No wonder water is such a thorny issue

A museum exhibit in Denver acknowledges the simmering tension between the Front Range and the Western Slope over the distribution of water in Colorado.

In that regard, it’s hard to get too worked up about History Colorado’s interactive exhibit because those tensions are very real and have surfaced time and again during meetings to develop a statewide water plan. One could argue that the museum is simply fulfilling a mission to inform the public on one of Colorado’s biggest challenges.

From the reaction of local officials, however, the exhibit reinforces a Denver-centric view of water and portrays the Western Slope as selfishly holding a “grudge” without providing enough context for why tensions exist — or even how the exhibit itself fuels a sense of distrust.

Part of the problem is that the exhibit, “Living West,” attempts to explain a complex problem — trans-mountain diversions — in a way that kids can understand. Unfortunately, the oversimplified explanation employs rhetoric that seems designed to create a first impression that many young Coloradans will carry into adulthood.

“The Western Slope has water, but a small population,” the display reads. “To eastern Colorado, this is a waste; shouldn’t water go to where the people are?”

It doesn’t help that Denver Water is a sponsor of the exhibit.

“And people wonder why we don’t trust them,” said Diane Schwenke, president of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

What the exhibit fails to explain is that a lot of the water that flows downhill from the Contintenal Divide crosses the state line to meet the state’s downriver obligations under a 1922 compact governing management of the Colorado River.

David Bailey, the curator of history at the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction, has seen the exhibit and said he felt it “seems a little biased” toward a Front Range perspective.

Before we escalate things any further, we think the aim of the exhibit is good. Water is worth understanding. Yes, Denver Water is a sponsor of the exhibit, but a spokesperson said the utility had no hand in the content. So, it’s the museum officials who must ask themselves if they are serving the public interest in offering a tilted view.

Perhaps the exhibit should include a few of the following questions: Should Denver enact a ban on bluegrass lawns to preserve its limited water supplies for human consumption? Is it fair to ask Western Slope residents to help pay for more water storage projects that will only benefit Front Range citizens? Should the state actively push development west of the divide, where the water flows naturally?


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