“I used to be a orthodox card-carrying humanities academic with contempt for the manipulations of nature that engineers perpetrated. And then, I realized how much a beneficiary I was of those perpetrations.” — Patty Limerick (The Great Divide)
This is an important film and Ms. Limerick hits the nail on the head with her statement. When folks understand the history of Colorado and how water has shaped that history, when they learn about the disease and hardship that goes hand in hand with scarcity of water here in the arid west, when they witness the bounty from plains farms and the western valleys and the economic drivers associated with Colorado’s cities, when they take time to sit down to talk and learn from neighbors and others, opinions can change, understanding can grow, problems can be solved, and opportunities can be realized.
Jim Havey and the filmmakers set out an ambitious goal, that is, the telling of Colorado’s water story, without advocacy and without pointing fingers. The Great Divide accomplishes the telling using a superb screenplay written by Stephen Grace, the stunning footage by Jim Havey, along with the old photographs and maps of Colorado (and the Colorado River Basin).
Prior appropriation and anti-speculation are big ideas that form the foundation of Colorado water law. Article XVI of the Colorado Constitution includes detail about the preferred uses and the rights of diverters to cross private land to put the public’s water to beneficial use. All water in Colorado belongs to the citizens but diverters gain a property right allowing them to use the water.
The filmmakers manage to explain these details well during the film. The film describes the law, the compacts between states, river administration, and the 21st Century world of water. They emphasize the work and pioneering efforts needed to get Colorado where it is today.
Starting with the San Luis People’s ditch (the oldest water right in continuous use in Colorado — 1852) Coloradans have built out many projects large and small to put the water to beneficial use. The Great Divide describes many of these projects including the big US Bureau of Reclamation projects, Colorado-Big Thompson, Fryingpan-Arkansas, the Aspinall Unit, and what many think will be USBR’s last big project, Aninas-La Plata.
According to the film an early project, Cheesman Dam on the South Platte River, enabled delivery of high quality water to the City of Denver which had been plagued by outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases.
These projects have gotten Colorado to this point with over 5 million residents and a diversified economy. However, in the documentary the head of Denver Water Jim Lochhead states, “If we grow the next 5 million people the way we’ve grown the last 5 million — that may not be sustainable.”
There is a tension between environmentalists and water developers in today’s Colorado, highlighted by the film. The Great Divide explores the historical roots of the environmental movement starting with the Sierra Club effort to save Echo Park on the Yampa River, up through the legislation allowing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to hold and establish instream flow rights, the successful efforts to block groundwater withdrawals in the San Luis Valley for Front Range growth, and the mammoth decision to not permit the Two Forks Reservoir on the the South Platte River.
The City of Denver and many of the suburbs were counting on that project for future needs. It is interesting to note that the loss of Two Forks led to increased groundwater withdrawals from the Denver Basin Aquifer System and an increase in purchases of agricultural rights by municipal systems. Both of these alternatives are unsustainable but have led to recharge projects, water reuse projects by Denver Water and Aurora Water, along with serious efforts to allow alternative transfer methods for agricultural water that would protect farmers and keep the water with the land. The Great Divide touches on these newer more sustainable solutions.
Drought is a constant possibility in Colorado. The film shows how the drought of the 1930s spurred northeastern Colorado to line up behind the Colorado-Big Thompson Project for new supplies and storage.
When things turned around after the drought of 2002 The Great Divide informs us that municipalities had to rethink conservation efforts and that pumpers with insufficient augmentation water were shut down. Denver Water managed to cut per capita consumption by 20% below pre-2002 levels and other utilities noted similar savings.
The film examines the aftermath of the 2002 drought and the efforts by the Colorado legislature which passed the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act. It established the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and the nine basin roundtables. The roundtables and the IBCC were formed as a forum to share needs but most importantly share values. One of the outcomes of the effort has been the realization, stated in the film by Travis Smith that, “We are more connected than we’d like to admit.”
This connectedness, along with the need to solve looming wide-ranging supply gaps were the motivation for Governor Hickenlooper to issue an executive order to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to create Colorado’s first ever water plan. The Governor has an opportunity to present his view of the need for the plan in the film. He touches on the fact that however the plan turns out it will be built by the grass roots.
During his introduction of the film Justice Gregory Hobbs advised us to listen to the words along with viewing the images. He was right, the narrative by Peter Coyote engages and informs. You cannot listen to Mr. Grace’s words without learning at the same time. And that’s the point right? Educate and inform with an accurate representation of Colorado water issues and history.
The film will air on 9NEWS, KTVD-Channel 20, from 7 to 9 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 31. There is a film tour planned (click here for details).
All proceeds from the premier went to an effort to get the film into schools across Colorado. I think that is a great idea.
The film is a stellar vehicle for educating and generating conversation. Go see it when you can, buy the book, and then start talking and teaching.