Most of the human-powered travelers I have met on this ride have been either riding the Great Divide bike route, or hiking the Continental Divide Trail. These are tough and committed adventurers who have chosen the hard ways to traverse the spine of North America. I have crossed the Divide several times on this trip. Our journeys are defined by watersheds.
Theoretically, water falling on one side goes out to the Pacific, the other to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. Water defines and delineates the West; where it is, when it flows, and in what volume is critical. Before Europeans came here the large scale engineering of Western waters was done by beavers.
Their insatiable desire to dam up creeks made most valleys into wetlands. Those wetlands were by far the most productive and diverse landscapes around. The water sitting in those wetlands soaked into the ground, feeding springs that run into rivers. That kept plentiful, clean, and cold water running even in the driest months. Snowmelt floods and the torrential monsoon rains of late summer were tamed in the fens and marshes, and that prevented erosion. Sediment that did get carried away was mostly deposited in the slow-moving wetland streams and built up rich soils. Over thousands of years these processes - engineered by beavers - literally reshaped whole landscapes. Wow.
But the beavers are mostly gone, trapped out for a 19th century fad of European felt hats (processed with mercury, which sickened the "mad hatters") Without required maintenance, the beaver dams fell. Cows came in and trampled the wetlands into submission. The broad wet places got channeled into single narrow streams with faster currents. That eroded deep grooves into the meadows, allowing the groundwater to run out. That left shallow-rooted water-loving plants with nothing to drink, so they dried up and blew away. Enter dryland specialist plants and weeds...
Pretty sad story so far! But in the last few decades some rogue ecologists, ranchers, and land managers have started to bring back the bucktoothed riverine rodents. Amy Chadwick, my friend and host in Livingston, MT, is the unofficial "Beaver Lady" of Montana. She restores watersheds with artfully managed beavers, along with heavy equipment. She gives workshops on beaver restoration across the region. Steve Kem, my friend and host in Durango, works in water issues with the Southern Ute Tribe. He's advocating for beaver restoration in the dry tribal lands below the San Juan mountains.
This all ties into climate adaptation, of course. The things beavers bring to watersheds are exactly what a warmer, drier West needs: Habitat for imperiled water-loving species. Rich soils that are protected from erosion. Holding the rain and snowmelt that comes on the landscape for longer. Colder, cleaner water in streams through the dry months. Fish and water birds. Despite some human-beaver problems, the case for bringing them back is strong.
Taking a step back, the human engineering of the West's water is in the middle of a climate-induced crisis. Reservoirs on the Colorado River system are ultra-low. Smaller dams upstream of the big Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams have been forced to release water to keep power flowing from Glen Canyon's turbines. Farmers in Arizona will have their irrigation water cut dramatically in 2022 because Hoover's Lake Mead is so low.
I rode by Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, CO. It was so low that the normally packed marina was empty and has been trying to move their anchors further out. The old Gunnison River bed is making an appearance on the upstream side, winding through dry muddy sediments. Blue Mesa is at 23% of its normal capacity after sending 36,000 acre-feet to Lake Powell. That will keep the lights on in Phoenix for a while this fall, but the long term outlook is bleak.
There are massive changes coming to this region. Hydrologists, ecologists, realistic agricultural producers, and certainly climate scientists have been on red alert for years. But the public generally seems oblivious, and unwilling to do much of anything that impedes profits, comforts, or old habits. We need to harness all the solutions available, including restoring beavers, the native water engineers who are oh-so-willing to get to work.
I've seen only a couple of beaver dams on this whole trip along the Divide. Hopefully before long, travelers through these landscapes will see beaver water-works everywhere, and will have to get their feet and wheels wet to get down the trail.