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Know the West

Welcome to the era of scarcity


I have a classic Western postcard tacked to the bulletin board above my computer. It shows two men in a field with shovels raised above their heads, locked in mock battle. Behind them runs an irrigation ditch. The headline reads: "Discussing Western Water Rights, A Western Pastime."

The postcard makes me laugh because I know firsthand how worked up people can get over water. At an annual ditch meeting two years ago, my Western Colorado neighbors seemed on the verge of an insurrection when the volunteer members of the board sheepishly announced that a leak in the local reservoir had not been fixed. That meant that the reservoir, which supplies our late-season water, would not fill, and so the ditches would run dry by the end of July. Our green patches of grass, alfalfa and corn would quickly become as brown, bare and cracked as the desert lands that surround them.

In years past, my neighbors and I might have shrugged off one shortened growing season; once the reservoir was fixed, after all, the ditches would flow copiously all summer long with snowmelt from the mountains behind town. But that was then. Nowadays, something weird is going on with the weather. The snowpack -- the source of nearly all of our water -- has become unpredictable, with most years on the lean side. No matter how much snow flies in the winter, it seems to melt off earlier every spring.

Climate change scientists confirm what old-timers know by observation: The West's water supply is shrinking. A difficult period of triage lies ahead. If our cities get their way, the rural areas and the Indian tribes will end up handing over their water. It's already happening in places like Southern California and Las Vegas, where deals are being cut to pump groundwater and divert traditional agricultural waters to the urban areas.

Here in Colorado, water managers have long assumed that the state still has plenty of unused Colorado River water to accommodate future growth on both the Front Range and the Western Slope. But now, forward-looking realists like Eric Kuhn are tossing those assumptions out the window. The Colorado River's flow has always been overestimated, and it is bound to shrink even more as the climate shifts. Kuhn, the protagonist in this issue's cover story, estimates that Colorado may have legal access to just one-tenth of the water it thought it had.

That means that the Front Range, which is expecting more growth in the next couple of decades, will need to push conservation harder than ever. But even that won't be enough: It will also have to purchase senior water rights from agricultural interests on my side of the Continental Divide. 

In the not-so-distant future, our small farms and ranches may dry up in order to keep the faucets running in the expanding suburbs of Denver. The great Western Pastime of arguing over water is far from over, but the players in the game are shifting. Instead of wielding shovels, they now carry the latest climate models and are accompanied by powerful lawyers.