Where will our next ditch come from and who will fill it?

By Jane Earle

From a small item put into the Community Relations budget at Denver Water 10 years ago has come Patricia Limerick’s book, “A Ditch in Time.” On the title page of the book, Professor Limerick notes a financial contribution made by Denver Water to support a graduate student’s research, but the real contribution was the idea that the story of how water came to Denver might be worth telling.
It wasn’t my idea but it was my budget. Charlie Jordan, the innovative, strategic thinker who re-made the agency’s image after Two Forks, was the Director of Public Affairs and my immediate supervisor at Denver Water. At budget time, he came to me and told me to put a line into my budget to fund the writing of a history of Denver Water.
I followed orders but not without an argument. It was a pattern. If Charlie was the shaper of Denver Water’s new image, I, as Manager of Community Relations, was its fierce defender. Any time anyone proposed to do anything that might get public attention, I gave the idea intense scrutiny before signing on. I was perhaps a little too ardent in my protective efforts; after one of our struggles over a proposed new project, Charlie said to me, “You have told me ‘no’ on this three times.” Not wanting to lose the job I loved so much, I gave up. Charlie was right, of course, and it turned out well.
The book turned out well, too, but it took a while and a few turns in the road. The first turn was nearly fatal as the history funding fell to the budget axe. The late Joe Shoemaker, who was a member of the Board at that time, quickly disposed of our plan to have a history of Denver Water written. Commissioner Shoemaker didn’t much like public relations in any of its guises and he had honed his skills at cutting budgets in the Colorado State Legislature as chairman of the Joint Budget Committee. The history was history.
Boards change, even the Board of Water Commissioners. Members come and members go and Sen. Shoemaker left to do other things. The line went back in the budget and, backed by Chips Barry, then Manager of Denver Water, it was passed by the Board. This time, the proposal was to ask Patricia Limerick, Colorado’s prestigious MacArther fellowship winning historian, to write the history. And that was my idea. This time, it was Charlie who was incredulous. After all, Professor Limerick was not always kind to the white builders in her history of the West, “The Legacy of Conquest.” But that was why I wanted her: No one could accuse Denver Water of commissioning a coffee table book about the glories of its past if Patricia Limerick was the author. Chips was beguiled by the idea. The rest is history, as they say. This time, literally.
Professor Limerick doesn’t call her book a history of Denver Water. She subtitles it, “The City, the West, and Water.” It’s well named. She has set the story of some of the major events in the development of Denver’s water system in their proper geographic and historic context. The contributions of the people who built the water system and their legacy are stories that needed to be told. They were men of vision who could imagine a great city on the treeless plain next to the (mostly dry) South Platte River.
In “A Ditch in Time,” as always, Professor Limerick presents not only what was but posits a number of what might-have-beens. One of the most interesting sections of the book is the conclusion or “Turning Hindsight into Foresight” where she discusses “Mistaken Assumptions” one through five and offers an alternative scenario to each. She challenges such well fixed ideas that water utilities can control population growth through the water supply, or lack thereof; the Jeffersonian idea that there is something; inherently more virtuous in the agrarian population than there is in the urban and even takes a swing at Mark Twain’s pithy observation, sacred to every Colorado citizen, that “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” The alternatives she offers are, as always, thoughtful, based on solid research and wisdom and at least worth a try. If we are to have water visionaries in the future to protect and provide this vital resource for the next generation, they could do worse than to study Patricia Limerick’s conclusions and especially her alternatives. Who will those people be and what will the water future to which they lead us look like?
Jane Earle was Manager of Community Relations for Denver Water for 10 years. She is currently a freelance writer in Denver.
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