Conflict has been our central water narrative in Colorado. It’s been shovel-wielding neighbor against neighbor, city against farm, Eastern Slope versus Western Slope, and, purely from a Colorado perspective, us versus those water-wasting scoundrels downstream in California, Arizona and Las Vegas. In headlines, for sure, and sometimes in fact, we have always been at war over water.
Water matters, absolutely. We all know that. But is conflict the only way to understand Colorado’s water history—or future? Or might cooperation and its close cousin, collaboration, also help us understand where we’ve come and guide us better through the 21st century? Your computer dictionary will probably use cooperation and collaboration interchangeably, but the Webster Third New International Dictionary suggests a distinction. Cooperation comes with allies, but collaboration especially occurs with an enemy or an opposed group. Parsing collaboration, you find the root word “labor.” To labor requires “expenditure of physical or mental effort, especially when fatiguing, difficult or compulsory.”
Teammates on sporting teams should, at least in theory, be cooperative. But to understand collaboration, a more useful example can be found in legislative bodies. The most successful efforts come when individuals can find the common ground that allows members of different political parties to toil together toward a common goal.
Colorado’s water history has had moments of conflict, cooperation and collaboration. The lone argonaut, stooped in Clear Creek or the Blue River, panning for flecks of gold, was quickly replaced by organized laborers who directed water to hydraulic sluices and then picked minerals away from mines. Cooperation.
Soon came the agricultural enterprises, with shared labor again essential to the construction of ditches to convey water beyond the river edges. Many of our towns began as colonies organized specifically to pool labor in pursuit of a common goal of developing water resources for new farms. Union Colony, now known as Greeley, was the first, but was followed by a long string of agricultural cooperatives in the places we call Longmont and Fort Collins, Nucla and Silvercliffe. The mutual ditch companies were organized in efforts of co-labor. There was, from the very start, cooperation.
And yes, conflict too—such as when too many canals were beveled into the same rivers to deliver water to expanding farms. Robert G. Dunbar, in his 1983 book, Forging New Rights in Western Waters, tells the familiar story of Union Colony farmers who discovered that by Independence Day of 1874, just a few years after the colony’s founding, there was too little water in the Cache la Poudre River to supply their ditches. “Crops, gardens, and fruit trees were perishing.” Colony founder Nathan Meeker and associates traveled upstream on the Poudre to find out why: New canals had been constructed, taking all the water in a drought year. There was conflict, but no irrigation shovels were swung in anger. Instead, there was discussion, compromise and ultimately legislative action that “provided Coloradans with a method of acquiring, determining and administering the appropriation right.” It was imperfect, he goes on to note—and we have been arguing ever since about how it could be improved.
However, George Sibley, author of Water Wranglers, points out that certain conditions in the appropriations doctrine nurtured cooperation. One example is the constitutional guarantee of access, even when across another’s property. “It’s a lot easier for two or three or 10 families to work on a common mother ditch than to have each one cutting across somebody else’s land to get water,” he says.
In the 20th century, Coloradans frequently asked the federal government to become the banker for major water projects. Conflict in these cases was often followed by collaboration. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project provides a good example. In the 1930s, as farmers of northeastern Colorado were beset by drought, they set out to seek federal aid to divert further waters from the Colorado River across the Continental Divide. Led by Congressman Ed Taylor, a Democrat from Glenwood Springs, the Western Slope muscularly resisted: Every acre-foot of water diverted had to be matched with an acre-foot of storage to benefit farmers and others along the Colorado River and its tributaries. The feds insisted upon compromise. At length, the Western Slope lowered its demands, and together the two sides won the necessary federal money. The Western Slope got Green Mountain Reservoir, between Silverthorne and Kremmling. The cross-Divide diversions delivered water from Boulder to Fort Collins, and allowed farms to flourish along the South Platte River to Julesberg. When the pact was forged in 1937, there were no ski areas, except at Berthoud Pass, and no Endangered Species Act. The compromise was imperfect, as became more glaring decades later. The diversions diminished the Colorado River and tributaries in Middle Park, an area with no benefit from the storage at Green Mountain Reservoir. But Green Mountain provides benefits to ski area operations, endangered fish, and Grand Valley irrigators to this day.
Much the same model for compensatory storage was used for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, launched by President John Kennedy in a speech in Pueblo in 1962. Conflict preceded collaboration. Water eventually went east over the Continental Divide, but the same federal dollars built Ruedi Reservoir on the Western Slope near Basalt.
