As detailed in this week's cover story, "Pipe Dream," Fort Collins entrepreneur Aaron Million's plan to pump massive amounts of water from the Green River in southwestern Wyoming to the thirsty Front Range has garnered opposition from lots of sources. That includes Charlie Love, a colorful geology and anthropology professor at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs, Wyoming -- a guy who may know more than anybody about the source of the Green River.
When Love isn't busy living with New Guinea cannibals or erecting dinosaur displays on WWCC's campus, he's spent a lot of time over the past 25 years climbing around and flying over the glaciers that cling to the sides of the Wind River Mountain Range in western Wyoming, glaciers that feed the Green and several other major river systems.
And what Love says he and his WWCC colleagues have discovered about these glaciers is disturbing: "They are going extinct before our very eyes."
A photo of the terminus of Knife Point Glacier in 1985...
For example, Love and his colleagues found that one of those glaciers, called Knife Point Glacier, has melted down vertically about 300 feet since 1922. "We are dealing with thousands of acre-feet melting away," says Love, noting that the smaller the glaciers get, the faster they melt. That means there's less and less water to feed Wyoming rivers like the Green. "The Green River is going to have a
...compared to a photo from the same spot in 1990, where the glacier has melted out of the picture.
whole lot less water in it, especially in the months of August, September and October," says Love. "You don't have enough snow to rely on to keep the streams normal." He points to a U.S. Geological Survey graph of stream flows on the Green River below the Fontenelle Reservoir in Wyoming that show peak flood waters on the river dropping continually over a 20-year period.
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That could be bad news for Million, who wants to siphon up to 250,000 acre-feet of water from the river each year and sell it to water users in Colorado.
So what's causing the glacial die-off? It's likely not as simple as climate change, says Love. Delving into a century of weather records for communities near the Wind River Range, the professor discovered there's been a massive drop-off in snowfall in the region beginning in 1984, when the impacts of global warming were yet to be widely felt. Love speculates the culprit may be changes in oceanic currents, the atmospheric weather engines that can, with subtle variations, trigger wide-ranging environmental impacts."
It's an example of "living chaos theory," says Love - and that's just the sort of chaos that could prove disastrous for Million.