American culture is reckoning with some of the negative impacts of our history. We are having significant and necessary conversations — and political outcomes — around the history of race in America. Some of those conversations have started to focus on the important concept of reparations.
In the past few weeks alone, St. Paul, Nashville, and St. Louis governments and activists are having substantive policy discussions about making reparations – including direct payouts of money – to African Americans, to atone for the historic sin of slavery.
Reparations discussions also have included making necessary amends to indigenous people. Called the “landback” movement, indigenous communities are asking for, and are sometimes getting back, some of the land that was the historic homeland of their people. One example: the Esselen Tribe in northern California received a $4.5 million grant from the state to purchase part of the tribe’s ancestral homeland near Big Sur.
The concept of “ecological reparations” takes the conversation another step forward. With ecological reparations, we reckon with our history of destroying the non-human world. Clear-cutting forests, damming rivers, and wiping out non-human species are examples of past wrongs that also should be amended.
The U.S. has a recent history of ecological reparations, although by a different name. Raising taxes to buy and preserve natural areas and parks is a type of ecological reparation; these programs exist across the Western U.S., including here in Colorado, where various local and regional land-conservation programs work.
The Endangered Species Act might also be seen as a type of reparations: it uses state and federal money to repatriate landscapes and waterways with native species that were wiped out by earlier Americans.
Recently the environmental organization Save The Colorado River settled a federal lawsuit against a new dam and diversion project. The dam-building agency, Northern Water in northern Colorado, agreed to pay $15 million for ecological restoration in the Upper Colorado River watershed of Grand County.
Starting at the continental divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Upper Colorado River watershed has been devastated and decimated by dam and diversion projects to fuel population growth on the Front Range. In Grand County, the volume of water flowing through the Colorado is about 20 percent of the volume that flowed before the projects of the 20th Century sent most of those headwaters to the Front Range. The lawsuit settlement, though tiny, starts to amend for this past wrong.
This settlement is only the beginning of the watershed reparations work that needs to be done. In Grand County, as just one example, the amount of water removed from the landscape and sent to Denver and the Front Range over the past hundred years would be worth tens of billions of dollars at today’s prices. This removal of water has caused vast negative impacts to wetlands, wildlife habitat, fish and other river species, and to forests. Equally vast reparations are needed to amend for these past ecological sins.
Enacting “impact fees” on water users is a type of ecological reparation that makes sense in the Western U.S., where the vast majority of water is diverted from rivers and streams, causing massive environmental damage. As an example, for every 1,000 gallons of water that a household uses in Boulder – which gets about 20% of its water from the Upper Colorado River in Grand County – a fee could be paid to ecological restoration programs in the watershed.
The Upper Colorado River Watershed Group has proposed such an impact fee on diversions of water that are piped to the Denver area.
Diversions have decimated watersheds across the western U.S. As we continue the necessary and important work of righting numerous past wrongs to people, it’s time for ecological reparations to be included in public decisions. Our human impact on the non-human world must be reckoned with to create an ecologically just path forward.
Gary Wockner lives in Colorado and is active in river protection around the world.