Since the raft of environmental legislation in the late 1960s and 1970s, both federal and state, we have a new dynamic. Beneficial use as defined by Colorado statutes for the purpose of allocating water rights has been broadened to include water left in streams and rivers, for both environmental and recreational purposes. Values have shifted, with profound consequences. They have driven the need for even more cooperation but also, increasingly in the last few decades, for collaboration among parties that previously were disinclined to toil together in seeking common solutions.
Consider the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In mandating efforts to recover threatened populations of fish in the Colorado River and migratory birds in the Platte River, the law has required disparate interests to find ways to cooperate to ensure adequate deliveries of water to downstream river segments. It doesn’t matter whether you like the law. So, in summer, individuals from Denver to Berthoud to Grand Junction—and even Salt Lake City—gather in a phone call most weeks to talk about how to ensure delivery of sufficient water for endangered fish in critical river segments near Grand Junction.
These newer values have also been evident in several high-profile proposals beginning in the late 1970s. All involved transbasin diversions. All suggest lessons about conflict and collaboration. The first involved construction of the Foothills Water Treatment Plant by Denver Water in 1983. The plant treats water from the South Platte River as well as that imported from the Blue River via Dillon Reservoir and the Roberts Tunnel. It was strongly opposed by environmentalists, but Dan Luecke,an environmental scientist and water resources expert,says he thinks those groups got it wrong with their approach. They made it a fight over growth, and water availability alone does not constrain growth. Instead, they should have offered an alternative. “They didn’t treat the interests of their opponents as legitimate interests,” he says. But more broadly, he says there was no opportunity or arena for collaboration.
Collaboration was also elusive at Two Forks, the billion-dollar dam on the South Platte River planned by Denver and the surrounding metro area in the 1980s. Governor Dick Lamm’s water roundtable offered an arena, but no collaboration occurred because, in Luecke’s analysis, “Denver wouldn’t take its eye off the Two Forks ball.” This time, environmentalists took seriously the need of water utilities to address growing demand, but made the case that there was a “technically sound, reasonably priced, environmentally less-damaging option to the big dam.” At length, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed—and in 1990 vetoed the project. “But this wasn’t collaboration either,” says Luecke adding that the confrontation did, however, set the stage for collaboration that would come later, in the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program created by Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska in 1997 to restore habitat for the whooping crane, least tern, and other species. In the wake of Two Forks, Denver and other water providers also stepped up water conservation programs.
“Conflict, I think, is embedded in the law and in the institutions,” says Luecke. “The collaborative notion, in my view, has had a lot to do with the broadening definition of beneficial use and the imposition of regulations associated with both federal and state law of what constitutes beneficial use of the water.”
A third major confrontation was over expanded diversion of water from the Eagle River headwaters around Mount of the Holy Cross. Using state authority delegated in 1974, Eagle County rejected a permit for a transbasin diversion called Homestake II. But even before that authority had been fully confirmed by the Colorado Supreme Court, leaders from the Vail area had reached out to the Colorado River Water Conservation District to guide a sort of third-party process. They were frustrated, recalls Chris Treese, director of external affairs for the Colorado River District, “with how much taxpayers’ money was being spent on legalities that would not be productive.” Front Range cities with water rights in the basin sat down with local interests to see what could be achieved to resolve litigation. The resulting agreement, the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding, was “born in conflict and frustration,” says Treese, but has kept them out of the courtroom for several decades now. Instead, the different parties have been talking and investigating, seeking to produce solutions that benefit all. One early example: Aurora and Colorado Springs release water destined for Eastern Slope use from the original Homestake Reservoir to benefit local, Eagle Valley needs.
Since Homestake II and Two Forks, using collaboration to avoid courtroom showdowns has become a more frequent strategy. This has been particularly evident in incremental transbasin diversions from the Colorado River and its tributaries in the headwaters. The most striking example is the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which frames a compromise—cooperation and collaboration, too—for stepped up diversions by Denver Water through the Moffat Tunnel to Gross Reservoir, located southwest of Boulder.
Like the Eagle River negotiations, these discussions were lengthy, continuing for more than five years, and held largely out of the public eye. They were preceded with meet-and-greets in the nature of a community potluck. But the greeters were representatives from the board of Denver Water, from Grand County, and from other water interests in the Colorado River Basin.
Lurline Curran, former county manager in Grand County, grew up in Kremmling and lived there when angry bumper stickers appeared reading “Dam the Denver Water Board.” Denver’s diversion from the county had begun in 1928 through the Moffat Tunnel. But Denver had remaining water rights and, after the 2002 drought, a compelling argument for more water.
To reach agreement, Denver Water and the Western Slope representatives met repeatedly and in many locations, not the traditional adversarial settings. That time allowed relationships and deeper understanding to develop. “We became people to each other, people who were doing the best for the entities we represented. And then, as we got to know the people, we got to know what it was like to walk in each other’s shoes. And then we were able to make considerations that we wouldn’t have considered otherwise,” says Curran.
