Green Horizon Magazine

Toward Regenerating the Colorado River Basin

September 18th, 2023  |  Published in Stronger Communities

By Benji Ross of Bioregional Catalysts

Barichara, Colombia … May, 2023

As I write this, Joe Brewer, Penny Heiple, and myself are still in Colombia. It’s early morning and any hint of the day’s first light is maybe an hour away. The small open-air atrium in the middle of the house where I’m writing is casting a beacon to bugs into the dark sky above. That light just lured something big, some kind of wasp with a red abdomen and it’s now in the kitchen crashing around. Meanwhile, I just heard a gecko chirp. It’s clear we’re a continent away from Colorado!

Two days ago, we walked down to the Barichara River to collect water in a small glass bottle. Like the Colorado River, the Barichara is used and abused. The volume of flow is shockingly low for the amount of land it drains, despite the fact that the rains have been coming. Just downstream from where we filled the bottle, untreated sewage is dumped into the flow before the brown water falls majestically several hundred meters off of the band of cliffs that give Barichara its high perch over the wider landscape. Our poor rivers . . .

This small amount of the Barichara that we’ve collected will be coming along with us on our journey down the Colorado. Next week we’ll set off in a rented minivan to first visit several of its headwaters. We’ll have with us a second bottle for collecting some Colorado River water in the shadows of mountain peaks from recently melted snow. We’ll start at the official headwaters near Granby, then onto the Roaring Fork and Crystal Rivers near Carbondale, the North Fork of the Gunnison River near Paonia, and the Dolores River near Cortez.

We will also meet with people who call these headwaters home. Some are already our friends, others we will be meeting for the first time. From these mountain people, we will accept gifts to represent the high country landscapes, gifts to share with the people of the river’s delta when we arrive there.

The two bottles of river water will carry profound stories—one of connecting North and South America through a communion of two degraded river systems. The second bottle will carry the dream of regenerating the Colorado River Basin by bringing waters from the Rocky Mountains to the sea where the river no longer flows on its own. We want to move through the basin and feel the river as a living being and ask how we can serve all of life living within its basin as a coherent whole. How can the people of these landscapes come together to awaken this dream? How can we weave nested sets of relationships as we travel to enliven this audacious story, to open up a new sense of possibility? Our role will be to serve as messengers, storytellers, and to bring what we learn to other regions, because the Earth is made of many regions that want to come to life in new and old ways.

The Potency of the Sub-Continental Scale

Intending to birth a narrative at this scale is, as I said, audacious. But it isn’t something we’ve conjured out of nowhere. It’s an idea that is deeply informed by our experiences. An essential pattern of planetary regeneration is weaving together stories, relationships, collaborations, and capacities at nested scales. This is how the Earth is patterned—and emerging bioregional and regenerative human cultures must map and structure themselves onto that reality.

Think about a river system: It starts with small tributaries in higher elevations; and, like the branches of a tree, those tributaries converge into ever larger flows of water. Then, when looking at a river basin as a whole, there are countless geological, ecological, and climatic patterns of connectivity that interlink that basin into relationship with other neighboring landscapes and their functions, resulting in larger scales of connectivity, up to continents and beyond. That is how the world comes together into nested wholes. Now it’s our task to find ways that humans can develop place-based cultures that recognize and embody this reality. It is the only way that we’ll develop the coherence to become planetary stewards.

How might all of this unfold? That’s what we’re exploring. It was a happy accident in our early Bioregional Activation tours that we discovered a certain potency in neighboring communities stepping in parallel into the narrative of regeneration and its developmental process. By doing so, there’s support, validation, mutual learning, sharing of resources, and sharing of meaning that emerges. When we first started to collaborate with community leaders in two tributaries of the Colorado River, the North Fork of the Gunnison and the Roaring Fork, we could feel a greater coherence when they came together. These two landscapes share a relationship with the Elk and West Elk Mountain Ranges that hold the life-giving snowpack that melts and keeps waters flowing throughout the year. By seeing both bioregions together, we could better see the Elks. Through perceiving the larger system the importance of connectivity becomes clear and the story of bioregional regeneration feels more pragmatic.

Early on in our conversations with these community leaders, we became aware of the impulse to connect to something larger, to something that could bring an ever-greater sense of identity and purpose: the entirety of the Colorado River Basin. Focusing on local places and local landscape functions sometimes can limit people’s sense of possibility. There seems to be something about focusing on bioregional scales that can ignite it. It was in the first days of being in the North Fork of the Gunnison River that one community leader suggested we all begin organizing towards a Colorado River Basin Summit. A few months later that idea had migrated over the mountain pass into the Roaring Fork Valley and it was presented again, with the person unaware that it had been suggested in Paonia months prior.

The impulse to organize at sub-continental scales is undeniable. There’s something about communities across the entire Colorado River Basin coming together into the narrative of bioregional regeneration that makes all of this feel more real. There is potency in it. The dream somehow comes to life.

It’s not just in the Colorado River Basin where this scale has resulted in greater coherence and possibility. It is the same for the Great Lakes Basin where community leaders from Buffalo, Toronto, Rochester, and Cleveland are coming together to initiate a larger regional project of regeneration. This seems to bring a significant amount of energy to more local efforts. It’s the same in Cascadia, where a synergy is clearly being felt by organizing together across many watersheds.

In a matter of days we will set off across the Colorado River Basin, following a sacred river that has brought life-giving water to human communities in dry lands for thousands of years. We intend to be in service to all of its people who are hearing and seeing the pain in their local landscapes. We will be asking: What might be possible by lifting up a shared narrative of regenerating the river basin? What will this journey teach us that can be shared with everyone aspiring toward planetary regeneration the world over? … #RegenerateTheColorado

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