Water laws are complex and seem to trump all other laws. I’m pretty sure there are lawyers who specialize in water law and nothing else. In the case of Bonny Lake State Park, situated on the high eastern plains of Colorado, the law, in all of its unyielding wisdom, has killed an oasis.
I have a special affinity for Bonny. It was the destination of our very first outing in an Airstream. That, in turn, resulted in the very first article I wrote about traveling with an Airstream, titled Oasis On the High Desert Plain of Colorado, published in The Vintage Advantage, the newsletter of the Vintage Airstream Club. We love Bonny. It was created by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1951, the year I was born, for flood control of the south fork of the Republican River.
It is a 150-mile drive from our home. So, I can’t say we’ve been there every year, but almost. It is a great place for RV’ers to stop for a night or two prior to pushing on west to Denver, or east some place in Kansas. This year Patrice and I wanted to stay there for a couple of days on our way back from Texas.
The death notice came suddenly. Once the decision was made, there was little warning. Bonny Lake is a reservoir and the state began draining it on September 22, and closed it on October 1. This happened while we were traveling out of state.
I only sensed something was wrong when we got off I-70 and drove north on Highway 385. Bonny is 25 miles north of the town of Burlington. It was late in the day and one RV after another passed us going the opposite direction. I even noticed one motor home driver point us out to his wife, shake his head and laugh. I remember wondering why anyone with an RV would head away from the only state park in the area at what normally is the end of the driving day.
But we were tired from driving 417 miles, from our previous stop in Winfield, Kansas and arrived at dusk. So, perhaps I should be excused for not seeing the notice at the entrance to Bonny, but there was no ignoring the padlocked gate at the Wagon Wheel Campground. It was a puzzle though. I could see one RV parked there, so after meandering about for a few minutes I parked and walked over to knock on the door.
I didn’t need to. It was the sole remaining Park Ranger camped there with his wife. He saw me coming and came out to meet me. That’s when I got the bad news. He told me about Kansas demanding water and that the only way Colorado could give it to them was by draining the lake. Even worse, he said, was that the state actually planned to bulldoze the campgrounds – visitor center, marina, roads, RV sites, sewer, water – everything into a big hole and bury it – except for the picnic tables. Those would be saved so that they could be used in other parks.
If I felt stunned, imagine how the locals felt about it. It will be devastating to their economy. Currently, the plan to bulldoze is on hold to give the county time to figure out if they have the resources to take over the campgrounds. The park though, is history. It is now officially part of the South Republican Wildlife Area and is designated a State Wildlife Area. Sounds environmentally correct, doesn’t it?
Except that, when the lake is gone, so too will everything in and around it. The surrounding forest will die. The trees were dependent on it. When they die, and they will die, the habitat that the wildlife depends on will go too. It might take a few years or maybe a decade or so, but much of the flow of the south fork of the Republican River is going to be diverted by pipeline to Kansas. At some not too distant point in the future, the river will be a dry gulch.
No longer will Snow Geese, cranes and herons and other waterfowl have this place for a rest. Eagles, hawks and owls will suffer because small game, not to mention large game, will be decimated. A letter from the State Wildlife officials dryly understated that, “The result will most likely be the loss of the entire fishery.” A fish salvage – all legal means of fishing, without limits – has been authorized in anticipation of the coming mud flats.
Rivers on the high desert plains are not like rivers say in Ohio, or any of the states east of the Mississippi. Our rivers here might not even rate a name in an eastern state, and the name would be creek, not river. The truth, I fear, is that the area in and around Bonny will return to its “natural” state – that of a desert. Sage brush, buffalo grass, cactus, and rattle snakes. I know that is what today’s environmentalist wants, but it is not without great cost and I know that I’d much rather have the man made oasis.