How low will it go?

Colorado may face a dry and difficult future of fighting for water

  • Eric Kuhn of the Colorado River Water Conservation District has challenged the conventional wisdom about how much Colorado River water remains for Colorado to develop. He says it's not much.

    Jim Pokrandt, CRWCD
  • Kayaking in Reflection Canyon beneath the 140-foot-high "bathtub ring" of Lake Powell. When this photograph was taken in April 2005, the reservoir had lost nearly 70 percent of its total water volume. The reservoir was last full in 1999.

  • From "Medieval drought in the Upper Colorado River Basin," Geophysical Research Letters Vol. 34, L10705, 24 May 2007. David M. Meko, Connie A. Woodhouse, Christopher A. Baisan, Troy Knight, Jeffrey J. Lukas, Malcolm K. Hughes, and Matthew W. Salzer.
  • Transmountain diversion projects from Colorado’s Western Slope.

    Sources: CRWCD, Colorado Division Of Water Resources
  • A 2007 State of Colorado internal document showing Colorado doesn't have nearly enough water to accommodate future growth.

 

Page 7

Despite occasional rancor, the questions that drive Eric Kuhn are increasingly ones that Colorado's water managers are willing to discuss in their own polite company. And there is growing hope that real answers may burn through the miasmal haze that has, till now, shrouded the crucial question of how much more water Colorado can develop.

In 2007, largely thanks to Kuhn's urging, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill funding a far-more-detailed analysis of water availability than the state has yet attempted. In addition, the Colorado Water Conservation Board is working to assess exactly how the state's water users might be shut off to meet a Compact call.

That process is sure to bring many uncomfortable questions into the open. "I have no illusions that we're going to get through this without a lot of bloodletting," says Randy Seaholm. Still, he said last December, the prospect of a call is not as dire as Kuhn would have it: "Eric is right when he says every additional drop of water you develop increases the risk that a senior water right may be curtailed in the future. But that's been the case since we started developing water."

Yet the margin of error is thinner today than ever before. Kuhn frequently invokes a cautionary example of the human cost of a call.

Along the South Platte River in northeastern Colorado, farmers for nearly 30 years had made massive investments to pump groundwater for their farms. In reality, the water they were pumping was being sucked out of the river -- and it was water that had other, more senior farmers' names on it.

The pumping was technically illegal. But a series of jerry-rigged compromises were made. And for decades, things were wet enough that there was enough water to go around.

Then there wasn't.

In 2002 -- the same year that rang alarm bells for the Colorado River's water managers -- water supplies on the South Platte plummeted, and a judge ordered that more than 2,000 wells be shut down so that the senior river-water users could get their water. Many farms have never recovered.

"It's just a nightmare," says Tom Cech, the head of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District. "It's just a terrible, terrible tragedy."

Many farmers have had to move out of the area. Those who can still pump can only run every other pump, and even then at rates far below what they did in the past. Still other farmers have been reduced to dryland farming. "They're trying to survive on dryland income," Cech says, "which is kind of like going from a salaried position to minimum wage."

That's the kind of disaster Kuhn says the state can't afford to repeat. "In the South Platte, we intentionally chose political expedience over good science," he says. "We knew better, but people chose to make the wrong decision because it was the political path of least resistance."

Kuhn has had to contend with the old Biblical maxim that prophets are rejected in their home towns. He understands that he has cracked open an ugly Pandora's box. But he also has spoken out only after considerable soul searching about the consequences of not doing so.

"Look, I don't know that I'm right," he said last December, as he gunned one of the River District's Subarus over Vail Pass en route to a water meeting. "But I don't think I should be criticized for openly stating what everybody else understands, but is unwilling to talk about."

This article was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.