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Water flowing uphill

Allen Best
Mt. of the Holy Cross from Half Moon Pass above East Cross Creek
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Love, governor from 1963 to 1973, got the big picture right, even if he wasn’t precisely accurate.In only a few cases, where it is pumped, does water actually flow uphill. But it does flow downhill in myriad unnatural ways across the Continental Divide in what historian David Lavender, very specifically describing the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, has called a “massive violation of geography.”At issue now, during the worst drought in at least 150 years, is whether geography will be violated again, as several Front Range cities and suburbs hope.Most proposals are small in nature, such as those planned by Aurora, Colorado Springs – and possibly Denver – for a diversion in the Camp Hale area. However, some people more ambitiously envision a pipeline from the Utah border to transport water along Interstate 70 to Summit County.Causing all these unnatural acts is Colorado’s water-population inversion: nearly 80 percent of the state’s water falls west of the Continental Divide, and 80-plus percent of the population lives to the east of the divide.But this incisive divide is no straight line. From near Silverton, the Continental Divide snakes up to Salida, Leadville and Breckenridge, then arcs eastward again to a few miles east of Granby, Sawtooth Mountain, the most easterly reach of the Pacific Ocean’s watershed in the United States.Then, as the Great Divide curves north of Grand Lake, the Continental Divide does a queer thing, pulling a U-turn before heading west and finally north once more toward Steamboat Springs. Within this finger of land called the Kawuneeche Valley, the Colorado River is born.And it was also here that the first large transmountain diversion occurred in Colorado.Straws across the divideThat diversion, which was undertaken by the Water Supply and Storage Co. of Fort Collins, was realized in 1892, followed by an even larger diversion completed in 1906. Cut at a slight angle, the ditch that collects water coming off the Never Summer Range hews to gravity in carrying water down across the Continental Divide. The water irrigates 40,000 acres of farmland in the Fort Collins-Greeley area. Even a century ago, the Front Range piedmont was coming up short on water.Eastern Slope farmers and cities have repeatedly placed “straws” across the Continental Divide since then, first in the closest and most accessible area, near Fraser, then south along the Continental Divide to Summit County and then Pitkin and Eagle counties.That changed in the 1930s. During those Dust Bowl years, prairie farmers were running out of water again. They dreamed of diverting water from the soggy headwaters of the Colorado River near Granby and Grand Lake. Western Slope leaders rallied behind their longtime and powerful congressional representative, Edward Taylor of Glenwood Springs. The Western Slope payoff was Green Mountain Reservoir.Finished in 1942, the intent of Green Mountain was two-fold: to provide late-season water to irrigate farms near Grand Junction in compensation for water being held back or diverted near Grand Lake; and to give the Western Slope water for future growth.The Bureau of Reclamation was put in charge.Eastern Slope farmers from Boulder and Fort Collins all the way to Fort Morgan now get water in a project massive in scope – eventually 10 reservoirs, 15 dams, 25 tunnels, 11 canals, six power plants and, not least, three pump plants.As Gov. Love said later, water can flow uphill to money.Denver visits Summit CountyDenver, meanwhile, had been coveting Summit County’s perpetual wetness. The first plan, drawn up in 1907, would have diverted water from the Snake River near Montezuma. Several years later a different plan more ambitiously envisioned canals being slashed into the mountainsides from the Snake River to Tenmile Creek, the water collected in them descending by gravity to a tunnel bored at an elevation of 10,322 feet in the Swan River headwaters.But Denver didn’t get serious about Summit County water until after World War II. Then, exploding with the Baby Boom generation and lifestyle immigrants, Denver rapidly put together the pieces. The Dillon Reservoir began filling in late 1963, shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Water flowed by gravity through the Roberts Tunnel to the South Platte River near Grant.A few years later, even as skiing-enlivened Breckenridge arose like Rip Van Winkle from its years of slumber, Colorado Springs constructed another diversion in the Blue River drainage. Spruce, McCullough and other streams near Mt. Quandary were drawn through a tunnel to Montgomery Reservoir, located on the South Platte River drainage near Alma.Other Front Range cities had to go yet farther afield. In the early 1950s, a Boulder-reared engineer named John P. Elliott began studying the topography around Mount of the Holy Cross. Beginning in 1880, a few small ditches had already been cut at the head of the Eagle River to divert water. Elliot saw potential for much more.Getting Boetcher & Co. to back him with money, then enlisting Colorado Springs and Aurora as customers, he assembled a deal that that resulted in completion of the Homestake Dam and tunnel underneath the Continental Divide to Leadville’s Turquoise