Colorado water diversions, urban and rural

by Sarah Gilman

I was born in Boulder, Colo., just long enough ago to witness the merging of the state's Front Range communities into a megalopolis at the eastern foot of the Rockies. In my early 20s, I moved to the more sparsely populated Western Slope, spending time in Gothic, Leadville and Aspen before finally ending up in Paonia, High Country News' home base.

In a way, my urban-to-rural migration -- up and over the Continental Divide -- retraced, in reverse, the path of Colorado's water, 80 percent of which originates on the Western Slope. In contrast, 80 percent of the state's population resides on the Eastern Slope. After the Dust Bowl, that growing imbalance inspired the construction of at least 24 trans-basin diversions -- systems of ditches, tunnels and reservoirs that carry water across or beneath the Divide to farms and thirsty cities.

Boulder Reservoir receives water from two of those diversions, including the biggest one, which draws approximately 260,000 acre-feet a year from the Colorado River. That incongruous lake on the arid plains supplies 20 percent of my hometown's water. I used to swim there on blistering days; my parents sometimes found fossils on its muddy shores.

When I worked as a reporter in Aspen, I saw the other side of the diversion equation. Up to 40 percent of the headwaters of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers, the latter of which passes through the resort town, is siphoned to the Eastern Slope via the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project and other systems. In drought years, sections of the Roaring Fork have gone completely dry, thanks to water demand, and locals erupt in fury at any suggestion that they may have to give up yet more water.

Living across the Divide has taught me that both sides of the diversion debate are backed by valid arguments and threatened by serious consequences. There are no simple answers here, especially as the population grows; Colorado's water world is messy, intricate and fueled by self-interest -- fraught with gray areas and contradictions.

It's this ambiguous territory that HCN Contributing Editor Matt Jenkins explores in his cover story -- which follows Pueblo Chieftain Publisher Bob Rawlings' fight to keep water in the Eastern Slope's Lower Arkansas Valley. Rawlings' family and the newspapers its members have run over the last several decades were instrumental in getting the Fry-Ark project through Congress in 1962. Over the last 12 years, Rawlings has turned the Chieftain's guns on an even messier new reality, as the once-vigorous agricultural economies that fought so hard to bring water across the Rockies are forced to relinquish it to today's booming cities. It's a fight that reveals just how much the West has changed, and one that has forced Rawlings to face an emerging model of water allocation -- one driven by pragmatism and compromise rather than by might and idealism.

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