As the economy continues to nose-dive, a lot of us are thinking of “ . . .running for the hills!”  One of the most desirable of the “hills” that most fits that idea, is the Rocky Mountains, home to Denver, Colorado.

The growth of Denver is principally due to the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Longs Peak in the north, Mount Evans due west, and Pikes Peak bulking to the south, drawing millions of skiers, along with vast numbers of climbers, backpackers, hunters, fishermen and new resident’s.  Each seeking, wide-open space, clean air, and blue skies.

Home on the Range

In Colorado, “home on the range” has become a reality.  Front Range, is the name given to the string of flatland cities and towns spilling out to the range from the edge of the easternmost wall of the Rockies.  These flatland cities and towns include Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins, with city limits undetectable.  Once former farms and ranchlands now plowed under and sprouting malls and subdivisions.

Colorado has already sacrificed over 90,000 acres of rural land a year to backhoe’s and earthmovers of the housing development and shopping mall industry and some state official’s have expressed a concern for the remaining land.

The call to the Rockies is so great, it’s predicted that by the year 2020, an increase of one million residents on the Front Range.  Raising the population to equal that of the current population of Ireland!

Some resident’s voice a fear of growing a Los Angeles in the Rockies.  A Denver real estate tycoon predicts with Denver’s 4.3 billion-dollar airport, Denver will be considered the center of the country, achieving status as a port city. Ignoring fear and favoring predictions the Front Range continues to give to the people every thing it has to offer, and then some.

Since most of Colorado’s growth occurred after the drought in 1981, newer uses for water have been developed.  Water is needed to support the population of endangered species, mountain snowmaking, river and reservoir recreationists, as well as traditional uses like, water to drink.  Plus as prescribed by interstate compacts, deliver water to downstream states.

Water and Drought History

Be prepared to invest in water.  In Colorado, water rights are property that can be bought, sold, or inherited. To understand the impact of this statement, let’s take a peek into Colorado’s history.

Many people taking a stab in striking it rich in Colorado in the 1840’s, were people that had turned to Colorado after the gold rush in California.  These early settlers brought with them the ideas used in California to settle arguments over land and eventually water.

Miner’s Courts were established as they were in California.  The theory behind the court system was if you were on the land first, it was your land or claim, and those following had no right to it. (Thus, first in time, first in right). The system was eventually transferred to water ownership disputes.  The first to use the water that was needed owns that amount of water, and the second one there gets what is left, if any.

With very little water available from rainfall, only 15 – 17 inches statewide, the snowmelt provides 80%, water had to be used directly from stream systems.  If the only persons allowed using such water were those next to the stream, very little land could be utilized for agricultural development.

However, economic conditions in the east eventually lead to a foreseeable profit in the growing of cash crops, if only more acreage could be developed.  Developers stepped in and began colonies to foster such acreage production.  These companies built canals from the mainstreams and gave a share of the water to farmers for irrigating acreage.

Using the concept the environment had to be taken into consideration when establishing any water allocation system, Colorado created the prior appropriation doctrine.  This legal system is peculiar to the western United States in response to the west’s inconvenient-scarce water resources.

The basic tenant of the Colorado appropriation system to be remembered is “first in time, first in right “. The “senior” or first person to appropriate water and apply that water to a beneficial use has the first right to use that water within a particular stream system.  The “senior” must then be satisfied before any other “junior” rights are fulfilled.

A drought during the 1800’s caused a war, the Water Wars of 1874, which eventually resulted in Article XVI of the Colorado Constitution enacted in 1876.

The Colorado Constitution recognize the “Water of every natural stream . . . is hereby declared to be the property of the public . . .” The Constitution and the

Courts recognize water rights are a right to use water, so long as water is put to a recognized beneficial use and water is available.  Anyone may go to water court and get a decreed right to use water.

In 1878 Major John Powell, in a federal report, warned of the need for careful development in the American southwest due to limited water supply.

In 1902 President Teddy Roosevelt whose view, water was “wasted” in the west (not put to good use) signed the Reclamation Act.  This Act created the Bureau of Reclamation whose goal was to subsidize irrigation to farmers and stimulate economic and population growth.

The very earliest transbasin diversions of water were for agricultural purposes, but water for municipalities followed soon thereafter.

When water is moved from one basin to another, courts may apply restrictive conditions.  For example, Denver may not use water for uses outside areas socially and economically integrated into the city, and is limited to municipal uses.

The Divide and the Rockies

The Continental Divide, some times referred to as The Great Divide or simply The Divide, is 3,l00 miles long from the U. S. border of Mexico to Canada’s border.  The Divide separates river systems that flow to opposite sides of the continent.  As it leaves Mexico and enters the U. S. it continues northerly through New Mexico.  On its passage through Colorado, it shares a mountain range that we identify as the Rocky Mountains.  The Rocky Mountains perform dual processes.  They form a watershed, which is best described as a region or area drained by a river, and it separates streams flowing west from those streams flowing east.

Note:  This is brought to the readers attention by way of explanation for the alternating usage of the Continental Divide and the Rockies as both are used per research.

