‘Water Wrangling’ for the West Slope
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Editor’s note: The Colorado River District, headquartered in Glenwood Springs, turned 75 this year. To mark the anniversary, the River District commissioned writer George Sibley of Gunnison to research and write an in-depth history of the organization. “Water Wranglers,” an inch-thick history of western Colorado water politics, has just been published. The Post Independent asked Sibley to write this summary of the book. Visit http://www.gard-sibley.org/George for a resume of his other writings.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – “The River District” is the familiar name for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which is now completing three-quarters of a century of “conservation of the water of the Colorado River in Colorado,” as its 1937 originating legislation put it.
Glenwood Springs attorney and rancher Frank Delaney authored that legislation. After it passed, it seemed right for the River District to be based in Glenwood Springs, on the cusp between the mountains and valleys from whence the river comes, and the desert regions of the Southwest, where eventually the entire river is put to hard use, over and over, being shared by some 30 million mostly urban users and the irrigators of 4 million acres of desert lands.
So what is the River District, and what has it done in its 75 years? Geographically, physically, the River District is all of the watersheds in Colorado west of the Continental Divide and north of the San Juan mountains.
This district includes all or part of 15 counties, and four major river basins: most of the Yampa River Basin to its confluence with the Green River, the White River Basin (another Green River tributary) to the state’s western border, the upper Colorado River Basin to the state border, and all of the Gunnison River Basin to its confluence with the Colorado.
The water in those four river basins constitutes about two-thirds of the water that falls (mostly in the form of winter snow) throughout Colorado. Meanwhile, the population within the boundaries of the River District has historically been no more than one-ninth of the population of the state. Most Colorado residents live in the South Platte and Arkansas River Basins east of the Divide.
In spite of the imbalance between water supply and population, Colorado water law allows the legal transport of water from anywhere in the state to use anywhere else in the state.
This imbalance became an issue in the early 1930s. The entire West was suffering a serious drought, even as the entire nation was suffering the Great Depression, and the federal government in 1933 announced plans to address both problems with large infusions of federal assistance through New Deal programs.
In Colorado, this meant big water projects – big enough to move water from the Colorado River Basin across the Divide and into the South Platte and Arkansas basins.
By 1934, the City and County of Denver was lining the pilot bore of the Moffat Tunnel and building diversion canals in the headwaters of the Fraser River to take West Slope water to Denver. And southeastern Colorado irrigators funded by the sugar beet industry were blasting a tunnel from the Roaring Fork Basin above Aspen to take water to the Arkansas Basin.
Those transmountain diversions, however, were just projects to move tens of thousands of acre-feet of West Slope water to the East Slope. (One acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, about enough to cover a football field 10 inches deep.)
But irrigators on the water-stressed Front Range were collaborating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for a project to move hundreds of thousands of acre-feet annually from the Grand Lake area to the East Slope.
The people of the West Slope – never forgetting that a large portion of West Slope water had been committed to California, Arizona and Nevada under a 1922 compact – began to worry that there would soon be nothing left for their own future development.
The West Slope nonetheless held two good cards.
One was a Glenwood Springs attorney that voters had been sending to Congress since 1908. Edward Taylor had ascended through seniority to the chairmanship of the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that controlled the budget of the Interior Department (and therefore of the Bureau of Reclamation).
Congressman Taylor said unequivocally that there would be no federally funded transmountain diversions unless “compensatory storage” was built on the Western Slope as part of the project – an acre-foot of storage for every acre-foot diverted.
The West Slope’s second card was a New Deal rule that water projects would be federally funded only if the state’s leaders were unified in wanting the project built. Achieving that kind of consensus across the Divide became problematic for Colorado throughout the remainder of the “reclamation era.”
Nonetheless, a remarkable group of people from the Front Range and the Western Slope began meeting.
Delaney, along with attorneys D. W. Aupperle and Silmon Smith of Grand Junction, Dan Hughes of Montrose and Clifford Stone of Gunnison represented an ad hoc “Western Colorado Protective Association,” negotiating with representatives from a Northern Colorado Water Users Association.
