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Know the West

How Colorado is trying to get beyond zero-sum water wars

The new water plan represents an evolving moral algebra that transcends more primitive water law.


The self-styled sensible people today seem to take it for granted that Americans have lost any capacity for working through difficult problems, especially where cultural differences are concerned. That attitude has certainly surfaced in response to Colorado's water planning process. Given the absence of additional unappropriated water, the sensibles say, more water for one group means less water for other groups, an unacceptable zero-sum situation, especially across Colorado's transmountain and rural-urban “divides.”

Colorado historian Patricia Limerick lent credence to that zero-sum thinking in her contribution to a “Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Transbasin Diversions,” published by the state’s Foundation for Water Education. “There is no moral algebra,” she said, “for calculating whether retaining water to support commercial development on the Western Slope is better or worse than transporting water to support commercial development on the Front Range.”

Her statement reflects the first-come-first-served approach of metropolitan Denver toward West Slope water until late in the 20th century. It is a legal approach under the longstanding “prior appropriation” doctrine (first in time, first in right), but one of questionable morality. Colorado’s big federal transmountain diversions in that same period – the Colorado-Big Thompson and Fryingpan-Arkansas projects – transcended the letter of the law and carefully worked through a more just process that resulted in compensatory storage and maintenance of “live streams.” 

The Colorado River flows over the Windy Gap diversion dam.
Courtesy Western Area Power/CC Flickr

The goal was to ensure that future development of the Western Slope would not be sacrificed, however legally, to the thirsty and more populated Front Range.

In the seminal 1922 Colorado River Compact negotiations, chairman Herbert Hoover, then secretary of Commerce, had encouraged the seven basin-state commissioners to adhere to a “principle of equation” to “safeguard the proper normal development of the basin.” Algebra is the mathematical language of equation, a moral language constructed around the equal sign. Anything taken from one side of the equation to the other must be balanced by something taken the other way to maintain equation.

If water were the only factor in the equations between Colorado’s “divides,” then zero-sum skepticism might be warranted. But it is never just about water. All uses of water, from irrigated fields to municipal utilities to float trips, also involve the application of money and ideas to water. So when water is moved from Colorado's rural Western Slope to the Front Range, Front Range money to implement ideas for how to make up that loss should be moved back across the Continental Divide to maintain the equation.

This is already happening to a greater extent than the water-war stories in the press suggest. The Colorado Water Plan that skeptics question coincided with two successful transmountain negotiations that anticipated most of the “conceptual framework” for diversions in the new Water Plan: the Moffat Tunnel Firming Project negotiated between Denver Water and the Colorado River District, acting on behalf of 37 West Slope partners; and the Windy Gap Firming Project between Grand County on the West Slope and Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict (the Longmont-Fort Collins urban corridor).

The newly completed Moffat Tunnel in 1927.

Both projects are currently held up in Front Range permitting problems, but each works through a dynamic equation of West Slope water moved east only in good water years, and significant Front Range money invested in ideas for the West Slope’s best use of its remaining water. In western Colorado culture, “commercial development” often means water left flowing in streams rather than diverted from them.

Projects are also already underway in Colorado that anticipate the Water Plan's discussion of moving some of the 85 percent of Colorado water used by agriculture across the state's “rural-urban” divide, to meet metropolitan needs. The moral algebra there is how to apply new ideas and urban money to maintaining high agricultural productivity with less water. That challenge is being addressed in projects like Aurora’s South Platte Prairie Waters Project and the Superditch Project in the Arkansas Basin.

In Colorado’s emerging dynamic algebra of water, ideas and money, the only obvious limit is that money and ideas cannot replace all of the water on either side of the equation. But within that limit, the Water Plan is a creative venture in Hoover’s principle of equation – an evolving moral algebra that transcends more primitive water law. We've been propagandized to think water issues are too complex for ordinary folk, but we all had algebra in high school, and algebra's morality is really what underlies Colorado's forward-looking Water Plan. 

George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He lives in Gunnison, Colorado, and is the author of Water Wranglers, a history of Colorado water development.