By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
For several years now, Charlie Craighead has been piecing together the complicated story of water in Wyoming.
As a society, he says, we cling relentlessly to a script of predictability, counting on rivers always running, trusting that lakes will always fill, believing that glacial melt will always yield late-summer boosts for irrigators, and counting on flows to forever be there when we need them.
But Craighead says the arid inland West is a region dwelling in deep denial.
The award-winning Jackson Hole filmmaker recently shared details of many conversations he’s had with scientists in his quest to amass an accurate outlook for water in his home state, but what he’s found has implications for Montana, too.
One of the experts he interviewed is Bryan Shuman, professor/researcher in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Geology and Geophysics.
Shuman’s specialty is paleohydrology, paleoclimatology and paleoecology. In simple terms, he studies how the availability of water shaped earlier human cultures and the landscapes they inhabited.
The quick take-home message should come as no surprise: Whenever water became scarce, the ability of a place to sustain people went down.
As part of Craighead’s long-awaited documentary, “Diversion,” Shuman shared insights gleaned from lake bed soil cores.
Since the end of the last Ice Age, Wyoming and the High Plains experienced a number of extended super-droughts in which appreciable precipitation failed to arrive for decades or longer. The Platte River, as just one example, stopped running and lakes either dried up or had no outflows. Impacts on human communities were likely severe.
Now climate is changing again and at a rate faster than normal variability, evidenced by rapidly shrinking glaciers in the Wind River Range, earlier runoff, rising average temperatures, low stream levels and outbreaks of wildfires. Is the past a harbinger?
Craighead offered a sneak preview of the many fascinating topics “Diversion” probes, including the fact that more than 90 percent of the water in the Upper Snake River drainage belongs to downstream users, namely farmers, in Idaho.
Another issue: much of the in-stream flows that irrigators return to rivers in Wyoming is responsible for creating wetlands important to wildlife.
And in Greater Yellowstone, we’re witnessing legendary glaciers literally disappear.
“I looked [at] a lot of old photographs and films of the mountains and I spoke with Craig Thompson [recently retired professor at Western Wyoming Community College] who is studying glaciers in the Winds. They’re vanishing with phenomenal speed,” Craighead said, noting that to be called a glacier an ice field must be at least 25 acres in size. They’re increasingly rare.
“Many glaciers in the Winds, Tetons and Absaroka-Beartooths are already gone,” he said, pointing out that every single expert he interviewed affirms that hydrological cycles are dramatically shifting.
Craighead says “Diversion” isn’t intended to be a political film. As the son and nephew of famous grizzly researchers and advocates of the federal Wild and Scenic River Act, he believes in the value of gathering empirical facts.
Wyoming and her immediate neighboring states must come to grips with tough questions, particularly in the face of those pushing to build more dams and reservoirs, and the threats posed by more populous states seeking to import water from our region to deal with their own challenges of scarcity.
“What I hope people bring when they see the film is an open mind about water. The same goes for climate change, which has been a touchy subject in Wyoming because of its economic dependence on coal and fossil fuels,” he said.
“Diversion,” an abbreviated version of which already won a grand prize in the Wyoming Short Film Contest, could be an important catalyst for educating the public. “If you ask most people they really have no idea where their water comes from,” he says.
Craighead hopes to have his documentary out early this summer with possible airing on Wyoming and Montana PBS later, but first he needs financial help to complete the final phase of professional editing and production.
He’s raising money via Kickstarter and you can help; heaven knows the West needs to have serious adult conversations about the future of our most important resource.
Let’s help Craighead put this important story into circulation. Visit kickstarter.com/projects/2057570919/diversion-the-clim ate-of-western-water for more information.
Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. Living in Bozeman, he is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone Grizzly 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen. The book is only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.