Jerry Frank on researching the history of water and recreation in the American West

By Jerry Frank
Beach Buoys

In July of this year I nosed my car into a parking space at Ridgeway Reservoir in western Colorado. Even though the reservoir sits at nearly 7,000 feet the summer heat was stifling. The sun—at its highpoint for the day—intensified the aroma of juniper, sagebrush, and pinon pine that encircle the 1000 acre impoundment. 

It’s always nice to be home, but I was unsettled by what I saw. Below my vehicle there was a sizable spit of sand. On each side of this “beach,” running more than one hundred yards to the water’s edge, were two strings of bright orange buoys that used to demark the swimming area. The buoys, it turns out, have something important to say about the past and future of American West. Signs that once welcomed swimmers into the cool waters of the reservoir now read “NO ACTIVE DIVING, SWIMMING, OR IMMERSION.” For now at least, this beach is no more. There simply isn’t enough water.

Across the West the summer of 2018 was especially hot and dry. To be clear, drought and aridity are nothing new to this part of the world. For more than a century a good deal of engineering and money have been dedicated to overcoming this fact. Such efforts have made possible the American West we know today; a region studded with grand reservoirs like Powell and Mead and massive urban oases like Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. To millions of people, these cities and waterworks are the American West. These monuments of human ingenuity are as natural as Long’s Peak or the snow on Grand Mesa. But the artifice is beginning to crack.

Reservoirs like Ridgeway, which the US Bureau of Reclamation completed in 1987, were part of a nearly century-long building initiative intended to create massive water “banks” to sustain economic growth. As long as the region stayed sufficiently wet, as long as winter snow fell in sufficient amounts to refill the reservoirs each year, and as long as demand stayed consistently below availability, the system more or less functioned as it should and growth begat growth.  

But things are changing. The frequency, duration, and severity of droughts are increasing at the same time that demand for water—for agriculture, industry, energy development, household use, and recreation—are intensifying. In other words, there are more people needing and wanting western water but less and less of it to go around.

I spent a good deal of my summer snooping around archives in Denver and traveling to places like Ridgeway to meet with those who manage western water resources. I am interested in the history of recreation and water in the American West. Water-based recreation—it turns out—is a key element of the region’s history generating billions of dollars in economic activity each year. As water-based recreation has grown over the past century it has challenged and shaped wester water law, spurred economic growth, and driven ecological change at places like Ridgeway. By investigating the history of water and recreation in the West I hope to not only better understand how the region got to where it is relative to its most precious resource, but to also point a way toward a more sustainable future.

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