The agreement announced in 2010 has 18 signatories and 40 partners, most from headwaters counties and others along the Colorado River. In what Denver Water calls a “historic collaboration,” the utility is allowed to develop water in Grand County while specifying methods bankrolled by Denver to protect watersheds in the Colorado River Basin. Denver also agreed not to oppose what are called recreational in-channel diversions, or RICDs, which aren’t really diversions at all, but rather water rights filed to preserve flows at levels needed to accommodate rafting, kayaking and other recreational purposes. Specifically identified were segments on the Colorado River downstream from Gore Canyon and in Glenwood Canyon.
The most daring, innovative aspect of the agreement is something called “learning by doing,” a form of adaptive management driven by the idea that both diverter and basin of origin will share in management of the Fraser, Williams Fork and Colorado rivers even as diversions increase. The parties will labor together, seeking to maximize what is needed by each. They are partners now, their partnership framed by law, but also by an agreement forged in lengthy conversation.
“A lot of it was trust, just the time it takes to actually talk through what your interests are—what your real interests are—what you need, what your concerns are,” says Susan Daggett, who was on Denver Water’s board of directors during negotiations. But she cautions that trust can easily be destroyed. She recalls that Denver was holding onto conditional water rights on the Western Slope just in case they could be used for other transbasin diversions. At some point, Denver decided to abandon those rights, because they threatened to become barriers to the trust that was being developed. “The trust is kind of conditional,” Daggett says. Missteps can reanimate old, ugly stories that have existed for decades, causing them to “come roaring back to life.”
Overcoming this history of conflict to produce collaborative solutions also requires an element of faith. Can the elected officials and other representatives in these collaborative efforts persuade those back at home that a proposed path is good, the best way forward? Will their institutions and constituencies follow along? Much is on the line for a representative charged with looking out for the best interests of his or her agency for the next 50 to 100 years.
Daggett, now the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, brings up another C-word: creativity. With urban Colorado inevitably needing more water in the future, she sees need for creativity in accommodating agricultural-to-urban water rights transfers in ways that do not harm the vital interests of rural areas. “The old tools don’t work for us anymore,” she says.
A new tool introduced a decade ago came from Russell George, a water lawyer from Rifle who was elected to the state legislature in the early 1990s. Like other legislators from the Western Slope, he says, he was expected to work for basin-of-origin protection legislation. But that idea got no traction—and wasn’t likely to. Water rich, the Western Slope was population poor and always would be compared to the urban Front Range corridor.
About that time, George was reading Dan Tyler’s biography of Delph Carpenter, the Greeley water lawyer generally considered to be the father of the Colorado River Compact. George had the idea that the major river basins across Colorado needed to have conversations, similar to those the seven basin states had engaged in to achieve a compact for the Colorado River. That essential idea, codified by legislators in HB 05-1177, established the roundtable process that continues to this day and led to Colorado’s Water Plan, finalized in November 2015.
The plan itself is now held up by some as the greatest collaborative water effort in Colorado ever. Tasked by Governor John Hickenlooper to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2013, it involved hundreds of stakeholders representing a vast range of water-related interests from every region in the state. Open to public participation and scrutiny, the plan was adopted after considering more than 30,000 public comments. It lays out needed state and local actions, including the diverse proposals of nine regional roundtables whose values have at times been at odds with one another, in an effort to sustainably meet Colorado water needs through 2060. George believes the process established in 2005 created the framework for this collaboration. It forced water diverters to differentiate needs from wants with the elemental questions: What’s it worth to me, and what will I pay to get it? Is this really what I need? Testimony given by basin roundtable representatives in November 2015 echoed what Curran says: The process forced them—sometimes painfully at the start—to walk in each other’s shoes. Conversation leads to understanding. Understanding: the precursor to collaboration.
Another example of cooperation and, perhaps, collaboration—and one of the types of creative, water-stretching and multi-stakeholder projects the water plan seeks to foster moving forward—can be found in metropolitan Denver. Since the 1980s, Colorado’s most dominant water conversation has revolved around what to do about Denver’s southern suburbs, among the nation’s wealthiest and, for about 20 years, the fastest growing. Add to that: unsustainable. They were reliant—and still are—upon declining stores of non-renewable groundwater.
In the last decade, that story has been changing. Some of it involves conservation, including revised land use policies. Such policies have generally been fostered by individual water providers. But in water supply projects, there has been greater collaboration. “You need economy of scale,” says Eric Hecox, director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. “They [water projects] are just too expensive and too complicated for individual entities to do on their own.”
