By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"Nowadays, it's easy to criticize all the dams and diversion projects," Werner says. "But there was a different perspective back then from people who had lived through the Depression and the drought. It was a time when civic leaders and politicians still looked a ways down the road instead of worrying about whether they were going to get elected next year."
The new Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District would be responsible for the operation and maintenance of a project that was authorized to deliver 230,000 acre feet, or about 75 billion gallons, of water to the Front Range each year. Construction was estimated to cost $44 million, with taxpayers within the district responsible for a maximum of $25 million; the difference was to be made up by selling electricity generated by six proposed hydroelectric power stations.
But the first phase of the project, which broke ground in 1938, did not directly benefit the water users of northeast Colorado. The Colorado Supreme Court had ruled that taking even a "single drop" of water to which someone else had a claim constituted "harm." So in order to provide for the rights of water users downstream on the Colorado, the Green Mountain Reservoir was built on the Blue River between Kremmling and what is now Silverthorne, to catch spring runoff and feed those waters into the Colorado to make up for what would be taken out farther up.
The next phase was to build Lake Granby, the second-largest reservoir in the state, adjacent to Grand Lake -- to which it was connected via a canal and the Shadow Mountain Reservoir. The Alva B. Adams Tunnel, named after the Colorado senator who persuaded Congress to fund the project, was built to transport water under the Continental Divide from Grand Lake to East Portal Reservoir, and then by pipeline to Mary's Lake. At 13.1 miles, at the time it was one of the longest trans-mountain tunnels in the world.
Another pipeline brought the water from Mary's Lake to Lake Estes, where the two forks of the Big Thompson River joined. A second tunnel and another pipeline connected Lake Estes to the Pinewood Reservoir, which was linked by more pipeline to the Flatiron Reservoir.
Up until the point at which the water reached Flatiron Reservoir, gravity did all of the work. There, however, the water was either pumped south to Carter Lake, and from there to Boulder Reservoir, or flowed north to Horsetooth Reservoir west of Fort Collins. From Boulder Reservoir, the water was diverted east into another canal, then sent through Erie to the South Platte River near Fort Lupton.
All told, the Big Thompson project consisted of twelve reservoirs, 35 miles of tunnels, 95 miles of canals and 700 miles of transmission lines. Today it provides supplemental water to thirty cities and towns, more than a hundred ditch and reservoir companies, and irrigates about 620,000 acres of farmland. Completion of the project took twenty years, with inflation and delays driving its cost up to $163 million. However, the money from the generated electricity not only covered the cost difference beyond the taxpayers' $25 million commitment, but the project became one of the bureau's few moneymakers.
The final years of the project's construction coincided with the last multiple-year drought in Colorado, from 1953 to 1956. Even though it was not yet complete, the CBT project was able to deliver water to desperate farmers. "Without the water, we would have basically been back to the 1930s, when everyone boarded up their farms and moved elsewhere," says Werner. "We saved the region. We couldn't have timed it better. People really saw the benefits."
Although the district's boundaries stretch from the mountains to the Nebraska border, all CBT shares are owned by people upriver, or west, from Kersey, just east of Greeley -- except for the city of Fort Morgan and one ditch company. The water users downriver from Kersey, who also pay the district tax, receive their benefits from return flows of the CBT water that is applied to fields by the shareholders. In other words, only the shareholders can call for a release of water from Horsetooth or Boulder reservoirs; the others get what's left over.
When the project was completed in 1957, about 150,000 people were living in the district's boundaries -- more than double the population when the project began. Agricultural concerns owned 85 percent of the shares and used 98 percent of the water. The other 15 percent was owned by municipal and industrial -- M&I -- concerns. The cities owned more shares than they could use as a hedge against drought, and often rented back the excess to farmers .
In 1999 there were an estimated 650,000 people living in the district's boundaries. Today, 54 percent of the shares are owned by M&I interests. Although agriculture continues to use most of the water, M&I concerns use 30 percent, reflecting the increasing development of land within the district's boundaries.
As that development continues, the buying and selling of water will become an even bigger business in Colorado.
Those who took the initial risk and purchased shares of CBT water back in the '30s for $1.50 apiece made the investment of a lifetime. By 1993, shares were selling for $1,300 apiece. By the end of 1999, they were selling for $7,000; just a few months later, there were confirmed sales at $15,500 a share. There is no other commodity in the world -- not gold, not platinum, not plutonium -- that has seen such a wild rise in value in the past forty years.