Water wars, warriors still changing history in West

Drive west to the mountains, the ski resorts and the picturesque towns of the Western Slope, or north to Denver and Wyoming, or east to the sprawling ranches and farms of the high plains, or southwest to New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California.

You’re not just traveling; you’re visiting enemy territory.

“Whisky’s for drinking, and water’s for fighting!” That sounds like something from a 1920s silent movie about the American West — try “Tom Mix and the Poisoned Well.” It’s quaint, funny and accurate.

Pulp fiction may tell you that the history of the American West is written in blood. In fact, it’s written in water.

Today we might substitute wine or craft beer for whisky, but the Colorado water wars began in the 1850s, and they’ve never stopped. Periods of truce may last for decades, but every so often the combatants take up arms and go to battle.

Thanks to drought, population growth along the Front Range and the Colorado River Basin, and aquifer depletion in the Great Plains, future water supplies look increasingly problematic. Many water users will be shut out, or forced into bitter legal skirmishes. Tradeoffs will have to be made between free-flowing rivers and resource extraction, between century-old ranches and farms and the burgeoning cities of the West, between the raw political power of California and Arizona and the thinly populated states of the Mountain West.

Compared to most cities in the West, Colorado Springs is well-positioned for the coming water fights — but that doesn’t mean that we won’t be damaged.

Thicker than blood

Pulp fiction may tell you that the history of the American West is written in blood. In fact, it’s written in water. Without imported water, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix would have remained as they were during the early years of the 20th Century — sleepy backwaters, footnotes to a larger history.

Until the Southern Delivery System comes online, more than 70 percent of Colorado Springs’ water will continue to come from tributaries of the Colorado River, captured in dozens of impoundments and transported through a complex network of pipelines and tunnels.

The Springs, along with Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix, lives because of the Colorado River.

Colorado River water keeps lawns green in Colorado Springs, grows crops in California’s Imperial Valley and fills swimming pools in Phoenix. In Las Vegas, the Bellagio’s famed fountains throw water from the Colorado into the desert air, where it seems to vanish in the sweltering heat.

But how could those cities so distant from the river claim its waters? None of them border the Colorado — in fact, they’re not even close.

Western water law

The cities’ claims are based on Western water law, which is unique to all the states of the West. The doctrine of prior appropriation, commonly referred to as “first in time, first in right,” was developed in California during the 1850s.

“The miners, just as they did with the mining laws, developed their own water laws before any state or federal court or legislature spoke,” writes University of Colorado professor Charles Wilkinson in “Crossing The Next Meridian.” “If two men, or companies, came in and diverted a whole stream, so be it. If just one took the whole stream, so be it. They needed it; they depended on it; they had rights to it.”

In 1882, the Colorado Supreme Court made the definitive ruling that established prior appropriation. It remains the most important decision ever handed down in any Western court.

In “Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co.” the court ruled that the upstream water user who held senior water rights could legally divert an entire river out of basin, despite the burden that was placed on Coffin, a farmer who was the downstream user.

The decision meant that a river’s water, like gold in a mining claim, is a resource. It belongs to those who are smart enough, tough enough, rich enough and lucky enough to seize it.

How to split the bounty?

The barren, waterless lands of the West, so unsuitable for agriculture, were blessed with mild, equable climates. After the bitter winters and mosquito-ridden summers of the Midwest, cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles seemed like earthly paradises. But the paradises would have been lost without water.

The coldly realistic men who built these cities knew where to find water — in the pristine reaches of the Colorado River, which flowed unimpeded through wilderness landscapes of unimaginable beauty. The river’s banks were unpopulated, and under prior appropriation, the water was there for the taking. It had only to be claimed, diverted and put to beneficial use.

But who would take it, and how could it be most efficiently exploited?

Under the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the river’s flow was divided between seven states: Arizona, California and Nevada (Lower Basin), and Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming (Upper Basin). It would enable those seven states and Mexico to divert literally every drop of the river’s waters, transforming it, as author Philip Fradkin said, into “a river no more.”

