FEATURE: Craighead’s Water World

By on September 1, 2015

As the West dries up, one man is focusing on Wyoming’s most precious resource

A 10-year-old Charlie Craighead contemplates water in Yellowstone.

A 10-year-old Charlie Craighead contemplates water in Yellowstone.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Water. It sprung forth through the foundation of time, ebbed and flowed through the ages and became the wellspring of life, the creator of civilizations. Today, it is our most important gauge to understanding the delicate and sometimes-brutal impacts we have on the environment.

It’s no longer an opinion that climate change has arrived in the Tetons. In fact, a multi organizational study released this year entitled, “The Coming Climate: Ecological and Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Teton County” suggests that climate change will continue to produce environmental impacts in the region.

The study points to “shorter winter seasons with earlier spring snow melt and later fall freezes, more precipitation falling as rain, particularly at lower elevations, a shallower and less consistent snowpack and a loss of revenue due to lost recreational opportunities.”

Colorado produced a similar report in 2014 and this week President Obama headed to Alaska to illuminate climate change’s impacts on glaciers, melting permafrost and rising sea levels.

“No matter what we do, things are going to change,” said Charlie Craighead, a Jackson filmmaker and conservationist who is hoping that valley residents will begin to feel the same urgency when it comes to climate change. “My personal belief, based on [information from] people I have interviewed, is that we have started the ball rolling and now it’s a question of whether we can correct it or get out of the system ourselves to let it go back to where it should be. My fear is that it is not just a question of weather patterns, but [the climate] has gone beyond the point where there won’t be ‘normal’ for a long time. But then that normal will be very difficult and very different from what we know it as today.”

Water, Craighead said, is key to understanding environmental impacts. Whether it’s in the melting Teton glaciers or the reduced snowpack, water is the thermometer of climate change.

“When you look at someone who turns the water faucet off when they brush their teeth or takes a two-minute shower, that’s a good practice,” he said. “But we’re at a point now where people need to get involved on state and national levels and voice their opinions about environmental issues. Part of the issues we have in Wyoming is our small population, the prominent Western values, the cowboy rancher who stays on the positive side of things and thinks, ‘we can get through this, next year will be better,’ but that is kind of like being Denver Broncs fans — ‘there’s always next year.’”

The water’s master

Craighead grew up on the edge of Grand Teton National Park, born into a family of famed conservationists and scientists — folks who helped draft and pass such legislation as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and family members who pioneered work to protect grizzly bear populations in the Greater Yellowstone Region.

Craighead said his passion for wet places is partly genetic. His ancestors swam in the ocean off the coast of Scotland. His father and uncle swam and boated the Potomac in D.C. And Craighead himself spent summers swimming in irrigation ditches and fly-fishing local waterways before joining his grandfather in the Everglades for conservation work and study.

He studied wildlife biology and earned a bachelor’s degree — but it was filmmaking that moved him. Working on projects for NOVA and National Geographic, Craighead found a larger outlet to tell stories about the wild places in the West. Currently, he’s working on a new film entitled, “Til the Well Runs Dry.”

“Like everybody in Jackson, I have a multitude of projects I’m working on,” Craighead laughed. “The water film was something I started a number of years ago and I wanted to do a film celebrating water. Then I started looking at the rest of the state and realized that it was not as simple as celebrating water. There were some big issues across the state and the project just kind of snowballed. It got so complicated that I was about to give up. And then I won the award.”

Craighead received a $25,000 prize from the Wyoming Short Film Contest in 2014. He has since partnered with the Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming.

He admits the film has changed directions since 2014. Once an upbeat piece on the headwaters born in the Rockies, Craighead has shifted his focus as he set out into Wyoming to learn about water, climate change and environmental impacts.

“In trying to find a different look and approach to water, I’ve been looking at the science of water and focusing more on that,” he said. “I grew up in a family of scientists, and I trust [science]. When I’m on the ground doing the work I have come to realize how detailed the work is. And there are no politics involved. These are just the facts of what is happening. It’s kind of difficult to make conclusions in a state where the policy and the facts don’t always agree.”

Many in Wyoming view water as an unlimited resource. As a result, there is relatively little public interest in addressing fundamental problems related to the state’s water supply. What is not commonly known is that water resources, as managed by a variety of compacts and decrees, are in many cases fully allocated.

Charlie Craighead in his office. (Photo: Lisa Rullman)

Charlie Craighead in his office. (Photo: Lisa Rullman)

While Craighead said the big rivers such as the Hoback, the Snake and the Yellowstone Rivers are “all in pretty good health,” impacts like the one being considered by the Wyoming Department of Equality could alter water flowing from the headwaters.

