Drought raises 21st century choices
Nothing better testifies to the severity of Colorado’s drought than the expanding sand flats of Dillon Reservoir.
Seeing the water drop weekly, exposing bulging brown hillsides formerly sheathed by blue, the image emerges of Speedo swimming trunks or thong bikinis worn by people who really, really should know better.
That image is fleeting, for a more permanent and haunting reality emerges from this parched scene of rust-colored funnels kicked up by the afternoon wind this summer. Completed in 1963, Dillon Reservoir is finally being used foremost for its most basic purpose, as a storage vessel for Denver and various suburbs. Recreation is only secondary.
Oh, the drought will probably retreat. But Colorado’s growing population won’t. And in the coming changes to accommodate ever more people, there will be a reshuffling of priorities, a new frontier in this New West.
Dillon Reservoir is part of this reshuffling for the 21st century. It is more likely to be drawn down every year early in summer, as needed by Denver and its suburbs, then allowed to fill again rapidly, and perhaps drawn down again. It will be more of a reservoir, less of a lake. Dillon’s primary function would have become apparent earlier, but the series of wet years of the 1990s hood-winked us into thinking it was just a plaything.
This year’s drought has brought to the forefront many things that most of us haven’t been forced to think about before. Consider just this: In Colorado, 93 percent of our water goes to agriculture. If we dispensed with agriculture, or even just a part of it, think how much more water we would have for our lawns.
Do we really want to see farms dry up? Hay meadows left fallow? Could we imagine little towns looking like scenes from “The Last Picture Show” as water devoted to agriculture is instead used for ensuring suburban living?
Or consider conservation. We’re not talking about just turning off the faucet while brushing our teeth. No, we’re talking about closing the loop – reusing what goes down the sink, the toilet, and the shower stall, provided sufficient treatment has been done, of course.
Even now, water managers are wondering what the public will accept. Of course, nearly everybody is already downstream from somebody else, so in a sense this isn’t such a radical idea. But the new mental frontier is the idea of being downstream from ourselves. These are the sort of thoughts this year’s drought presses upon us.
This drought has also renewed attention by Front Range cities wanting to draw more water from the Western Slope. Already straws, as diversion tunnels and canals are sometimes called, litter the Continental Divide. A full 25 percent of the native flows of the Blue River above Dillon Reservoir are diverted to Denver, Colorado Springs or Golden. In Eagle County, 24 percent of the water above Minturn is diverted to the Front Range.
“If there is excess water, it certainly isn’t in the headwaters. This area has long been plumbed,” says Taylor Hawes, co-director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments’ Water Quality and Quantity Committee.
But the cities, sometimes in concert with Western Slope interests, do plan more plumbing. By emptying and then refilling Dillon Reservoir, Denver might be able to get 57 percent of the flows of the Upper Blue River. A larger portion of the upper Eagle River may also be diverted.
Western Slope officials insist there are no big answers in the headwaters for big problems on the Front Range. The relatively easy projects have already been done. Hawes describes Dillon and other projects as “low-hanging fruit.” Cities, she adds, will find it “a lot more expensive to get to the top of the tree.”
The absolute treetop may be where the Colorado River flows into Utah, but is there fruit there? State water officials insist there is least 400,000 acre-feet, and some estimate even one million acre-feet in particularly wet years could be held back and then diverted to cities through a series of pipelines, dams and reservoirs. Environmentalists claim there may not be any water. On only one point do the two sides agree: There is no excess water in this, the most unusual of drought years.
The Big Straw
Among the most-talked about ideas of the season is to get that water, if it exists, by building a 10-foot pipeline to draw water from Grand Junction back to the Continental Divide, where it can trickle down to suburbs now living on a trust fund of large but eventually depletable underground aquifers. This pipeline idea is called The Big Straw,
That – figuring out the fate of these water trust-fund suburbs – will be the main story of the next few years in Colorado.
Another 21st century story will concern how to sustain water for recreation use when water is coveted for so many other uses. Play and pleasure are, of course, the chief business of Eagle and Summit counties, and to an extent even the Front Range cities. A large part of the appeal of Denver and its suburbs is the proximity of the mountain playgrounds.
Skiing is foremost among the playgrounds, and past droughts have caused the resorts to further insulate themselves against climatic vagaries by installing more snowmaking capability. This year’s drought will clearly provide impetus for more water storage at high elevations. Think of it as saving for a non-rainy day.
Finally, the drought brings up the question of just who approved all those new houses without knowing exactly where the water would come from to supply their needs? It’s a question for the mountains as well as the plains. Public officials on both sides of the Continental Divide have been authorizing homes without necessarily knowing where the water will come to supply them.
All of these decisions are made within a framework of laws that fraught with complexity, fundamentally recognize water as a scarce resource. Roughed out in the gold-mining streams of California, then brought to Colorado a decade later, this framework is called the Prior Appropriate Doctrine. It regulates ownership and use on a first-in-time, first-in-right basis.
From mining, when hillsides around Breckenridge and Frisco were blasted to get at the gold deposits, the system was extended to agriculture, cities and, with some difficulty, to recreation.
Ruled by the Great Divide
If water is scarce in Colorado, it’s not equally so. The Continental Divide rules the state in subtle but powerful ways. This system of ridges and occasionally mountains, mostly above timberline, is where North America’s waters part. Eastward waters go to the Atlantic, westward to the Pacific.
Perhaps 80 percent of Colorado’s water – estimates vary – falls west of the Continental Divide, most of that in the form of snow. But 80 percent of the state’s population is on the Eastern Slope. Or, as state water engineer Hal Simpson puts it, “Most of our demand is where our water isn’t.”
A corollary of this imbalance in a region of overall scarcity is manipulation. From the time of the ancestral Pueblans, who built reservoirs by hand, people have manipulated water. The manipulation has become broad, even massive, not quite as intricately detailed as a computer’s mother board but sufficiently close to amaze anybody who takes the time to study the state’s labyrinth of tunnels, ditches and reservoirs.
This plumbing is largely designed to get the waters from the west to the east. The politics behind that endeavor have been nearly as complex as the plumbing itself. As the old saw goes, whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fightin’ over.
The fightin’ got nasty in the 1980s, when Front Range cities tried to get two projects, Two Forks and Homestake II, one huge and the other surgically unpleasant, pushed through. They failed, and the discussion turned more polite. Will it stay that way?
That’s one of the questions in this drought. Tensions have been rising. Led by Gov. Bill Owens, some boosters are arguing it’s time to build reservoirs to skim more water off spring runoff from the Western Slope.
Driving them is the simple arithmetic of growth. Denver alone, landlocked as it is, gained more population during the 1990s than now live in both Eagle and Summit counties, two of the nation’s 15-fastest growing counties. And the larger problem is not Denver, but its suburbs.
Such is the calculus of Colorado’s water debate this year. In the days to come, we’ll explore some of these issues more in depth.