The two groups began meeting in 1934, in an atmosphere thick with mistrust and antagonism, and labored in mutual frustration for four years. But gradually they began to understand and even have empathy for each other’s situations.
It became clear that Congressman Taylor’s demand for compensatory storage on one-to-one basis was not a viable solution; it would be prohibitively expensive for the South Platte irrigators, and it was improbable that the West Slope would need that much water.
And with Taylor in his 70s and frequently in ill health, the West Slope negotiators knew that, by asking for too much, they would risk legally losing the water with no compensation at all after Taylor retired, or died in office (which he eventually did in 1941, in his 17th term).
“We cannot ask for more than we need,” Delaney said. In 1935, he drafted what became known as the Delaney Resolution, opening the way for transmountain water development: if the Bureau would do a thorough study of future West Slope needs, and include enough West Slope storage to compensate for the immediate project and meet future needs, then the West Slope would not oppose the transmountain diversion.
This agreement was formalized in 1937 in a federal document, Senate Document 80, that fully described the massive public works project we know as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
Senate Document 80 became “concrete” with the construction of the Green Mountain Reservoir on the Blue River near Kremmling, which provides 154,000 acre-feet of replacement and compensatory water for the Western Slope. It ended up as one acre-foot of storage for every two acre-feet to be diverted out of the basin, a pretty good compromise for a one-ninth minority.
Delaney and the other West Slope negotiators saw this agreement as a model for future transmountain diversions. East Slope money would provide storage for the West Slope as part of the process of getting West Slope water for the East Slope.
This agreement across the Divide prompted a flurry of new organizations in Colorado to guide future water development. In 1937, while the U.S. Congress was authorizing the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, the Colorado Legislature:
• Created the Colorado River Water Conservation District – the River District – giving the West Slope a legally constituted body for participating in the development of Colorado’s share of the Colorado River.
• Enabled the creation of water conservancy districts, quasi-municipal organizations with taxing authority that would repay federal loans for Bureau of Reclamation projects.
• Created the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state board and agency to coordinate water development across the state.
The River District began its quarterly meetings in September 1937, using office space in the Garfield County Courthouse in Glenwood Springs. John Heuschkel, a Garfield County commissioner and businessman, was elected president.
Delaney was retained as the district’s counsel – a job that would come to occupy most of his professional time over the next 18 years. A Bureau of Reclamation engineer working on West Slope project planning, Frank Merriell, was recruited to serve as secretary-engineer.
After a few years, the River District moved to the First National Bank Building, now US Bank. In 1981, an expanding staff led to a larger space in the Centennial Building on the bank of the Colorado River itself, near Two Rivers Park.
Most of the River District’s 75-year history has involved interactions across the Great Divide, not all of them so positively concluded as the deals of the 1930s. Especially problematic was its relationship with the Denver Water Board.
Even before its huge growth following World War II, Denver Water figured that at least half of its eventual water supply would come from the West Slope. Led by its chief counsel, Glenn Saunders, the Water Board saw no legal reason why it had to show any concern over what impact its transmountain diversions would have on the West Slope’s future.
But when its Dillon Reservoir-Roberts Tunnel project on the Blue River was granted water rights that were junior to the Green Mountain Reservoir rights established under Senate Document 80, the Water Board launched a 30-year assault on Green Mountain Reservoir and the very concept of compensatory storage.
Only since 1990, with the appointment of Chips Barry as Denver Water’s manager, did Denver begin to work constructively with the River District on projects that address problems on both sides of the Divide. Denver Water is now led by Jim Lochhead, who practiced water law in Glenwood Springs for 30 years before taking the position.
The collaborative approach forged by a new generation of leaders was recently demonstrated in the five-year negotiation that led to the 2011 Colorado River Cooperative Agreement between Denver Water and 33 West Slope water organizations.
But back in the 1950s and 60s, federal funding for new water projects incited a prolonged battle between Coloradoans on either side of the Divide.
In 1956, the U.S. Congress passed the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) Act. It was aimed at helping Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico – the four upper basin states in the Colorado River Basin – meet their obligations to the three lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California. CRSP also promised storage benefits to western Colorado irrigators, along with hydropower production.
