COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

Once upon a Crystal River

Near its headwaters, the Crystal River flows through the 1890s mining ghost town of Crystal City, elevation 9,000 feet, the place where I had the good fortune to spend many youthful summers exploring and fly-fishing its wild and rugged course, alone in glorious and utter solitude, while living with family in one of the few remaining original log cabins built by miners, and using wood-burning stoves, outhouses and no electricity.

Then and now, Crystal City may only be reached via a treacherous and dangerous four-wheel-drive road. The rivers, cliffs and high mountains surrounding Crystal conspire to sustain a remote paradise in the Rockies.

With rivulet headwaters beginning in the Rocky Mountains at more than 12,000 feet and running across a streambed of light-colored rocks, the Crystal River is one of the few remaining free-running tributaries to the Roaring Fork River (joining at Carbondale, near Aspen), which in turn is a tributary to the Colorado River, a major source of San Diego’s water supply.

Fifty-two years ago, in the early summer of 1960, when my 5-year-old toes first dipped into its rushing waters, the Crystal River was extremely cold, clear and beautiful. It was teeming with stunningly gorgeous native cutthroat trout.

Many times since, I’ve admired, walked in, fished, photographed and traveled up that narrow stream set in spectacular natural beauty at the base of rock slides, pine forests, aspen trees, willows and towering cliffs, some many hundreds of feet high. That river is in me; its minerals are literally part of my bones.

From time immemorial, the 40 miles of the Crystal River have been fed by Colorado’s powerful summer rains, enduring mountain glaciers and heavy winter snows falling upon high mountains, alpine meadows and forests within its 160-square-mile watershed.

Things are changing. With global warming producing powerful and expanding droughts across the United States and the rest of the planet, the Crystal River in Colorado has been rendered a haunting place that challenges the imagination: a relative trickle experiencing record low flows, a punishing harbinger starkly laying bare what global warming will take away forever.

This year, for the first time, I was forced to genuinely wonder: “What is the Crystal River without water?”

The answer: a gully, an assembly of rocks arranged to resist forces no longer playing upon them, a seeming jumble of rubble grown concrete gray where once was the dancing light of sun rippling over various sizes of emerald green, blue, white, rose, black, pearl and sand-colored stones.

When the water disappears, it will be unavailable for drinking, bathing, agriculture and recreation, and a mountain stream without water is a place where even the ghosts of fish no longer remain, where beavers cannot build a dam, where the water ouzel cannot dip beneath the currents, where plants cannot live and bears have few berries, moss dies, and the water's falls go silent. There is no substitute for a place where the wild things can live. Yet, this is what is to come from global warming, and more all the time.

But the droughts that are now growing and will continue to grow out of global warming are not just local affairs that attack numerous defenseless mountain streams. Rather, they are vast monsters reaching into the water and food supply of the world, rendering corn farms and cattle ranches into dust patches, driving people off their land, rearranging societies, and creating losses on a scale that only the Bible can describe or anticipate.

The simple word “drought” does not begin to conjure up the wide range of forfeiture that results when snow does not sit long, rain does not fall frequently, and the natural world is denied its due. Drought maps of the world for decades to come, given our current pattern of greenhouse gas releases, identify a large part of the currently arable land as practically useless. Imagine: Colorado ski resorts unable to make even artificial snow because it’s too warm, and a shallow, unnavigable Mississippi River.

Some may be able to store and pipe water, but the wild world lacks such choices and will not well survive the drier planet we are fashioning by our release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, among others, claim to be saving a patch of habitat by opposing or endlessly delaying large-scale wind, solar and transmission projects, but their delays and the resulting continuation of carbon dioxide emissions have overtaken one of my favorite rivers.

My enduring expectation has always been that the Crystal River will outlive me and be flowing continuously thousands of years after I’m gone. Now it’s within my view that it will, within my lifetime, shrink into an empty or intermittent stream and carry within its banks little but tears of regret.


Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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