All hell needs is water.
That iconic declaration could have been uttered by any number of famous writers, government officials and even men and women of the cloth. In fact, it was the observation of an undertaker from Prescott, Arizona. Budge Ruffner was forced to become a mortician when his father won the funeral home in a card game on Whiskey Row. Budge was a better philosopher/writer than he was an embalmer. He was a student of the history of this corner of the nation. And so, one of his books, published by the University of Arizona, carried this astute observation as the title.
For much of the great Southwest, from El Centro to Amarillo, and from Idaho to the Mexico border, one of the only things that ever really stood in the way of progress or economic stability was the availability of a dependable water supply. Sunny and dry with, in many cases, fertile soil, the desert only needed moisture, as is testified to whenever it rains in the desert and a profusion of flowers burst forth.
The Uncompahgre River Valley is technically high desert, even though a river runs through it. Early, it seemed like a nice place to live and the river valley soil proved rich. But the water came and went — it went more often than it came. Farming was a gamble at best. Often the summer months would see the river reduced to a trickle.
The solution came when one of those early farmers, Frank Lauzon, put forth the idea of a tunnel bringing water from the much bigger, and more consistent, Gunnison River to the Montrose valley. The longest irrigation tunnel in the world turned Montrose into a fertile place to grow everything from beans to a sweet corn variety that is now in demand worldwide.
But that is not the happy ending to the story. The prince is still a frog. And frogs need more water. What happens with water in Montrose and on the Western Slope of Colorado eventually affects places like Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Las Vegas, Denver and Omaha. Yes Omaha. That’s where the South Platte River, born in Colorado, joins the Missouri River. Omaha depends on the South Platte and the Missouri. Over here on the Western Slope we are the watershed that produces one of the most embattled, highly regulated and now overused rivers in the U.S., The Rio Colorado and its tributaries.
The Colorado River itself is born in the Rockies and flows in multiple iterations to the Gulf of California. It has not been a wild river for a very long time. It is damned at Glen Canyon, Boulder Canyon, Parker, Davis Camp, Imperial and Morales. On the way, 1 million acre feet (AF) go to Las Vegas, 1.5 million to the Central Arizona Project, half-a-million to California’s Coachella Valley, 4.4 million to the Imperial Valley, plus more to other municipalities, a dozen Indian tribes and other entities. At Morales Dam on the Mexican border it gives the last of itself, a guaranteed 1.5 million acre feet to the Mexican farm lands and Mexicali, Baja, California. The river itself never reaches the ocean anymore.
Colorado is the Southwest’s water cooler.
Here is the bottom line, when it comes to water in the Southwestern U.S.: We have it, they want it. It has always been that way. Colorado has always been the water cooler for the rest of the southwest. Without it, lettuce doesn’t grow in the Imperial Valley. Palm Springs doesn’t water golf courses. Phoenix or Tucson don’t keep growing. Believe it or not, they all care how much water Montrose and Delta farms take out of the rivers. Which isn’t all that much.
Agriculture on the Western Slope uses about 1.4 million acre-feet per year. The cities and towns use about 77,000 acre feet per year. There are about 80,000 acres under cultivation, primarily in Delta and Montrose counties. Those farms and ranches are a major part of the economy here. But, there are folks in Phoenix (and Denver) who would sooner those farms went fallow. That’s what causes concern for people like Steve Anderson, the General Manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA).
How much water is kept and used in the Uncompahgre River Valley depends on a staggering number of factors, the most important of which are the water rights connected to the land.
“We are somewhat insulated in that the water rights are connected to the land,” Anderson explained. “Those senior rights are federal, connected to the agreements made when the Bureau of Reclamation facilitated the Gunnison tunnel. The rights will always been connected to the land.”
That is important because under that arrangement, a landowner cannot simply sell his water rights to, say, a downstream entity.
The UVWUA, which has 3,500 shareholders (landowners), gets a constant 1,000 cubic-feet per second (CFS) flow from the tunnel, 24/7, April through October. To be sure, there are folks both on the Front Range and downstream who think that is more water than is really needed in the Montrose and Delta Valleys.
“There will always be pressure on areas like the Western Slope to cede water to the populated areas,” says Anderson. “When push comes to shove, the votes are there to change the rules.”