But Front Range cities grew concerned that CRSP’s many new reservoirs might use all of the state’s remaining share of Colorado River water. The cities launched a “filing war,” sending an army of surveyors over to file on any available water. The Denver Water Board passed a resolution in 1956 to file on all unappropriated Colorado River waters from the Divide to the confluence of the Colorado and the Eagle at Dotsero.
Pressure from Denver put the River District’s staff constantly on the run. Attorney John Barnard Sr., who had replaced Delaney, and Secretary-Engineer Phil Smith, who had replace Merriell, scrambled to get the River District’s own filings into water court, to attack Front Range filings, and to start water conservancy districts in communities near CRSP projects.
After Smith’s death in 1968, the River District board hired Roland “Rolly” Fischer, who served the District until 1996. Fischer’s background was petroleum engineering, but that fit as the District board believed that the West Slope’s greatest future challenge – and opportunity – was oil shale development.
With only himself and longtime administrative assistant Eunice Gamill on the payroll, Fischer grew the organization to meet the challenges that were growing around it – all the old problems with Denver and the other Front Range cities, growing difficulty getting federal funding for promised CRSP projects, and a whole new set of challenges presented by environmental legislation in the early 1970s.
The long-awaited oil shale boom came in the late 1970s and went bust almost immediately in the early 1980s. Around the same time, the Bureau of Reclamation completed construction of the Ridgway Dam. It would be the last federal reclamation project built in the 15-county River District, despite prolonged efforts to find funding for the unbuilt CRSP reservoirs.
The River District had been busy enough with those issues, mostly downriver from its Glenwood Springs base, so it did not pay much attention to the economic and political changes happening upstream in the five headwaters counties: Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Gunnison.
Skiing, floating, fishing and other outdoor recreational uses – most requiring water to be left flowing in the streams rather than dammed or diverted – were replacing the utilitarian agricultural and industrial uses that Fischer and most of the district board continued to believe were more important.
The recreational activities, and their supporters, were also more aligned with a national shift away from development of natural resources toward the protection of the natural environment. The same shift was eliminating federal funding for water projects.
In 1937, “conservation” meant storing water for human use. By 1977, “conservation” meant something closer to “preservation,” and the old Western mandate of storage and more storage was no longer uncontested.
Tensions emerged between Fischer, his board, and the new leadership in the headwaters counties. All of that was further complicated in the 1980s by the federal listing of four species of warm-water fish in Colorado and Gunnison rivers as endangered species.
Fischer was a visible, creative and often controversial leader for the West Slope’s traditional water users through his 28-year tenure. One of the district’s best achievements in that time was a truce with Denver, resulting in construction of Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling using Denver money for joint East and West Slope storage.
But Fisher’s greatest achievement may also be organizational, turning the River District from a nearly invisible two-person operation into an effective organization employing around 20 highly skilled people by the time he left.
Fischer hired Eric Kuhn, who has served as general manager since 1996, engineer David Merritt, who supervised the Wolford Mountain project, engineer Ray Tenney, working the labyrinths of the Endangered Species Act, and external affairs director Chris Treese, who keeps the Legislature aware that Colorado has a West Slope.
Merritt is now working elsewhere, but serves as Garfield County’s representative on the River District board.
Over the past two decades, under Kuhn’s leadership, the River District stopped fighting over environmental and economic issues and began trying to work through the problems they presented.
With that pattern, the River District has emerged as a unifying leader for the Western Slope for all water-related issues, resolving the remaining water rights from the 1950s “filing wars,” playing a lead role in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, and speaking out on climate change and its impacts to snowpack, streamflow and reservoir storage.
While the water forecast for the American West appears uncertain at best and catastrophic at worst, the River District has never been on a better footing with the entities it has to work with, across the Divide and in the rest of the Colorado River Basin.
The Frank Delaney spirit of “asking for no more than we need,” but being certain and firm about what we do need, seems prevails as the River District moves into the 21st century.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
Outstanding Teacher Awards organized by Summit54 recognize elementary educators throughout Roaring Fork Valley
The Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times are partnering with Summit54, an education nonprofit in Aspen, to help acknowledge the hard work of educators who have gone above and beyond during COVID-19 in…