A centerpiece of that new collaboration is the WISE (Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency) project. It draws water from wells along the South Platte River near Brighton, downstream from the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District’s treatment plant, and pumps the water to Aurora for purification. The water can be used to the extent that it has been introduced into the basin by Denver and Aurora from outside the South Platte Basin. It also includes the fully consumable portion of transferred agriculture water.
The parties in WISE vary in their size, tolerance of risk, and other respects, points out Mitch Chambers, who was on the South Metro Water Supply Authority board of directors for several years. His description of dynamics in the negotiating process among South Metro districts parallels those of Curran in Grand County’s relationship with Denver Water. It took four or five years to develop relationships and then trust, to begin to understand the motivations of others. “Collaboration takes a lot of effort to sort of get on the same side and figure out what is good for both,” says Chambers. If the process is driven by establishing winners and losers, he says, it’s likely a failure. Success, he adds, isn’t measured by getting everything you want: “But you get more than what you had before you started.”
Parker Water and Sanitation District has been a hub for some of this collaboration in the WISE project. It has a central location and, very importantly, access to a relatively new reservoir called Rueter-Hess, now coupled with a state-of-the-art water treatment plant. Ron Redd, the manager for Parker Water, was hired because of his instincts toward collaboration. A native of Montana, he had spent years at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides wholesale water for 19 million people. But he also studied the consolidation of seven water districts in the Las Vegas area into the Southern Nevada Water Authority in 1991. There is value in consolidation, for more efficient delivery of services, as Vail and Eagle Valley districts learned when they decided around 1980 to dissolve boundaries and create a larger, more efficient Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.
Nothing of that sort of consolidation is proposed in South Metro. But under Redd’s direction, Parker has been seeking opportunities for sharing pipeline capacity, reservoir storage, and other costs. Instead of consolidation of districts, he seeks partnerships and business arrangements. “Instead of taking over somebody, our goal is to make this service so attractive that they want to keep buying it [the services, e.g., sharing pipeline or reservoir storage],” he explains.
Parker is now about six months away from completing schematics on what may be viewed as an innovative ag-to-urban project. A decade ago, the district bought agriculture water from near Iliff, about 10 miles downstream from Sterling. The water is laden with salt, and Parker is investigating the possibility of cleaning it up with the aid of farmers or municipalities along the way. These collaborators could get some of this higher-quality water before the rest is pumped 140 miles to Rueter-Hess. The project would cost $360 million. “It’s not the typical buy and dry you hear about,” Redd says. Instead, “it would be the ultimate collaboration, I think, if we can get farmers and ranchers out there working side by side with us to build infrastructure.”
Redd also sees a collaborative approach being a prerequisite for an even more ambitious project, a pipeline from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, located at the Wyoming-Utah border. He thinks it might happen, but it won’t come cheap: The latest estimate is $5 billion. No one existing organization can come up with that kind of money. Too, it would have potential impacts that have not yet been fully sorted out. An important part of Colorado’s Water Plan is a “conceptual framework” that specifies the risk be acknowledged in any future transbasin diversion that a project might deliver water only in the wettest years. The framework outlines a collaborative process for identifying how such projects could be evaluated in light of that risk and the potential impacts.
Are we in a new era of collaboration? Books have a tidy way of organizing content by chapters, but it’s artificial. The storyline overlaps the chapters. So it is with collaboration. Arguably this new chapter began in the 1980s and most certainly after the rejection of both Homestake II and Two Forks in the 1990s. Faced with this brick wall, Front Range water providers have been approaching projects differently. Collaboration isn’t necessarily the first impulse for all. Water leaders have different constituencies. But clearly it’s a different world from the 1960s or even the 1970s.
Colorado is also different from 50 years ago in this fundamental way: We are far closer to the bottom of the water bucket. Just how much water remains to be developed is disputed. Some say projects already in the pipeline could use up all unallocated water, while others see hundreds of thousands of acre-feet remaining. The changing climate might also change the amount. “It’s a sliding scale depending upon how much your risk tolerance is,” says Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District. As with Parker’s incipient idea for accessing its water near Sterling, there will also have to be collaboration in the South Platte Basin between cities and agricultural producers. You might expect that increased scarcity would yield greater conflict, and it might. But the blunt political—and economic—realities suggest a greater impulse toward collaboration. It might be cheaper in the long run than courtroom brawls that often deliver verdicts that please nobody.
That’s not to diminish the difficulty of collaboration. By its very root word, labor, it implies sweat. It implies overcoming cherished stories about water wars and enemies. It requires the vision of leaders, but also steady communication with their constituencies. It requires a firm embrace of the process, strong enough to survive when the going gets tough.