November 2004
Writers on the Range

Seeing a river through children's eyes
Gary Wockner

Gary Wockner I live in Colorado near a river called the Cache La Poudre, French for powder cache. During the last school year, I was thrilled to take part in several field trips with my daughter’s fourth-grade class that each time taught the children more and more about their local river. Twelve times during the school year, we visited the Poudre, from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, to where it dribbles into the South Platte River, southeast of Greeley.

At each place we took water quality measurements, netted and inspected insects, and logged the results for inclusion in a book the class created at the end of the year. The kids called it, "Flowing With the Cache La Poudre River." The pictures in their book speak volumes: children knee-deep in crystal-clear water, their faces upturned and smiling, the Colorado sun shining brightly in the background.

But I remember one day when the smiles disappeared. We stepped out of the school bus near the mouth of Poudre Canyon and found that the river was dry. Bone dry. Dead. No bugs, no dip-nets. Nothing.

The river had been drained dry by our relentless pumps and ditches and dams. Instream flow rights, which keep water in the river, vary greatly as the Poudre makes its way down canyon. In some sections it’s still legal to suck the riverbed dry and then divert the used water back into it downstream.

I stared across the faces of children on the river bank and saw jaws dropped and eyes sagging. River rocks lay before us, brown and dusted, voiceless; the children, too.

Here along the Northern Front Range of Colorado, as in much of the drought-stricken West, a new school year has brought a predictable set of worried water stories. One word defines these stories: Dams. Dams on the Poudre, dams on its tributaries, dams upstream, dams downstream.

It’s amazing how carefully all these stories are worded. Supporters of new dams delicately say they will "only capture runoff" or they are "merely advocating enlarging existing reservoirs." But dams and reservoirs only do one thing to a living river: They kill it.

What can be done to avert this yearning to once again throw up dams across the West?

In our local watershed, we have an advocacy organization, "Friends of the Poudre" that fights for a free-flowing river. Look for, or create, a similar organization in your neck of the woods.

Nominate yourself to be on the boards and commissions that regulate your local watershed. When you get on these boards or visit their meetings, work for change and ask hard questions such as, "Why, when it’s cheaper to conserve water than impound it, do we still talk about building dams?"

Learn about and support organizations which buy and guarantee a river’s instream flow rights. In Colorado, the Colorado Water Trust and other local organizations do just that.

Learn to love our Western American desert. Love its native plants and flowers; love its beautiful brown color. When you see the color brown, think of living, free-flowing Western rivers.

Finally, recall the words of Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams: "If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go."

And so for your nearby river, do this: Walk down to the river, take off your shoes and step in. Lean down and wave your hands around in the cool, clear water. Splash a little on your face. Sit on the bank. Watch. Listen.

Right in the heart of downtown Fort Collins, the Poudre smells and tastes like freshly melted snow. The sound of its water splashing over rocks is nature’s finest music. A plethora of insects, birds, and wildlife swarm its banks -- trout, great blue herons, beavers, bull frogs, foxes and deer.

We do have a choice. Do we want our children to be flowing with the Cache La Poudre River? Or do we want them to stand beside its dry bed, voiceless?

Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.