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Fast Forward: 'Alternative Futures' for Colorado's Western Slope

Thursday, Dec. 02, 2010

Upper Colorado River Watershed

The Upper Colorado River Watershed (in green) encompasses most of Utah and extends into Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. USU grad student Temis Taylor conducted a study of the eastern portion (in blue) of the watershed.

Temis Taylor

Taylor, who is pursuing a master's degree in bioregional planning, presented her research at the 2010 International Conference on Science in Society held Nov. 11-13 in Spain.

The Continental Divide cuts north-to-south through the heart of Colorado, separating the state into two distinct halves. The eastern part of the state, known as the Front Range, is home to Denver, a sprawling metropolis. The state’s western half, known as the Western Slope, houses a much sparser population, with few towns inhabited by more than 5,000 residents.

But that’s changing with a convergence of factors, including the Western Slope’s attractiveness as a retirement and vacation destination, the advent of Colorado’s New Energy Economy, along with the region’s abundance of traditional, carbon-based energy resources.

“There’s no question that Colorado, and the Western Slope in particular, will experience a rapid increase in population in coming decades,” says Utah State University graduate student Temis Taylor. “The question is: how will the region accommodate the growth?”

Taylor, a master’s student in bioregional planning, presented research she’s completed on a portion of the Western Slope at the 2010 International Conference on Science in Society. Held Nov. 11-13 at Spain’s Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, the gathering drew 188 participants from 150 universities in 33 countries. An international, interdisciplinary advisory board led by researchers at UC3M and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign coordinates the conference, which is held in a different country each year.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to get people talking in an interdisciplinary way and across national boundaries,” she says. “Our challenges are similar but there are important differences. Our policies, laws, traditions and practices vary widely.”

Taylor’s research, which she conducts with faculty mentor Richard Toth of USU’s Department of Environment and Society, is part of a much broader study. The overall project includes the Upper Colorado River Watershed, which encompasses roughly 171,000 square-miles. In addition to Colorado’s Western Slope, the watershed envelops most of Utah and extends into Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona.

“This is a very large region, so I focused on three sub-watersheds: The Yampa-White, the Upper Colorado Headwaters and the Gunnison,” says Taylor, whose research is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Using geographic information systems modeling technology, she mapped varied regional layers, including critical wildlife habitats, areas of potential energy development and areas of projected population growth within her study sites.

“When you put the layers together, you can begin to discern areas of potential conflict,” Taylor says. “It’s very visual and accessible. Looking at our maps, people can quickly see how development can affect communities, wildlife, agricultural lands, rangelands and natural resources.”

Using GIS data, Taylor developed ‘alternative futures’ using four different energy development scenarios and three habitat scenarios.

“The idea is to prepare models that will show the consequences of different land use and development decisions,” she says.

An array of groups seek to develop the Western Slope’s energy resources, including wind, oil, natural gas, hydropower, coal, oil shale, geothermal, biomass and coalbed methane. Each of these choices, to varied degrees, depends on water, arguably the region’s most precious and contentiously contested resource.

“There’s just not enough water and there never will be,” says Taylor, who notes that Western Slope water is sought by eastern Colorado users to supply the more heavily populated Front Range.

With alternative future models, she hopes to provide varied stakeholders with information that can guide decisions.

“People want choices,” Taylor says. “Our role isn’t to tell people what to do but to provide information that will show them the consequences of different actions and allow them to make choices that, in the long-term, fit their values.”

Related Links

USU Department of Environment and Society
USU College of Natural Resources

Contact: Temis Taylor,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto,, 435-797-3517 

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