Colorado water diversions, urban and rural

  • 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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -