Trickle-Down Economics

Out on the plains, water is Colorado's most liquid asset.

Although that time water wasn't the cause of the conflict, it usually was. Back when the West was still mostly open range, large tracts could be controlled by whomever was tough enough to guard the water for his own use. A Frederick Remington painting called "The Watering Hole" captures this era: It depicts two cowboys aiming their rifles at a distant group of horsemen as the cowboys prepare to defend a spot of water in the bottom of a gully hardly large enough to bathe in.

Following the colony era came what is known in water circles as the "corporate era," when large companies, such as Travelers Insurance, built big irrigation ditches in almost every major river drainage and encouraged people to move to Colorado. The companies sold immigrants the lands serviced by the ditches, providing water for a fee. Eventually, all of the ditch systems were turned over to their water users.

Even as these irrigation systems were being built, it quickly became apparent that a system of water rights would be necessary to protect those who'd constructed the ditches. Back East, where water was plentiful, rights were based on a "riparian" system -- that is, if a farmer owned the land bordering a body of water, then he owned the water and access to it. In arid Colorado, however, such a system would have left huge sections of land without enough precipitation to farm. So the system of "first in time, first in right" was adopted, establishing a priority list based on who first diverted the water to "beneficial use" -- even if the land he worked didn't touch the river or stream.

Ted Oster wants to keep his water for his farm.David Hunt thinks the economics aren't good for agriculture right now.Division engineer Dick Stenzel oversees water in the South Platte River drainage.Steve Treadway sees farmers and environmentalists working together.
William Taylor
Ted Oster wants to keep his water for his farm.David Hunt thinks the economics aren't good for agriculture right now.Division engineer Dick Stenzel oversees water in the South Platte River drainage.Steve Treadway sees farmers and environmentalists working together.

The doctrines establishing Colorado water rights were considered so important that they were incorporated into the State Constitution in 1876. In 1879, the legislature established the office of water commissioner and required that each county hire a commissioner to administer the system -- determining who got water and when, cutting off those with junior rights when the water got scarce. The lawmakers also assigned these commissioners the task of determining who had priority to the water.

The commissioners didn't know how to measure water efficiently, however. So in 1881, the legislature established the office of the "state hydraulic engineer" to support the water commissioners, who still worked for their own counties, by installing and monitoring river gauges and other measuring devices. The job of state engineer grew in size and scope, especially when the chore of building roads and bridges was added. Eventually a highway department was created, removing those obligations from the state engineer's duties so he could again concentrate on water.

It was still a tough job, particularly difficult in regard to the South Platte. Every spring, the snows that piled up in the mountains west of South Park on the east side of the Continental Divide melted, and slowly at first, then gaining momentum, tiny trickles joined rivulets that merged into larger streams to become the South Platte River. Pouring from the mountains south of Denver and then heading north, the river was bolstered by the contributions of the St. Vrain, Big Thompson and Poudre rivers, as well as dozens of smaller streams, until it swelled from its banks, a roiling torrent that spread out across the wide, flat plains of northeast Colorado.

The spring-thaw flood would last only a few weeks. Then the river would recede, leaving fresh soil and millions of acres of new grass that supported the vast buffalo herds, as well as wetlands for migrating waterfowl and other animals. Still, by mid-summer that torrent was little more than a memory as the river dried up east of Greeley.

An early settler, Charlie Stobie, in 1865 described the river as "too thick to drink, too thin to plow, too shallow to sail on and too broad to shoot a rifle across." But others saw its potential, particularly if the runoff from the snowmelt could be captured and then parceled out over the summer months. That view led to the era of reservoir and dam building. The reservoirs generally were junior in the priority system, and therefore only able to take water from the river during the non-irrigation season or periods of high runoff in the spring or following intense summer rainstorms.

These water storages, constructed for irrigation systems, were not intended as flood control -- although if less than full, they could absorb some of the torrent -- and were situated away from the river to which they were connected by ditches. They ranged along the river from Barr Lake northeast of Denver to the cluster of reservoirs in the central Platte area -- Jackson, Riverside, Empire and the Bijou -- then, farther east, the Prewitt and the Sterling, until the last one near the Nebraska border and the town of Julesburg, for which the storage spot was named. The water in the reservoirs is owned mostly by those who already have junior water rights; without this supply, they couldn't irrigate their farms directly from the river for long before they'd be usurped by senior rights holders.

The Colorado-Big Thompson added 200,000 acre-feet to the river in an average year. But no shareholders much farther east than Greeley could call for the water; users farther downstream had to help pay the cost of building and maintaining the project but reaped only what water got back to the river from return flows.

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