Water principles of the West begin with blaming California

  Like the rest of the West, Colorado suffers from a multi-year drought. Drought, in case you're curious, is one of those technical terms for what happens when you have enough water for 1 million residents, but not enough for 4 million, let alone the 10 million that the developers would like to see.

What might be even worse than the lawn-watering restrictions, though, is the plethora of proposed solutions, which range from cloud-seeding to importing train-loads of water from the Nebraska Sandhills.

Among those proposals is a set of "water principles" adopted by a group called "Colorado 64," which is a consortium of outfits like Club 20, Action 22, and Progressive 15, which are in turn associations of neighboring counties which select delegates who convene every so often for lobbying, socializing and other noble purposes.

The new water principles, codified earlier this year after lengthy discussion, contain all the proper modern buzzwords, like "consensus" and "respect." Who could find fault with "the implementation of consensus-based water resource solutions that respect local authorities"? Or with "maintaining the proper stewardship of the land"? Or with "earnest efforts to find water supply answers that benefit all Coloradans, for this and future generations"?

In other words, these principles are about as controversial as safe streets and neighborhood schools. But there is a problem, and that is that they ignore the traditional principles that have, for the last century or so, pretty well defined water policy in the West. Thus it only seems proper, if we're going to adopt some New Water Principles, to remember our Traditional Western Water Principles:

• Whenever there's a water problem, it is always the fault of California. When mountain streams are flooding, it's because California won't let new dams be built in the Rockies. When the mountain reservoirs are shrinking, it's because California keeps taking water it is supposed to get under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. California is a safe party to blame, because it's so big and rich that nobody there needs to care what we say about it. Besides, it's a Democratic domain, and our Republican officials need to blame somebody.

• In all water development, the federal government should cover most of the cost, and preferably the entire tab. After all, the Winning of the West has been a national priority since about 1777, and there's no reason to stop now.

• No water project is ever built to assist developers and subdividers. Even if they're the ones who will benefit the most, the official purpose will to benefit hard-scrabble farmers, struggling ranchers or Native Americans.

• If there's not enough water to serve new developments, then current users should make sacrifices. In other words, the more water you conserve, the more water that will be available for big-box stores, shopping malls and sprawling suburbs. These developments generally increase your cost-of-living and reduce your quality-of-life, but you will be told that "we're all in this together" and you'll be seen as rather churlish and mean-spirited if you object to killing your last tree so that Vista Heights Gated Golf-Course Community can continue selling lots.

• Any solutions to water-supply problems should feature new structures (dams and reservoirs are best, but canals and tunnels are acceptable) which can be named after their political sponsors -- i.e., Hoover Dam in Nevada, Alva Adams Tunnel in Colorado, Theodore Roosevelt Dam in Arizona. Water projects need political support, and it's easier to get it with the imposing Sen. Josiah R. Claghorn Dam and Reservoir than with the Claghorn-Smith Instream Flow Protection Act of 2003. Construction can confer a degree of immortality on a public servant. It also shows the constituents that they're getting their fair share from the pork barrel, and that's important, especially in election years.

Those are the principal principles that have guided Western water development over the years, and it seems odd that they were not addressed by the people who came up with the new and improved water principles.

But on the other hand, that could be because no one has ever figured out how to repeal the supreme law of our hydrology, first articulated by John A. Love, a Republican who served as governor of Colorado from 1963 to 1973: "Water flows uphill to money."

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a regular columnist for the Denver Post and lives in Salida, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.