Geoscience Issues and the Rocky Mountain West: Perspectives from Bob Weimer

Title: Geoscience Issues and the Rocky Mountain West: Perspectives from Bob Weimer
Author: Donna Anderson
Publication: The Outcrop, March 2003, p. 1, 6-7

As past president of the RMAG (1969), Colorado Scientific Society (1980), AAPG (1991-92) and a distinguished scientist, Bob Weimer needs little introduction to the membership of the RMAG. A Wyoming native, Bob is among a group of Rocky Mountain geologists who have had the opportunity to map, ponder and explore the geology of a frontier region during times of resource extraction and later great population growth. Bob describes four facets to his career: education and research at Colorado School of Mines (CSM), advisor working with state and national policy makers, resident of his Mt. Vernon mountain community, and consultant in the petroleum industry. As a professor at CSM he educated several generations of geologists from 1957 until his “retirement” in 1983, and he maintains a strong connection with the campus. Throughout his educational career, he also contributed to the worldwide scientific communities of sedimentary and petroleum geology by writing papers, offering lectures and short courses, and as a visiting professor. His career as an advisor to public policy makers reflects a lifelong involvement in science for the public interest. Perhaps his “least known” career has been as a 45+ year resident and volunteer practicing water-supply sustainability from metamorphic rocks within the Mt. Vernon watershed. Our conversation focused on sustainability as it pertains to resources and population growth in Colorado and the West, and the related topic of science for the public interest.

Problems facing Colorado and other western states today are directly tied to resource sustainability in the face of burgeoning population growth. Our conversation turned naturally to water resources, the current dry cycle (according to Bob, the word “drought” is a human perception), and Bob’s experience as a homeowner in the Mt. Vernon municipal water district. Bob’s philosophy, “Base your use on minimum needs and availability,” is a statement supporting resource sustainability. It has been the guiding philosophy in the water district since the dry cycle of 1954-1957. During that time, the Mt. Vernon community, which depends entirely on groundwater, got together to plan for the then current and all potential future “droughts.” With the help of technical advisors like Bob, a committee composed of homeowners set up a land-use and groundwater development plan that required preservation of recharge area and aquifer yield through land purchase and ultimately purchase of senior water rights on a tributary stream to Bear Creek. In Bob’s experience, continuity of committee people and a willingness to work things out were two elements that made the concept of watershed sustainability workable.

Bob Weimer points out the paradoxes of Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park.

Resource sustainability is not limited to water. It also extends directly to energy resources such as natural gas, of which Colorado and other western states have a large supply. Natural gas is a unique resource in the sense that it is not processed much between coming out of a wellbore and going into a home. The downside is that because natural gas has limited storage and is not renewable like water, continual production drilling maintains the supply. Market dynamics of natural gas include large fluctuations in supply, demand and price. In Colorado and other states with large gas resources, the situation creates a boom and bust dynamic that hurts consumers during the boom and industry during the bust. Natural gas exploitation in Colorado and the rest of the Rockies also faces the question of how we balance our needs and desires for energy with our conflicting needs and desires for non-developed open space in the face of increasing population. Gas development issues reminiscent of those arising during the energy boom of the late 1970s have cropped up, creating contentious encounters between landowners, environmentalists, state and local governments, and the energy industry.

From 1978 to 1983, Bob was an active resource person in the Energy Minerals Field Institute (EMFI) at CSM. Subsequently, he was also a member of the Energy Research Advisory Board to the U.S. Secretary of Energy, John Herrington, from 1984-89. The EMFI was a consortium in which interested citizen groups and other private and public decision makers were involved in a sustained effort to create dialogue over conflicting land use and resource issues. With the downturn in the energy and mineral resource industries and the passing of legislation in the mid-1980s, the pressing political issues faded, and the EMFI was curtailed. However, we are in a similar position today to that of the early 1980s with a great need for continued dialogue. Bob used this example to point out a cyclicity of public awareness that is driven by cycles of conflicting interests and values, which all in turn lead back to the sustainability issue. How do you make resources last and for how long? The approach to these questions involves education and dialogue. However, the difficult part is not in educating the K-12 population, which is where everybody focuses attention. The difficulty is in educating legislators, regulators and their staffs who have diverse backgrounds and must operate in the political arena, which doesn’t necessarily work on a scientific logic basis. Public understanding of science and engineering is also part of the problem. Here then are the essential aspects of Bob’s career as an advisor to policy makers; how to foster communication among journalists and scientists, and how to diminish the unhappy role that junk science has come to play in political, judicial and media arenas.

In terms of geologic issues facing Colorado, Bob views surficial processes (natural hazards) as a major theme. A bright spot in this issue is the state requirement for geologic review of all subdivisions in unincorporated areas by the Colorado Geological Survey. Even though non-binding, this requirement makes communities aware of geology and hazards. As urban sprawl increases and leapfrogs into outlying areas, more encounters with geologic hazards are likely. In this regard, science for the public interest becomes an issue of protecting homeowners from the vagaries of surficial geologic processes that operate on the human time scale.

The bottom line? The next 50 years will not be boring.

The original version of this interview was published in the November 2002 newsletter of the Colorado Scientific Society, whose permission to republish is gratefully acknowledged.