years later, his father said, as though shooing something away, “Dad was a failure, always flying off the handle. My mother ran away during the war to build ships. Never seen again, never in touch, had me and vamoosed. Dad used to look at me and talk to himself: ‘Can’t figger out why the little sumbitch is swarthy.’ Went broke trying to sell pressure cookers. Once left a town in Idaho in disguise. He told me it was plumb hard to be born on unlucky land.” In the projection booth, Cary’s grandfather said that he was busy and told Cary to get lost. Cary’s father stayed behind, and Cary heard him say, “Lord have mercy, Daddy. You’d give shit a bad name.”

Cary’s other grandfather, the glowing parent of Cary’s mother, a former Miss Arkansas—or a runner-up, depending on who was telling the story—was a lunatic entrepreneur named J. Lonn Griggs, who’d made a fortune selling swamp coolers, reconditioned tractors, and vitamins. Grandpa Griggs had long white hair like a preacher’s, and, according to Cary’s father, was as crooked as the back leg of a dog. He adored Cary and Cary adored him back.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~


The author discusses “Not Here You Don’t,” his story from the latest issue of the magazine.

By Deborah Treisman

October 11, 2021

In your story “Not Here You Don’t,” a man, Cary, takes his father’s ashes back to the ruins of the family’s old homestead in Montana and reflects on his family’s past: the original rancher was his great-grandfather; his grandfather lost the ranch and became an embittered small-town projectionist and salesman; his father got out by enlisting as a pilot in the Vietnam War. You live in Montana most of the time. Were you drawing on details from local history?

Thomas McGuane.
Photograph by Alberto Cristofari / Contrasto / Redux

Yes. The scenario is quite commonplace, I think. There’s always someone around with war experience. I used to have brothers-in-law who’d served in Vietnam. In the valley where I live, I recall there being veterans from at least three wars, maybe four, in a very small population, at the same time. This seems odd for a country that is almost always at war but hasn’t won one in seventy years.

The title of the story, which doesn’t actually appear in the story, is an idiom that indicates not belonging or not being allowed entrance. How does it tie into this story?

It’s a cipher for our dystopia, our detachment. The Carole King line often rings in my head: “Doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore?” It’s nobody’s fault; it’s impossible.

Cary encounters a local landowner who doesn’t want to allow him access to the land where his family used to live and then has his car towed. Why is it so important to the man to keep Cary out?

This is one type of landowner in a changing pattern. It is unlikely that he pays local taxes, votes, or raises children in Montana. Some of the state’s largest landowners are Texans. I’ve had a long romance with Montana, but it’s one I find harder to grasp every year. It used to be a state with a moderate government, where it was possible to wander around in a socially temperate atmosphere. Mike Mansfield exemplified those times. The place is now ruled by a far-right, intolerant state government, absentee owners, and anti-wildlife resource management. There’s an obsession with trespassing, though it’s not quite up to the standards of Texas, whose ideas about private property would look like mental illness anywhere else. Each Montanan may now kill ten wolves a year. Little attention is paid by state agencies to a steeply declining fish population. The reintroduction of buffalo is fought with irrational fears and hypocrisy. Summers are smoke filled. Guess why.

Cary doesn’t express a lot of emotion while carrying out his errand, but he is exhausted and paralyzed afterward, has trouble restarting his normal life. What causes that reaction?

I think he is stoic and habitually defers painful matters until he finds a better time to respond. His father is dead, his love life is uncertain, and he can’t quite figure out how he ended up working in a corporation, three jumps from an old agrarian world. He’s not nostalgic; he’s bewildered.

You trace the trajectory of several generations of this family: from the cowboy rancher, to the disaffected son, to the military pilot who becomes an oil geologist, to Cary, who works a corporate job, sees a therapist, and has a favorite breakfast spot. An all-American story?

It’s getting to be! Unfamiliar forces dislodge us, and we resort to defensive perimeters. Here in Montana, it might be four friends, two bars, the Carnegie library, and a place to fish. It’s the self-imposed isolation of people who no longer feel they understand their fellow-citizens.

Cary’s grandmother gave birth to his father and then “vamoosed,” never to be heard from again; Cary’s mother, a former Miss Arkansas, is prone to alcoholic despair; Cary has divorced his wife, and uses a bottle of vodka to get the hostess of his small-town B. and B. into bed. Why are the connections between women and the men of Cary’s family so fraught?

I grew up not far from a military base, where a world of rock-star fighter pilots, hot wives, and booze challenged the stability of many marriages. The vodka/hostess/bed episode is so gruesome it’s hard to think that either party got anything out of it that they wanted. More likely, they got something they’ll make sure they never get again. It’s what Ezra Pound called the eternal failure to achieve a lasting nirvana through “the twitching of three abdominal nerves.” A common discovery of the hookup generation is that loveless sex isn’t even fun. It’s desperate and looks funny.

There are the seeds here for an epic novel. Why compact it into just over three thousand words?

I hope that those words can do what a novel might have done. Maybe readers interested in my stories will remember them as they would remember a novel, with their own concordance of characters and unifying themes. The short story is a cruel little metier and a poor choice for anyone hoping to conceal his or her faults as a writer. Reading stories can make reading novels harder, when you encounter the wind blowing through their longueurs like a cold day in the Great Basin. Randall Jarrell’s reported definition of the novel as a “prose narrative of some length with something wrong with it” points to a capacity of the novel but not of the short story. In this, the short story is more like a play: a play with five dead minutes is a dead play.