Published: June 28, 2024 By
LightHawk Group
Carter Lake
Longs Peak
Pilot View
Trail Ridge Road

Water, it is safe to say, is of the moment. Safer yet, the drought-stricken Colorado River is center stage. Seemingly overnight, the water beat has transcended from dusty backroads and Southwestern capitols to the front page of mainstream media outlets. Giving rise to that newfound coverage are the conferences and events that produce the soundbites and backroom deals that make the latest scoop in Western water such a juicy one.

Yet like many stories about natural resource issues, what can often feel missing is a sense of place; after all, slide shows and headlines can only spur so much. For water in particular, geography is everything—a factoid we know very well here in Colorado.

Enter LightHawk, an organization whose mission is “dedicated to accelerating conservation success through the powerful perspective of flight.” LightHawk does so by seeking out conservation projects and partners that could benefit from aviation, then leveraging their team of 300 volunteer pilots to provide zero cost flights. The organization’s focus areas include climate resilience, rivers and wetlands, and wildlife conservation.

On June 5th, the day before the Getches-Wilkinson Center’s 2024 Conference on the Colorado River, LightHawk and the GWC teamed up to find that elusive sense of place. That morning a group of 15 participants boarded three separate planes to take an aerial tour of Front Range water projects, including the Gross Reservoir expansion and Chimney Hollow Reservoir construction, as well as a look at the Colorado River headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park and the infrastructure that makes up the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.

The passenger list comprised professionals from many different backgrounds, all sharing a focus on water and, more specifically, the Colorado River. There were tribal leaders, water lawyers, ranch managers, reporters, policy analysts, river advocates, foundation directors, GWC staff, and one very luck law student in myself. And that diversity of backgrounds was precisely the point: Come gather ‘round a birds-eye view of this imperiled river’s headwaters and let us see where the conversation goes.

As a student eager to find his way in the world of western water, this was a dream experience. The more casual setting (if you can call being a mile above the Earth in a little piston jet casual) allowed for plenty of quips, insights, and hard-hitting questions on all that construction going on down there. For me, the conversation highlighted how inherently political and value-based decisions on the River are, and how that is nothing to shy away from. Moreover, I gained a new appreciation for the number of different stakeholders and the good ideas they each bring—the flight itself atop that list.

Diverse and impressive of backgrounds as they were, nobody’s professional resume quite prepared them for how bumpy a ride Cessnas can deliver. The thermals coming off the foothills made for a turbulent ascent into the alpine. And the calamity of red lights and alarm noises coming from the cockpit certainly didn’t help settle the group’s collective stomach. But fortunately for your correspondent’s plane, all one had to do for a sigh of relief was look to pilot Mike Schroeder, cool as a cucumber at the helm.

Then, touchdown on the tarmac (coolest part of the day, IMHO) and back to business casual, powerpoints and panel presentations. Alas. However, with a subject matter like the Colorado River, two things are granted. First, a vast majority of folks working in this world also play in this world, and their sense of place is long-established. Second, a gathering of the minds to discuss the future of the River will be informative and provocative regardless of whether an airplane is involved. And sure enough, the conference was a smashing success.

But for me and surely the fourteen other flight members, the LightHawk flight was nonetheless a remarkable experience. The opportunity to fly across the part of the Continental Divide that not only separates the Front Range from the Western Slope but also boasts a colorful history of transbasin projects and state politics, all while chatting with a group of thought leaders in the water space, was truly invaluable. Hats off to LightHawk and all the volunteer pilots that made it possible.

*All photos shared are thanks to aerial support provided by LightHawk.