In Colorado the slopes of the Rockies have been given names.  The west slope is simply named the West Slope and the east slope, the Front Range.  Over three quarters of the state of Colorado’s population lives on the Front Range (east) slope.

As stated previously, annual precipitation in Colorado is only 15 -17 inches statewide (for comparison twice that falls over the U. S. Corn Belt) and it falls on the west side of the Rockies.  The demand for water as population increases on the Front Range (east) and the supply of water diminishes, has prompted action from the state official’s to shift this imbalance.

Balancing Acts – Water Projects

To develop the scope and magnitude of the Colorado’s water issue, here are a few of the challenges that were met and conquered by the officials of that state.

The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District was established in 1937 under the foreseen pretenses to act as the entity that will contract with the Bureau of Reclamation for the delivery of Colorado-Big Thompson water, which at the time was a project on line for the future.

To begin with, though by no means the first in a long line of projects deemed to be a cure for Colorado’s plague of water shortage, was Robert’s Tunnel.

In 1942 construction began on the Robert’s Tunnel, which is one-story-building wide, 23 miles long and runs under the mountains and channels water to the other side of the Continental Divide. The project was an engineering marvel of that day and was completed by 1964.

Robert’s tunnel is just one of 24 tunnels and ditches tapping the water on the western side of the Continental Divide. They take westward, Pacific Ocean-bound water from the Colorado River Basin and pipe it eastward to the Front Range.

In 1950, power was generated on the eastern slope, and in 1957, the first year of the Colorado-Big Thompson (CBT) water deliveries.  CBT is the largest diverter of water from the West Slope, removing over half the water produced by the headwaters of the Colorado River and diverting over three times more water than the next largest diversion, Roberts Tunnel.

CBT services nearly l.5 million acres of land in northern Colorado.  The CBT delivers approximately 220,000 acre-feet of water annually.  This west slope system collects water in five reservoirs with pumping plants which direct the water through yet another engineering feat, the Alva B. Adams Tunnel.  Ten hours later, this water exits the tunnel on the eastern side of the Continental Divide.

Drought Monitor

In 1976 – 1977, though not of the “dust bowl” extreme Colorado suffered 27 years ago, the state experienced a severe drought. The Governor during that time was Richard Lamm who convened a special council of experts to assess and propose ideas for easing the drought impact.  Then in 1978, heavy snows and spring rain arrived and the reviews were shelved.

Mother Nature not quite through, delivered a winter with severe snow shortages during 1980 – 198l.  Governor Lamm, still in office at this date, regrouped his experts and established the Colorado Drought and Response Plan.  These experts concluded that in Colorado, drought was a major threat. Also, that year the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the beneficial use of a water right governs its change to a different point of diversion, place, or type of use.

Colorado is the first state to adopt a drought monitoring system.  Incidentally, since the Plan was implemented Colorado has enjoyed the longest drought free period since before the “dust bowl”.  And furthermore, there was ample precipitation for the next seventeen years.

Current State of Affairs/Water Projects

Colorado Springs has a series of large water projects for the Front Range to deal with the states current drought. The first of the series has a $900 million price tag for laying a pipeline 45 miles long, twice as long as the current Front Range water tunnel, Roberts Tunnel.  Its purpose is to pump water from the Arkansas River.  It’s expected to be completed in the year 2007. As duly noted, water is business in Colorado.

According to reports there are anti-growth groups who will fight this latest pipeline proposed by Colorado Springs, while the town of Pueblo opposes it because it means their plans for water to develop a Kayaking course and a river walk will be threatened.

A cynic might be inclined to comment on the lack of interest in the fact that Colorado is a drought prone state and greed, is this state’s best kept secret.

On the subject of greed, in April 2002, the Colorado River District Board has authorized litigation to correct CBT problems. The River District is challenging the Bureau of Reclamation’s illegal operations of the CBT Project.

The litigation reiterates that CBT was constructed, according to Senate Document 80, to provide supplemental water to augment existing (native) water resources on the Front Range.  But, after extensive engineering and legal investigation, it has been recorded the CBT has failed to use the native East Slope water when it had been available to the project, substituting instead water diverted from the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Additionally, Bureau of Reclamation has violated its own policies by diverting water from the West Slope in excess of what is needed and giving that water away through its “non charge” or “free water” program.  Both of these actions remove water from the Western Slope that should be available for Western Colorado’s use.

And furthermore, the River District claims that CBT In the year 2000 alone, over 58,000 acre feet of free water, the equivalent of the annual water needs for almost 300,000 people, was removed from the West Slope and given away on the East Slope.

Not surprisingly, much of Colorado’s Western Slope is growing at the same pace as the booming Front Range communities, and the perceived surplus of water on the Western Slope is rapidly vanishing.

Tapped Out

The Denver basin, an ancient, bowl shaped four-layer, rock bound aquifer that holds the same volume of water as Lake Erie, is sloped eastward on its west edge. The western edge is south of Denver in Douglas County.  The subdivision Braley Acres in Douglas County drills for their water from this aquifer.  As does the municipalities and developments located on the east. Together, they are drawing down the water.

