Regional officials see fresh volley in war over water
Water, according to Western lore, flows uphill to money. According to a display at the History Colorado Center in Denver, it runs uphill with something else: a grudge.
That’s according to what History Colorado describes as “a groundbreaking new 7,000-square-foot exhibit that explores the living dynamics between the people of Colorado and their state’s extraordinary environment.”
Called “Living West,” the exhibit includes a diorama of Colorado depicting the natural flow of water west from the Continental Divide and the population differential showing the vast majority of people, 80 percent, on the east side of the Rocky Mountains.
“The Western Slope has water, but a small population,” reads the display. “To eastern Colorado, this is a waste; shouldn’t water go where the people are?”
“But piping water east means less for western towns, ranches, and orchards. Western Slope residents believe their future is being sacrificed to benefit the rest of Colorado.”
The text accompanies a photo of a rally in which protesters waved signs emblazoned with slogans such as “Let Our Rivers Run!” and “Don’t Suck the Upper Colorado River Dry.”
Headlining the text is, “Water comes from the Western Slope (with a grudge.)”
Western Slope residents and water managers said they weren’t consulted on the exhibit, and some suggested that it might be a harbinger of bad feelings to come.
Indeed, the exhibit, which illustrates the way Coloradans from ancient Puebloans to Dust Bowl-era farmers have dealt with drought, is subtitled “The Storm is Coming!”
“Wouldn’t anybody begrudge the fact that their future is being limited?” Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said when told of the exhibit. “I wouldn’t dispute the fact — but I think there are good reasons for it.”
“It sounds like somebody is trivializing the issue,” Acquafresca said.
Kids open pumps
There is more to the Colorado River story than the exhibit suggests, said Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Club 20, a Western Slope advocacy organization.
“There’s certainly no recognition that seven states rely on the water over here,” Petersen said, referring to Arizona, Colorado, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The diorama is interactive and geared to younger visitors, who can open and close pumps to move water about the state.
“Your job:” the exhibit says, “Send water from Big River in the west to Small River in the east, all the way down to Thirsty Town.”
Another instruction urges visitors to “Crank that pump and keep cranking, Watch the pump move water from Big River into Western Reservoir. This takes water away from Busy City and Dry Throat Ranch.”
That could present an opportunity, Acquafresca said.
“I’d like to go there and direct it back from the east to the west,” Acquafresca said.
“Living West,” according to the History Colorado website, was presented by Denver Water with “generous support” from the Gates Family Foundation.
“Denver Water, yeah, there’s a surprise,” Petersen said.
“Denver Water,” Larry Clever, general manager of the Ute Water Conservancy District in Grand Junction, guessed when told of the exhibit. “I didn’t know. I just figured it was Denver Water.”
“And people wonder why we don’t trust them,” said Diane Schwenke, president of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.
Denver Water, however, had little to do with the display that prominently bears its name, said spokesman Travis Thompson.
“We had no influence or design on the content of the exhibit,” Thompson said. “It wasn’t for us to tell the story. It was for them to tell the story.”
“Them” is History Colorado, a nonprofit organization previously referred to as the Colorado Historical Society. It’s also a state agency that receives funding under the Division of Higher Education.
A spokesperson for the museum didn’t respond to several requests for comment.
The transmountain diversion display “seems a little biased” toward a Front Range perspective, said David Bailey, curator of history at the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction, who has viewed the exhibit.
“Usually you try to give all a voice,” Bailey said. “Our job is to make you think about the topic, in this case the historic and present-day crisis of water.”
Denver Water is a major transmountain diverter and water provider to 1.3 million customers that just last year reached an agreement with water providers and local governments down the Colorado River Basin that was hailed as marking a new era in east-west water relations.
Lurking beneath the good feelings, however, has been the possibility of a new transmountain diversion. Although Gov. John Hickenlooper’s state water plan is being drafted without identifying one, it is to set out a way by which such a project could be pursued.
And James Lochhead, who heads Denver Water, last month signed a letter on behalf of the Front Range Water Council saying that a new transmountain diversion is a necessity.
Talks about a state water plan “should begin with an assurance, and not simply a hope” for a new project diverting water from the Colorado River to the Front Range.
Western Slope water is now sent east via 24 transmountain diversions that suck up, in a wet year, about 600,000 acre feet of water. An acre foot of water, or 325,851 gallons, is enough to supply about two and a half Front Range households for a year, according to DenverWater.org.
It’s also about 8 percent of the water that the upper Colorado River Basin states are required to deliver to the lower basin under a 1922 compact governing management of the river.
The amount of water diverted east could be crucial in a succession of dry years as the upper and lower basins deal with keeping enough water in Lake Powell to ensure the efficient operation of the electricity-generating turbines and putting enough water into Lake Mead downstream, Clever said.
The issue involves more than diverting water, Clever said.
Front Range water interests “want everybody to pay for a diversion,” Clever said. “They want the West Slope to help pay for taking our water.”
The fact is, said Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran, the Colorado River Basin “might not have as much water to give as everybody thinks we do.”
To be certain, Denver Water has lived up to its agreement with the Colorado River Basin, Curran said, but the tone of the exhibit bearing its name and citing the grudging nature of the Western Slope is “somewhat disturbing,” Curran said.
“Does the West Slope grudgingly withhold water?” Curran said. “No, in my opinion. The West Slope wants to have recognition of the needs and uses (of water) on the West Slope.”
Those uses aren’t limited to ranches and orchards, Curran said, noting that the West Slope has growing cities and industries of its own, just as on the East Slope.
It’s possible that the message children absorb isn’t one favoring transmountain diversions, Acquafresca said.
“If Denver Water is trying to indoctrinate kids to view water resources as the Front Range does, I think that’s the wrong approach,” Acquafresca said. “Children could easily ask themselves, ‘Shouldn’t water flow where God meant for it to flow?’”