I guess you could say the upper North Platte River in southern Wyoming is my home stream. It’s an easy couple of hours from the house, a river my family has long embraced as a refuge from the heat of the high plains in July and August, a place we fish in the summer and I hunt in the fall, a thread of emerald and sapphire in a landscape of gray and tan.
We’ve canoed all but the most technical reach between Colorado and Interstate 80, the trips embroidered with eagles and ospreys, mule deer and bighorn sheep, scuttling broods of mergansers, dippers, and the repeated anthem of yellow warblers in the willows and alders along the way. We’ve waded and swum, picnicked under the bluffs where the swallows nest or in the shade of an ancient cottonwood, drifted with the current in the long, lazy pools, rushed over the brown cobble bars on a transparent carpet of water, down the hurrying runs, over the blue-green holes where the big browns and rainbows cruise.
It begins in the snowfields of Colorado’s Never Summer Range, the Park Range, the Rabbit Ears Range, Wyoming’s Medicine Bows, and Sierra Madres, gathering its water from the high country snow as it makes its way through North Park and eventually into the broad sagebrush valley in southern Wyoming before encountering its first dam north of Interstate 80.
The U.S. Geological Survey keeps a meter at the border between the two states, in recognition of the old maxim that, in the West, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. Jealous irrigators in three states take a venal interest in every rise and fall in the river.
The other morning, I took it into my head that we should get out of town, so I accessed the online reports from the gauge, just to be sure there was enough river to float. Good thing I checked.
The gauge was running at 221 cubic feet per second, less than the 25th percentile of water for the date, less than a quarter of typical flow for this day in late July. Not even enough to get two lightly loaded canoes over the shallowest gravel bars. We’d missed our chance for floating this year— the river ran near flood stage through the month of May, then dropped precipitously through June and early July. If we’d been serious about canoeing, we should have done it sometime in those five weeks.
It’s easy to dismiss this as just another dry summer. The vagaries of weather and snowpack in the West are well known. But it seems to me that the window for enjoying the river has been steadily shrinking over the last thirty years, and that impression is bolstered by an increasing body of hard data.
Last winter, precipitation in the upper North Platte River basin was eighty-three percent of average, and, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, that’s the new normal— over the last twenty years, there have been only three with water content in the snowpack that edged over the long-term average. The reduced amount of water, combined with steadily increasing temperature, has brought an earlier, quicker melt and thirstier summers.
Which means no canoeing in July, August, or September, unless we want to get out and drag the boats. No fishing, unless we want to add to the stress the fish are already feeling because of high water temperature. It means a strong likelihood of wildfires up in the timber where the pine bark beetles have been enjoying the mild winters and devastating the forest. It means less forage for antelope and mule deer this fall and winter, which could easily affect the number of fawns born next spring.
These are some of the ways climate change touches me.
Of course, there are other consequences right here in the North Platte drainage— I don’t care much about them, but they’re matters of desperate concern for other people. Less runoff, combined with less summer rain, will put a strain on ranchers in the valley, whose livelihood depends, in large measure, on the amount of hay they can raise in a growing season that barely lasts four months. As they struggle to get a second cut off their hayfields, they’ll inevitably take more water out of the river at a time when neither the river nor its denizens can afford the loss. There’s a legal limit to how much they can take, which is already more than the river can stand, but since there’s seldom anybody watching, they can and do take more.
In spite of what western stockmen say, the collapse of the western cattle industry would hardly be noticed, even in the economies of the states that pay them such obeisance, but high up on the peaks that feed the North Platte, a much more consequential business is watching the change in snowpack with alarm.
According to a 2015 analysis published by Colorado Ski Country USA and Vail resorts, the ski industry contributes nearly $5 billion to the Colorado economy, and leaders of that industry are faced with sobering estimates of snow loss in the next thirty years. According to one study, Steamboat Ski Resort, the area nearest the headwaters of the North Platte, could lose three-fourths of its days with natural snow by 2050. The effects of such a change in the Colorado high country would ripple through the tourism industry, travel, real estate, construction, and insurance with devastating effect.
So I guess a lot of people care about the North Platte, one way or another. When my canoe drags on a gravel bar at Bennett Peak in July, you’d think the sound would be heard all the way to Denver. Even to Washington, D.C. The Colorado ski industry has at least given the problem some lip service, committing to raising “awareness of what climate change could do to the skiing and snowboarding experience,” to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and encouraging "others to address climate change.” That’s something, I suppose.
Slowly, painfully, electrical utilities in the region are moving away from coal as a primary fuel and beginning to embrace non-carbon alternatives, although their enthusiastic support for industrial-scale wind energy projects in remote areas is causing significant environmental problems of its own. I see a few more solar panels on the roofs of homes, a few more electric and hybrid vehicles in driveways.
It’s not as if the specter of climate change is completely ignored. It’s something we talk about at parties, a subject that rates a page or two in the official platforms of the political parties. We’re giving it a little thought.
And the North Platte is dying. The flowing soul of the central Rockies, wasting away to nothing.
As I sat looking at the numbers from the river gauge, an unexpected whisper from a favorite story came to mind— the words of Ebeneezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens’ old sinner, the miser who put profit ahead of every other blessing of life, in that moment when he contemplated his own mortality and knelt before the silent spirit of the future:
“Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they the shadows of things that May be, only? Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!’
The spirit did not answer. Was it because he was inclined to mercy? Or did he doubt the capacity of men to change?
I wonder ...