The Wyoming DEQ is taking public comment on Sept. 16 in Casper to consider increasing current E.Coli levels to five times of what they are now in mountain streams in Wyoming. One such reason for the change the department is seeking, Craighead said, is that a lot of those upper-mountain streams that ranchers use in association with grazing rights are drying up, thus forcing ranchers to use lower streams and water sources.  And in basins other than the Wyoming River Basin, where additional water may be legally available, drought often leaves water users with actual “wet water” supplies that fall far short of demand.

What’s more an overwhelming body of research now shows that a few degrees of warming could result in major water shortages for many areas in the West. There are already some real scenarios where a lack of water could lead to major changes in the way residents live and make a living in Wyoming.

Craighead’s film is intended to spur discussions toward robust water management solutions among resource managers, scientists, decision makers and the public on the critical subject of Western water resources and how best to use and maintain this finite resource.

Water’s ways

As a headwater state, Wyoming provides water to rapidly growing populations downstream from four major U.S. river systems. Climate change, a new factor in the Western water equation, is unfolding in many different ways — there simply isn’t one way to define or pinpoint the “problem.”

However, for those who live on the Yellowstone plateau, which includes the Teton region, environmental impacts may not seem as significant compared to places downstream that rely on a system that has timely snow cycles, Craighead said. This region of Wyoming will continue to stay relatively cooler than the rest of the changing state and nation for that matter — even when there are changes each ski season.

This makes it all the more difficult to convince the state and its people that climate change is not just a theory, but a matter of scientific fact (and Wyoming just recently passed legislation this spring allowing climate change to be taught as science in public schools). Because recent snowpacks are 20 percent below average and some of the Tetons’ glaciers have been reduced to melting ice fields, Craighead said it’s important that the Jackson community engage in the conversation of climate change not only on the local level, but also on the state and national level.

“We take water for granted,” he said. “When you look at the West, it really hits home how precious it is and how fragile it is as a resource. And so vulnerable to change. There are a lot of influential people in this valley and some of them are on board that there is something going on, but many are thoroughly blinded.”

Too often associated with weather, climate change is the overall shift in temperature that effects weather and ultimately, once predicable water patterns, such as the snow pack.

“It doesn’t help when Gov. Mead is making a joke about climate change as he’s flying into Jackson during a snow storm,” Craighead said. “Water is the thermal regulator of the planet, it’s absorbing heat — it is what controls the temperature of the planet. It’s adjusting and readjusting. When you see a big snowstorm in Oklahoma, that’s the oceans absorbing the heat. There is still plenty of cold air to go around, but it’s getting pushed out of normal patterns. Permafrost is melting up north and the packed ice is unprecedentedly melting early and not freezing at all.”

The weather is more extreme, “partly because for so long we were in a pattern where the ocean temperatures were predicable,” Craighead said. “There were warm areas and cold areas and the water that came off the oceans was predicable. But then a fisherman, years ago in the Arctic, north of the Aleutian Islands, caught a swordfish — a tropic fish! We’re going to see more things like that.”

As for Wyoming, almost 85 percent of water is used for agricultural purposes while so much more is evaporated off reservoirs.

“The climate change increases the evaporation and all that irrigation, it just compounds itself,” Craighead said. “We have such a narrow window when it’s actually water. Part of the problem is you can’t point to one thing — agricultural, mining — there are so many factors affecting water. That’s why I keep going back to the science — the story keeps changing.”

Jackson Lake drained...all the water went to Idaho.

Jackson Lake drained…all the water went to Idaho.

Finding hope

While Wyoming citizens want things to remain the same, predicable and calm, the reality is that change in the Tetons sends big ripples through the rest of the state and to everyone downstream who relies on the headwater’s snowpacks and waterways. Sorting through research and studies and relying on science is key to understanding impacts, according to Craighead.

“My sense is that we’re still in the middle of trying to figure out what’s happening,” Craighead said. “Past computer modeling has shown that the Greater Yellowstone plateau, including Teton County, will be a refugee in a warming climate, but new research also shows that higher elevations are changing at a faster rate than lower areas. The loss of glaciers is having a huge impact on wetlands as late season streamflow dries up.”

While the rest of Wyoming doesn’t get much water from Teton County, the state of Idaho owns 96 percent of the water flowing into the Snake River. The state has such a wide range of topography that some areas, like the southeast corner, could dry up while our northwest corner gets wetter, Craighead said.