In the mid -1990’s, one hundred twenty families’ wells went dry that lived in the subdivision Braley Acres. Some of them had re-drilled, investing close to $20,000 for a 1,200 foot well, only to have them dry up. One resident bought a water truck and hauled water from nearby Roxborough (Denver) water district and shared with his neighbors which eventually led to forming the Chatfield South Water Association.  An Association that negotiates water issues with their water district, Denver Water.

Geologist’s report that water forced upward by artesian pressure has dropped 800 feet in Douglas County.  This is likened to watching an implosion/demolition level the Transamerica (the pyramid) Building in San Francisco.  A state law permits using one percent of the aquifer’s water annually.  The prediction is grim for the future of the aquifer’s water, “don’t expect this water to last a hundred years,” warns the Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources.

Seniors and Juniors Today

To compound the problem of shortage of water, the tremendous population growth spawned a war between three water rights owners.  Xcel Energy, owner of Shoshone Hydroelectric Power Plant and its 1905 and 1940 “senior” water rights and Denver Water, the state’s biggest water supplier and Western Slope water users.  There are seven water divisions in the state, a division engineer and water court in each division.  It’s like the Wild West never died as the warring waterpower’s, trigger fingers twitching, control who gets what, how much and when.

As the forces of the drought continue to wreak more problems, Denver – Front Range businesses and residents grasp for ways to overcome the everyday woes of too little water. The water shortage has spurred a program offering rebates on water-saving washing machines, toilets and outdoor water-saving devices.

Managers of companies report high costs of water saving changes are hurting their bottom lines in the currently stagnant economy and warn the additional cost could trickle down to the consumers.

Drought surcharges of $3.00 and $6.47 per l000 gallons of water over limit has been imposed in Denver.

Denver’s neighboring town, Aurora got into the water business in the 1950’s, and as a result it has “junior” water rights.  Denver has “senior” water rights authorizing them to fill their reservoirs until they say they are done then Aurora gets its turn.  An Aurora city official reports of their reservoir system, “It’s quicker to drain and a lot slower to fill than other reservoir systems,” During this current drought, Aurora’s nine reservoirs are only expected to reach about 55% of capacity at peak and they average out to about 28% capacity.

In Aurora there isn’t any talk of easing water restriction this summer and possibly not even next summer.

There are some enterprising locals willing to rent water.  Someone out there has extra water! Check out the list provided by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.  Read the disclaimer.

Big Straw – but not the last!

During the legislative session of 2003, the Colorado Water Conservation Board asked the Colorado legislature to fund a $500,000 feasibility study of the Colorado Aqueduct Return Project, or the “Big Straw”.  This is a project to pump Colorado River water from the Utah state line back up to the Continental Divide for use primarily by Front Range water users. Senator Ron Teck supporting the project advises the state needs to take steps now for the next drought.

Although this study was not approved the project is still very much alive.  The price tag for this little water-tubing project?  The pipeline alone could cost $2.5 billion.

Hamlet Joseph Barry III, Denver Water manager since January l99l, manages water for the 1.2 million people in Denver and its suburbs. Barry has been quoted as saying, “If they build this project, every canyon along the Front Range will be getting another look.”

“Do you still want to live in Denver?”

War has been declared in Colorado.  An army with the weapon of mass destruction – thirst and greed – has entrenched itself on the slopes of the Continental Divide, the Front Range on the eastern slope, and the West Range on the west.

For the war correspondents this is war in slow motion, it’s a war well into its second century, and showing no sign of letting up.  The combat zone continues to be bombed with media blitzes, scraped and torn by lawyers, and so far the major casualties are the land and its animals. Thanks to the returning drought, the casualties may swell.

Military leaders driving the Army Corps of Engineers, and investing in private water rights, have already spent millions of dollars of local taxpayer money.  But like war, the generals want more – millions more – and the outcome is far from sure.  If you ask a hydrologist, the outcome is a long shot.

The elusive spoils of this war are molecules of water.  With enough, you can feed a nation, farm arid desert, and cause profits to bloom in barren land.  Such is much of Colorado today.

To blame the past ignores the urgency of the problem.  To defend the past suggests ancient water rights hard fought in their time, were won at a high cost for nothing.  To suggest that Colorado’s future, and to a lesser extent, the entire Southwest, is tied up in water rights is an understatement of gigantic proportion. Water is life, and water is money, and money is power.  Welcome to Colorado.

Colorado, running on the edge of desertification may prove a prototype for a planet running out of resources.  How Colorado works through the end of its water resource will likely set the stage for many resource battles in the future.

On the one hand, it’s a crass battle between those who own water and those who don’t.  The land, however, is majestic and worthy of battle.  A survivor of the Great Depression in Colorado writes of the inspiration from the close communion with nature; “This contact with nature broadens the mind and opens deeper insight into life.  It’s a man’s best friend when he is out of a job and low in spirits.”

If you have water, that is.


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