But there was a problem with the Compact. In assuming average annual flows of nearly 17 million acre-feet, the architects relied upon flow measurements from some of the wettest years in the history of the basin.

Affected by more frequent and severe droughts, higher temperatures and diminishing winter snowpack in the central and southern Rockies, the river’s annual flows have steadily decreased.

There’s not enough water for all the river’s present users, let alone for any new ones. In the coming battles, someone has to lose.

Cities vs. farms, ranches

Some estimates have it that agricultural uses account for 85 percent of Colorado’s water. Whether those estimates are accurate or not, much of that water can’t be effectively diverted to non-farm use. But in cases where cities thirst for rural water farmers and ranchers are out of luck. Decades ago, Colorado Springs and Aurora began to acquire senior water rights from farmers in the Lower Arkansas Valley, thus severing the rights from the land it once nourished. That strategy, known as “buy and dry” enabled, coupled with complex exchange deals, enabled Front Range users to divert the water upstream, thereby paving the way for the Southern Delivery System. Thanks to losing the irrigated farmland that was its economic base, once-prosperous Crowley County literally withered away.

Winner: Front Range cities

Losers: Communities in the lower Arkansas Valley

People vs. rivers

The great outdoorsman John Alden Knight once wrote: “Any damn fool engineer can build a dam, but only God can make a river.” The engineers have had their way with every river in the Colorado River Basin but one — the Yampa, which flows from its source in Rocky Mountain National Park to join the Green at the Utah border. Its water is coveted by oil and gas developers, shale oil promoters, and Front Range municipalities/agricultural users.

Environmentalists and the rafting industry have partnered to protect the river, but growing Front Range populations eventually may overcome the river’s guardians. Estimates by the Colorado Water Conservation Board predict that the state’s population will double by 2050, creating a 25 percent gap between needs and current sources and supply.

Winners: People

Losers: Every river except the Yampa

Colorado vs. other states

Were it not for the law, Colorado would be in the catbird seat. Colorado snowmelt provides much of the water in the state’s eponymous river, so why can’t we just put up a dam and take as much as we want?

Thanks to the Compact, we can’t. We have to let most of the water flow downstream to California, Arizona, and Nevada — not to mention Mexico, which is entitled to 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually. Any attempt to siphon off more than our Compact allotment would be quickly thwarted.

And, in fact, we don’t use all our allotment — and we never will.

That’s “paper water.” It exists only in the imagination of policymakers. Compact allocations were expressed in acre-feet rather than as percentages of annual flows, now millions of acre-feet below 1922 estimates.

Hydrologists believe that Colorado River flows will continue to diminish. Averaging projections from 16 global climate models, researchers at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas predicted stream flow reductions of at least 3 percent by 2035, with many models showing much more significant drops.

The basin-wide deficit between supply and demand in 2050: 40 percent.

Losers: All seven states and Mexico

Winners: the snowy, rainy, humid, bug-infested states of the Midwest.

Colorado Springs vs. rest of Colorado

As George Orwell may have said, people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. Colorado Springs residents are blessed with a more than adequate supply of water thanks to generations of ruthless “water buffaloes” at Colorado Springs Utilities.

Unlike many Front Range sister cities, we have multiple sources of supply including the Pikes Peak watershed, the Colorado and Arkansas river basins, and the aquifers that underlie the city. Once SDS comes online, we’re good for the next 30 years — but then what?

We’ll have to do what Las Vegas does — recycle 100 percent of our wastewater, pay homeowners to replace turf grass lawns, and restrict outdoor water use. If you think that this year’s water restrictions were onerous, wait a while.

But don’t expect that we’ll be able to find new sources of supply. As populations expand throughout the West, our children and grandchildren will have to find their own water buffaloes — rough men and women who will make sure that residents of Colorado Springs can shower in peace.