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.


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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.

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