Lake. After then flowing down the Arkansas toward Breckenridge, that water also flows uphill to money – across the Mosquito Range at the Otero Pump Station.Elliot, although his speculation made him a millionaire, suffered a fall in his Denver home and didn’t live to see his project become a reality.An even greater diversion was inflicted upon the Roaring Fork drainage outside of Aspen, including Hunter Creek and the Fryingpan River, two major tributaries. Called the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, it was also federally funded.Kennedy launched the project with a speech in Pueblo less than three months before his death. Intended primarily to benefit farmers along the Arkansas River, it is now half used by municipal customers, a fraction sure to rise in future years.Amazing cheap waterAdd up all these projects, as well as unmentioned smaller ones, and the volume of water appropriated from the Western Slope to farms and cities on the Eastern Slope is staggering. Of the resort-oriented counties in this headwaters region, Grand County takes the heaviest brunt – 60 percent of its water from the Grand Lake to Winter Park area flows unnaturally. Aspen is also hard hit – more than half of the upstream water goes east to grow cantaloupes and computer chips on the eastern plains.In general terms, Eastern Slope farmers were the beneficiaries of “amazingly cheap” water, in the words of one water historian, the consequence of generous financing terms from the federal government. Cities, by contrast, had to pay their own way without federal largesse.This period of massive diversions from the 1930s to the 1960s ended even as both federal and state governments began passing environmental laws. Those laws complicated future projects, including the hotly contested Two Forks Dam, which would have directly impacted Summit County, and Homestake II, which proposed to take water from the very base of Mount of the Holy Cross.Not all the lawns and farms you see in Eastern Colorado are a direct result of transmountain diversions from the Western Slope. In fact, water diverted from the Western Slope is a relatively small part of the story. But it is an essential part.”No matter where you are in Colorado, you’re drinking Western Slope water,” said a man in a Denver restaurant last year, raising his glass high.He wasn’t totally correct -or completely wrong.Water diversions from Eagle and Summit counties:- Dillon Reservoir/Roberts TunnelDiverter: Denver WaterAmount: Reservoir holds up to 254,036 acre-feet, and the city has decree for 788 cfs in original diversion. Water is diverted under Continental Divide and released into South Platte River near Grant.Appropriation: 1946- Homestake ReservoirDiverter: Aurora and Colorado SpringsAmount: 27,000 acre-feet annual average.Appropriation: 1952- Arkansas WellDiverter: Formerly Climax Mine, now Vail Resorts, et al.Amount: 500 acre-feet annually. This well is south of Frmont Pass, along the road to Leadville. Water from the well was originally pumped back to the pass, for domestic use at Climax, which once was something of a town as well as a molybdenum mine. From the town-mine the water flowed into the Blue River drainage. After purchase by Vail Associates in 1993, it flowed into the Eagle River. It is one of the few – if maybe the only remaining – east-to-west transmountain diversions in Colorado.Appropriation: N/A- Montgomery SystemDiverter: Colorado SpringsAmount: 400 cfs drawn from Crystal, Spruce, McCullough and Monte Cristo creeks. Water is impounded in 2,100-acre-foot Upper Blue Reservoir, and from there it goes under the Continental Divide in Hoosier Pass Tunnel to be stored in Montgomery Reservoir, near Alma. Eventually goes into small reservoirs near Pikes Peak. Altogether, Colorado Springs diverts 8,000 to 10,000 acre-feet annually.Appropriation: 1948- Vidler TunnelDiverter: Vidler Tunnel Co., primarily owned by the city of GoldenAmount: 450 to 500 cfs of senior and conditional water rights, but with potential to as much as 650. Tunnel, started in 1800s, was intended for a railroad, but never used. Goes from Montezuma area under Grays Peak and to Clear Creek drainage above Georgetown.Appropriation: Varies- Hoosier Pass ditchDiverter: Colorado SpringsAmount: 77 cfs flows by gravity in a ditch across the pass and into South Park. From there, it flows into storage reservoirs near the base of Pikes Peak.Appropriation: 1929- Columbine DitchDiverter: PuebloAmount: 60 cfs diverted from East Fork of Eagle River near Climax Mine to the Arkansas River.Appropriation: 1930- Warren E. Wurtz DitchDiverter: PuebloAmount: 185 cfs allowed, but never is that much diverted from west side of Tennessee Pass into Arkansas River.Appropriation: 1929- Ewing DitchDiverter: PuebloAmount: 18.5 cfs diverted from east of Tennessee Pass and near Ski Cooper into Arkansas River.Appropriation: 1906- Boreas Pass DitchDiverter: EnglewoodAmount: 16 cfs drawn from near Breckenridge into Tarryall Creek, a tributary of the South Platte.Appropriation: 1910.- Eisenhower TunnelDiverter: Coors Brewing Co., GoldenAmount: 1.5 cfs. The high point of the road is inside the two-mile-long tunnel, but a collection system inside the tunnel takes a small amount of water that would otherwise go onto the Western Slope eastward, instead.Appropriation: 1968- Allen BestEditor’s note: cfs = cubic feet per second


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