It is no secret that, while there is a big mountain between Denver and Montrose, there are those who would see water moved over the mountains to satisfy the needs of the growing Denver/Colorado Springs corridor. That is in fact already being done. There was a series of clandestine, closed door meetings involving those who control those diversions in which they deeply explored the idea of mandatory, non compensated curtailing of certain Western Slope water rights, to the point of creating a scenario that would bankrupt Montrose farmers and communities. Those secret meetings were outed by the Colorado River District, a public policy agency chartered to provide planning and policy guidance regarding the Colorado River Basin. State Rep. Marc Catlin is a member of the river district board. He is also a former manager of the UVWUA and a farmer. “My life’s equity is water. It is a big deal to me,” he has been quoted as saying.
There has always been the pervasive attitude among the urban entities who use the Colorado River, that cities are more important than agriculture, recreation and environment. It is interesting to note that water lifted over the mountains to the Eastern Slope may not necessarily wind up coming from taps in Denver. It could end up going into the South Platte system to satisfy guarantees to the downstream users in Nebraska.
But why is everybody worried about water and river flows, we just ended a drought? The Colorado snowpack reached a record level…The upstream reservoirs, like Blue Mesa, are at 90-plus percent capacity. Lake Powell, the master pool for all downstream withdrawals, is up almost 20 feet from last year (although it is still down almost 80 feet from a full pool).
The rest of the Lake Powell numbers give us a clue. The releases from the dam, with two months to go in the water year (October to September), are already at 100 percent of minimum withdrawal. According to the Colorado River District figures, the compacts that govern downstream releases call for a 7.5 million acre feet minimum draw down of Powell. The fact is, the lake has had a rolling average release of more than 9 million acre feet per year over the past ten years, several of which had well below average input from upstream. The sum is that only 4.5 million acre feet per year went into the lake over the past ten years and 9.1 million was released. The current wet year not withstanding, the river is very much overused, now and for the foreseeable future.
Coloradans cannot be complacent.
Insulated by senior rights, or not, the Uncompahgre Valley has vultures circling and they are thirsty. Big money and many times more votes make laws and rules change. According to Catlin, Anderson and anyone else involved, like agriculture water users and growing small cities like Montrose, have to be part of the fight to make sure the local economies remain viable with enough water for all uses.
Catlin campaigned on water as his main issue last year.
“It’s the biggest issue on the Western Slope,” he said. “We are in a drought, the Colorado River’s in a drought, and the Front Range and Southern California are wanting us to stop farming our land so that they’ll have water. I’m really not in favor of that because it seems to me that we are asking one segment of our society to change how they live so that other people can continue in the same way they always have.”
Catlin’s remarks last winter came ahead of the current improved condition. Even, so the issue remains.
The Colorado Farm Bureau ranks water as its top issue. Montrose County Farm Bureau director Hugh Sanburg said last month that dealing with losing more and more water downstream is a major issue for the bureau. Sanburg is a cattle rancher in the Eckert area at the foot of the Grand Mesa.
But, put agriculture aside, there is another facet that Catlin and Anderson both talk about.
“We are not talking about just water rights for farmers, we also are talking about recreation based on water,” Anderson said. “We keep shipping all the water to the cities and when those folks come out here to fish and paddle their kayaks, there won’t be any water.”
Is there an answer?
To quote MacBeth, “maybe, maybe not.” The problem is not unique to the Uncompahgre River Valley and the tributaries of the Colorado River. Water has always been an issue, everywhere. Range wars have been fought over it. Millions of hours and dollars have gone in long court cases. Predictions have been horribly wrong.
Anderson says a new water plan for Colorado is needed.
“It is going to cost a lot of money, as much as 100 million dollars,” he said.
What do we get for $100 million?
“We get storage, infrastructure, education and management,” Anderson declared.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, on which Anderson serves, has taken on the task. The draft of Colorado’s Water Plan is now public. The primary thrust of the plan is conservation. The funding for the project comes from a wide assortment of organizations from the Colorado Water Trust to the Gates Family Foundation. In all, there are 21 entities that have signed on for the project. In some cases there is reason to believe that some of those 21 have competing goals for water use.
Next week: The Water Plan and what it means for the Western Slope.
Michael A Cox is a Montrose-based content developer and author. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org