“I think the key is temperature, and the future of our snowpack,” he said. “I think Wyoming gets something like 75 percent of its water from 7 percent of its land — the Bighorns, the Winds, etc. A few degrees of warming, and current models show anywhere from two to six degrees of warming by 2050, and much of that precipitation will come as rain instead of snow. That takes the whole system of dams and reservoirs out of the equation.”

So, how do you prepare for change when change itself is the future?

“Wyoming has plenty of water now, and probably will in the future unless political changes occur, mainly in re-negotiating some of the water compacts we have with downstream states. Some see that as unlikely, others as inevitable. Much of western water law is based on Wyoming’s water rights laws, but that could change.

“The other thing that could happen is called ‘trans-basin diversion,’ where water is diverted from one watershed to another. There are numerous examples of this in the state, and proposals for others. An example that would affect Teton County, and it would take a real crisis to initiate this, is the pumping of water from northern Teton County over the divide to flow into the Wind River,” Craighead said.

Craighead said that Teton County should “batten our environmental hatches.”

“We should be strengthening our conservation laws and not weakening them,” he said. “We have the best chance of some kind of stability if we do more to keep things as they are, be happy with what we have, and let our landscape try to adapt.”

“We are going to have change and in some places that change will have to be significant,” Craighead said. “In places like here, we may start with a shorter ski season, but in other places your whole island drops into the ocean. When you look back, our ancestors never dealt with the world changing. Sure, there was technology and things, but they never had to deal with catastrophic changes in the weather and climate and it’s hard when the whole country has grown so much in a time when things weren’t changing. For the last 100 years you could count on rain in May, warmth in July, things were pretty stable and we built our whole system on things being stable.

“My message to my kids and yours is that it will be a different world,” Craighead continued. “It may not include that traditional trip to grandpa’s farm for Christmas because some of those things will have to move in the world because the water will have moved. People will have to go higher and farther to see things in the world that we see now, wildlife and snow. But I have hope that they will continue to be there.”

The thing I’m holding onto now, is that it’s a new story every year and we have a chance to participate in that story and rewrite it each year and watch what happens. In the past it was always ‘wait and see what the winter brings.’ We have to participate in the retelling of the story. We are past the point where people simply tighten their belts and wait for the next year. Whether that’s trying to convince politicians to vote for carbon controls or recognize climate change, the nice thing about Wyoming is that we have a lot of room for improvement.”

Changes now

Whether you just moved to the valley yesterday or your great-grandfather was born in the dirt on Mormon Row, being a good steward of the Tetons starts with every step into the wilderness.

“I don’t know how to put this without being blunt, but there are so many people who are putting a lot of effort into the mountains for selfish reasons,” Craighead said.

Craighead understands the desire to hit the hills and wild places, but cautions that with an environment already made vulnerable because of climate change, some activities may need to be reconsidered for the sake of impacts. Most notably, mountain biking and packrafting. Landscapes and warming streams are more susceptible to damage, he said.

“People’s efforts should be more toward preservation and conservation than toward recreation,” Craighead said. “We should be limiting fishing in warm waters because that’s hard on trout. And packrafting small streams that are warming up opens the door for aquatic diseases and disrupts food supplies.”

The thing that bothers me about pack rafting and building new bike trails is that it’s opening the wrong doors,” he continued. “If this is the case, then there is no reason why base jumpers shouldn’t be allowed off the Grand. We have to be aware that the forest where we want to build a trail is not as hardy as it was 10 years ago. The same with streams. They are so much easier to stress now.”

Some of the best stewards of the land are young people who have recently moved to the Tetons, Craighead said, as well as children of old-timers who have risked clashing with cultural norms in favor of conservation efforts.

“During my grandfather’s life, he lived through a lot of the same kind of changes, but they weren’t as overwhelming as they are today,” he said. “I think I’m trying to remain positive because I want to be, but we can’t just cross our fingers and hope someone will do something eventually. We’re getting to the place where we have to sacrifice our desires on the land. Sometimes the biggest thing we can do is change ourselves.”  PJH

Charlie Craighead and the Craighead Institute partnered with the Ruckelhaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming to produce “’Til the Well Runs Dry,” a film on Wyoming’s Water Resources. This project will include current science and information by a variety of experts, as well as the views people have toward Western water resources. Depending on current and future funding, the film’s anticipated release is late winter or early spring. Find Craighead and his project at CraigheadResearch.org/Film-Projects.html.

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