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The River's Edge

As the South Platte flows out of Colorado, the water wars continue.

October 1893, Los Angeles

Major John Wesley Powell looked out over the upraised faces of the people who'd come to listen to his vision of the future, a vision they thought mirrored their own. The general public knew him as the heroic, one-armed Civil War veteran who in 1869 had led ten men in wooden boats down the untamed Colorado River from Green River, Utah, through the canyons of Utah and Arizona, finally emerging from the mouth of the Grand Canyon. Until Powell's expedition, the Colorado Plateau had been just an empty spot on maps labeled "unexplored."

But these people knew that Powell was more than an adventurer. He was also a scientist, a vocal proponent of government-supported scientific agencies who'd served as director of both the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology and the U.S. Geological Survey, which was created to map the nation's topography and analyze its natural resources, especially water. For years following his Grand Canyon expedition, Powell and his surveyors had traveled the West, studying the river systems and measuring streams and artesian wells. Those studies had inspired many plans, including Powell's concept of reclaiming part of the approximately 1 billion acres of western lands held as public domain by the federal government. Powell believed that a million forty-acre farms could be created through massive irrigation projects. (In his initial enthusiasm, he'd contended that 20 percent of the land held by the government could be made to blossom, but after reviewing his "Irrigation Survey," he'd modified that to 10 percent, or about 100 million acres.)

Augmentation pond near Julesburg, looking toward the South Platte and Nebraska.George Jenik, outstanding in his field.Bruce Gerk, by the South Platte River.
William Taylor
Augmentation pond near Julesburg, looking toward the South Platte and Nebraska.George Jenik, outstanding in his field.Bruce Gerk, by the South Platte River.
George Jenik, outstanding in his field.
George Jenik, outstanding in his field.

Powell knew that water was the key to this concept, and he'd proposed that entire watersheds be governed by their own central authorities in order to avoid confrontations that he knew would arise between states that shared a common river. But that proposal had gone nowhere, thwarted by Powell's many competitors, who'd stirred up the anti-science sentiment in Congress.

Now, over two decades after his most famous expedition, Powell had been invited to speak to the International Irrigation Congress at its annual gathering in the small Southern California town of Los Angeles. The 1880s and early '90s had been marked by persistent periods of drought in the West, and members of the Irrigation Congress had seized on Powell's idea of massive irrigation projects.

In his sixties, pained by the regenerated nerve endings in his arm and embittered by constant battles with Congress that had stripped his programs bare and eventually forced him out, Powell hoped that this group -- through its large number of members and the pressure they could bring on their elected officials -- might resurrect his reclamation project. But after he arrived at the conference, he realized that they envisioned something far beyond his dreams, far beyond what his science said was possible: They were talking about irrigating the entire billion acres and filling it with a huge population.

Powell recognized that such a plan was insane, and dropping his planned speech, he let the audience know it. "I tell you, gentlemen," he concluded as they booed him, "you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land."

Powell died in 1902, the same year the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was established with a mission of building water projects, especially large dams, to irrigate Western lands. And nowhere is his prediction of a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights more evident than on the South Platte River.


December 2000, Sedgwick

A bubble of frigid air pools in the Arctic, then flows south across Canada and dips into Colorado's northern Front Range, where it encounters a moist, upslope airflow. The result is a rush-hour snowstorm that drops a few inches of snow before the cold front moves on to make trouble for Oklahoma and Texas.

The next morning, the mountains shimmer with a fresh white mantle. But as you head east along Interstate 76, the snow on the ground dwindles until it ends abruptly at the town of Brush, as if stopped by an invisible wall.

Winter has come to the northeastern corner of Colorado; the land is brown and gray, accented by the gold of the harvested farm fields. Cattle that were not shipped to market have been turned out to forage among the mowed rows of corn and wheat. A dozen black Angus munch in front of an electric sign that tells travelers, "Merry Christmas. Eat Beef."

Along the banks of the South Platte, which snakes roughly parallel to the interstate, the cottonwoods and willows have dropped their leaves as they retreat from the chill. But the river itself gets no rest; fifteen miles beyond Brush, the Prewitt Reservoir swells like a tick on its waters. However, large areas of the reservoir's banks that normally would be underwater are exposed, testament to the dry year just past, when the reservoirs along the central river corridor were drained during the irrigation season. Now those reservoirs bleed the river, replenishing themselves.

But the dangers of drought have not passed. The fact that the reservoirs are still trying to recoup their losses at this late date means there will probably be supply problems next year, especially if it's dry.

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