The Environmental Effects of the Growing CO Population

Raeanne Johnson & Rose Dreisbach

Three hundred and seventeen. That’s approximately how many gallons of water the average Coloradan uses in just three days according to the USGS Water Science School. It’s the average cost of only five days of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Denver as reported by Trulia. And it’s the name of the bear that was put down in October 2015 that Daily Camera reported had roamed too closely too many times into Boulder county. What do all these have in common? The increasing population growth in Colorado. With the numbers of people relocating to the area, our already maxed out water supplies will begin to run dry, housing prices and living costs will skyrocket, and urban sprawl will take over more land that was once natural habitats, confusing and displacing wild animals. Our environment, from natural resources to the fragile ecosystem and infrastructure, is showing signs of the negative effects of the expanding populace.

With Denver and Colorado Springs in the US News list of top five best places to live in America in 2016, it’s no wonder the masses are flocking to our great state. US News reported that two million people would be added to Colorado’s population by 2040, catapulting it far past seven million residents. Job prospects and quality of life are only second to Colorado’s stunning scenery and weather, up and coming restaurant and entertainment scene and natural playground for outdoor enthusiasts that are drawing so many to the west. But at what cost? The growth is already taking its toll. From declining water sources to forest degradation, national park vandalism to escalating traffic conditions and pollution, it’s clear we have a problem on our hands.

Take a look outside at the snow capped mountains breaking through the brilliant sun over the western horizon. With over 300 sunny days to relish in every year, is it possible that we’re taking for granted the natural resources so readily available for our use? Water, forests, trails, wildlife and farmland are feeling the affects of our booming population, and their integrity is at stake. With more people come more thirsty mouths, additional housing needs, longer traffic jams and intensifying pollution.

Every time you flush the toilet, wash dishes, throw in a load of laundry or turn on the sprinklers, water is siphoned from the Colorado River, Blue River, South Platte River, and streams of snow melt that flow west according to The Denver Post. It doesn’t come straight to your home though. Remember those breathtaking mountaintops you were just admiring? With 80 percent of Colorado’s population in the Front Range area according to 5280 Magazine, our water has to be carried over the mountains to reach us, expending an enormous amount of energy to move the water up and over the continental divide. The process of water getting to your home gets even more complicated. Denver Water transfers water from storage reservoirs and runs it through an intensive treatment and filtration system. Once the pH levels of the water are tested, it’s transported through piping to your home. With the increased demand for water, 5280 Magazine reports that we’ve already depleted our supply.

“Water and agriculture are critical for the rural economy to flourish,” reports Colorado’s own Governor John Hickenlooper to the Negative Population Growth. “Unlike many other states, and even some nations, we have the potential in Colorado to provide a sustainable food supply that is local and not imported. That’s an asset we need to recognize and support.” Unfortunately the strained demand for water is causing farmers to cave under the pressure and sell their water rights to growing urban communities. In turn, this renders the land ineffective for farming. When developers come and buy them out, they create further urban sprawl and encourage the cycle to start again. According to the Denver Post, 191,000 acre-feet of water has transferred from farmers to suburbs in the last twenty-five years, meaning farmers most lucrative crop has effectively changed from food to houses.

While farmlands are selling out to water suppliers and land developers, the recent upsurge of marijuana grow sites since the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado is also disturbing our environment. A thirsty plant, marijuana requires enormous amounts of water, and to meet the needs of the demanding market, many growers resort to using toxic chemicals and enormous amounts of energy to increase their production. “These million-dollar growers up here are using millions of gallons of water,” marijuana grower Chuck Lyon reported to Weed Rush News. “They’re pumping directly out of the river. They’re pumping directly out of the springs.” The local wildlife, soil, and plant life are harmed as well, often in lethal ways, with grow sites spewing pesticides, herbicides, and rodenticides, and leaving behind excessive trash and non-biodegradable waste. What Colorado may be gaining from the marijuana industry, it’s losing by the damage being done to our fragile ecosystem.

So everything comes down to water, right? Not necessarily. The condition of the forests and mountains directly influence water sources and effectively, the population. If able to respond positively to climate change, disease, drought, and human destruction, our forests and mountains can keep the eco system in balance, and are just as important as preserving our water. The systems of natural resources are very complex and understanding and respecting them is the most effective way to maintain their integrity.

Mary Grace Stocker, a Colorado resident of three years and outdoor enthusiast, has noticed significant overcrowding in national parks, on the ski slopes, and traffic on the highways heading into the mountains. “I’ve seen instances of overcrowding where I was disgusted with the fact of skiing amongst so many people,” she says. An avid climber and skier, Stocker started backcountry skiing to enjoy the mountains without the crowds, after a frightening accident on the busy slopes where another skier ran her over in the mob trying to get down the mountain. Stocker has also noticed fellow hikers disrespecting the parks and trails, recklessly veering off the path and leaving trash in their wake. “It’s good for people to get outside, but they need to do so responsibly.” Colorado boasts its vast and accessible options for outdoor recreation, a huge draw for those relocating, but the state of these resources is based on effective stewardship of them. With 90 percent of Coloradans engaging annually in outdoor recreation, national and state parks, ski slopes, trails and fourteeners are all exhibiting negative effects due to the population growth according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a Denver based non-profit, recently put together a report card for trails on 14,000-foot summits, an analysis of trail conditions and sustainability, finding that excessive use is contributing to erosion and disrupting trails and surrounding habitats. They estimated that $24 million would be needed to repair forty-two of the fourteeners, with $5 million set aside for the five peaks nearest Denver that Lloyd Athearn, the executive director of Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, describes as “the crown jewels, the iconic backdrop, of Colorado.”

Fourteeners are not the only ones feeling the affects. With the overuse of trails, soil, vegetation and natural objects, habitats are at risk. Recent reports show that vandalism in parks is becoming progressively more common as well. In 2014, Casey Nocket gained overnight fame for posting photos to Instagram of graffiti she had done on famous national park landmarks according to Grind TV. While widely reported, unfortunately this was not a one-off occurrence. National Parks have seen a rise in vandalism over the past few years, with the ease of social media enabling widespread attention of these crimes. Utah, California, Arizona, and Nevada join Colorado in fighting vandalism of natural monuments and trails within parks, seeking to preserve these irreplaceable treasures. With tax dollars helping keep the parks alive for future generations, it’s wasteful to see those dollars being put toward removing graffiti and repairing vandalism.

While each person needs a place to live, a place to work and a way to get to work, those structures and roads are slowly eating away at land that was once a natural habitat and home to precious wildlife. The survival of wildlife is directly impacted by the condition of their natural habitats, which is why the Colorado Wildlife Habitat Protection Program works with local landowners, governments, and organizations to protect wildlife. They have identified energy development, encroachment of non-native vegetation, irrigation return, and groundwater depletion as some of the top factors that are severely impacting river and stream basin habitats. As cities along the Front Range are growing, affecting wildlife and disturbing natural habitats, it’s not surprising that human encounters with wildlife are increasing. Colorado Parks and Wildlife recorded 2015 as the most active bear season possibly ever recorded in the Front Range, with approximately 250 calls on bear activity in Boulder alone.