What can happen, if you lose the water fight?
By Rob Carrigan, email@example.com
Ralph Moodys' first book “Little Britches,” about his experiences more than 100 years ago on his family ranch in what is now present-day Littleton and Englewood, relates what kind of water history we have here in Colorado.
When I was a kid, growing up on the Western Slope, it was almost required reading in grade school about what can happen, if you lose a fight over water. Most Western Slope folks still get nervous when populations on the Front Range start talking about "their" water.
The ranch as near as I can figure from Moody’s description has probably been swallowed by development, in the vicinity of Wadsworth Boulevard and Hampden Avenue in the southwest Denver area. The Moodys drew water in the South Platte watershed. It is interesting to note how “god-forsaken,” the country was described.
After unsuccessfully fighting (with bare knuckles, firearms, and in the courts) for years over their share of water that was supposed to travel down the ditch, the Moody family was forced to abandon their hard-scrabble existence and move to town. Moody’s father became a carpenter and foreman in the building trades there. If you can’t beat them, join them, I guess. The senior Moody died shortly after, when his weak lungs gave out.
But here we are, 100 years later, still fighting over having enough water and alternately embracing and rejecting development because of it.
Colorado Division of Water Resources (CDWR) helps mark the stream bed of how Colorado water history has flowed.
"Colorado holds the unique distinction of being the first state to provide for the distribution of water by public officials. In 1879, the legislature created a part of the present administrative system. It provided for the division of the state into ten water districts, nine of which are in the South Platte valley, and one in the Arkansas drainage. In each district, the statute provided for a Water Commissioner to divide the water according to priorities of the various ditches within the district, in accordance with the Prior Appropriation Doctrine of first-in-time, first-in-right," says DCWR in several of their publications.
The priority of each ditch was determined by the district courts based upon the date the ditches were constructed and the water placed to beneficial use. The statute as passed by the legislature in 1879 did not provide for stream measurement.
"The Office of the State Engineer was created in 1881. The primary responsibility of the State Engineer was to measure the water in each stream from which water was diverted for irrigation, starting with those mostly used for irrigation. Three water divisions were created, made up of water districts located within the South Platte, the Arkansas, and the Rio Grande basins. Within six years, each of the remaining four water divisions as they exist today were created. In 1887, the state created a Superintendent of irrigation - who is known today as the Division Engineer - to supervise Water Commissioners within each division," notes CDWR.
In November of 2015, after 30 months of drafting, three draft water plans, eight Basin Implementation Plans, 30,000 public comment periods, and many years of discussions, the CWCB Board voted to approve Colorado’s Water Plan for delivery the to Governor Hickenlooper and the people of Colorado. Hickenlooper embraced the new plan, at that time and issued a proclamation declaring Nov.16, 2015, as Colorado's Water Implementation Day.
One of major studies used to help create that plan, was Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI). Among the top 10 major findings in the 2003 (SWSI), the "Number 1 finding" was that “Significant increases in Colorado’s population, together with agricultural water needs and increased focus on recreational and environmental uses, will intensify competition for water.” That same study pegged the South Platte watershed shortfall at 22 percent, one of the worst shortfalls in the state by the year 2030. Estimates for 2030 water demand by basin versus current anticipated supply were calculated by Colorado Water Conservation Board and the study was delivered to the State legislature.
“New and expanded reservoirs will play a part, as will conservation. One of the study’s major findings, however, is that taking water from irrigated agricultural land and converting it to municipal use will be a primary source of water for cities, one that will be increasingly more attractive if other projects fail.” said Headwaters, a publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.
As many as 400,000 acres of Colorado’s irrigated agricultural land could be dried up by 2030, according to that study. Other studies predicted even more dire circumstances.
Locally, that left us right in the center of state-wide water controversy, from the start.
Dr. Edwin James, a botanist with Maj. Stephen H. Long's 1820 expedition and the first to climb Pikes Peak, also recognized the Colorado Blue Columbines in the area around what later became Palmer Lake. Coloradans naturally selected that for the state flower later. Then in 1843, Lt. John Fremont noted that the flowers near the "dividing ridge" made a "mountain garden" as the "whole valley was radiant with flowers; blue, yellow, pink, white, scarlet and purple, vying with each other in splendor."
The railroads came through in the 1870s and flowers served as a summertime attraction for tourist from all over. One of the interesting aspects of the area's unique history, to me at least, is its use by the railroads to re-water the steam locomotives of the early days of railroads.That ridge divides the the two of the three earliest water divisions created in the state, the Arkansas, and the South Platte water basins.
Where does that leave us today? We are right here at the source, to some extent. Talking with several local water district officials recently, one at a Tri-Lakes Chamber event last week, my conclusion is that we are somewhere very near to the place we were more than 100 years ago when Ralph’s dad had to bare his knuckles and learn to handle a sixshooter.
Not only are we gearing up for some kind of a fight, there will be a lot more of us involved, and our history as it has evolved, will provide layer upon layer of complexity to our ultimate answers.