The Dam Problem in the West

I am paddling through the silt of the Green River, the largest, most remote, and least developed tributary of the Colorado River, which brings water to nearly 40 million people across the western United States. It’s crucial, it’s overused, and it’s at risk.

The Green starts in the glaciated high alpine of Wyoming’s Wind River Range, then winds through hundreds of miles of sagebrush flats, scrubby plains, tight gorges, and empty gas lands to the red rock desert of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, where it meets up with the main stem of the Colorado. All signs of western development—from coal to cattle to cities—surround the river. As population swells in cities like Denver and Salt Lake, and as climate change shrinks stream flow, the question of how the water in this river is used and how far it can be stretched is becoming more urgent.

Like nearly all water sources in the western U.S., it’s been dammed up, spread thin, and abused. Drought has wracked most of the western half of the U.S. since the beginning of the 21st century, draining reservoirs and depleting aquifers. Water is mired in the future of the climate, it’s tied to the physical, political, and economic divide between urban areas and rural ones, and it’s crucial to the debate about future energy sources. And more than anything, it’s indispensable. More than oil. More than food.

river rafter: Environmental journalist Heather Hansman paddled a one-person inflatable pack raft down the length of the Green River to get a firsthand look at the challenges it faces. Fights over the river’s water are longstanding, intractable, and only getting worse as the West gets hotter and drier and more people depend on the river with each passing year.Courtesy of the author

I’m paddling downstream into the pooled up water of Fontenelle Reservoir, formed by the first dam on the river, one of two major storage sites on the Green. My pack raft is about as long as I am tall. I paddle it with an

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