Part 1 of a seasonal series
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In the waning days of March, two storm systems approach Colorado from opposite directions. One, carrying evaporated water from the Gulf of Mexico, has been held at bay by a high-pressure system in Texas that has acted as a dike. But then a low-pressure system over Arizona and New Mexico pushed the high-pressure system to the northeast, and now, as the meteorologists say, "the Gulf is open," with moisture-laden air pouring through the breach in the dike, heading right for the Front Range.
The second system has formed off the coast of Oregon and Washington, drawing moisture from the Pacific Ocean and then carrying it aloft into the jet stream, the high-altitude current that moves west to east, counter to the Earth's rotation. The jet stream, which undulates along its path like a snake, now bends to the south, pushing that moisture down toward the Rocky Mountains.
It's the sort of spring weather pattern that gives Colorado forecasters fits. In Kansas, a rain cloud moving over the flat plain is just a rain cloud moving over the flat plain. But in this state, there are so many variables, most attributable to the mountains.
As a result, some television weathermen are now calling for a bit of rain, or maybe a little snow; others see the likelihood of a few inches in the city and maybe twice that in the mountains. Most agree that whatever happens, it will come as a quick hit before the storm systems knock themselves out or move on. Instead, the storms dump more than a foot of snow on the northern and central mountain and linger over the Denver area, causing more than a hundred fender-benders during the rush hours. A Texas man dies near Salida, when the van he's riding in slides into the path of an oncoming snowplow. Springtime in the Rockies.
The next day, gray clouds still shroud the summit of 14,255-foot Longs Peak as Tim Carney crouches at the trailhead leading up the mountain, strapping snowshoes to his fleece-lined boots. A scientist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Carney looks up at the clouds and gauges the likelihood of getting caught by a sequel to yesterday's storm. Although a few last snowflakes filter down through the tall conifers, the weather system has left the mountains -- headed, he hopes, for the parched farmland out east. He signs the visitor's log, picks up a long canvas bag, and begins plodding through the fresh powder into a shadowless, muffled world.
A couple miles into his climb, Carney comes to yet another switchback. He pauses to catch his breath and listen to the trickle of a stream that briefly intersects this point of the trail before skipping off down a ravine. Snow-covered boulders pop up like mushrooms along the waterway, but the stream itself is hidden beneath a sheath of ice and snow.
According to a topography map, the stream is Alpine Brook. But from here, these waters will be known by many different names, one cascading off another. Alpine Brook flows into Tahosa Creek, which flows into Cabin Creek, which flows into the north fork of the St. Vrain, which is either a creek or a river depending on the map. A couple of canyons away, the middle and south forks of the St. Vrain are gaining force. The three forks rush down out of the sandstone foothills and converge in the town of Lyons, 5,000 feet lower in elevation than where Carney now stands.
Twenty miles past Lyons, beyond the farm community of Hygiene and the burgeoning city of Longmont, the combined St. Vrain River picks up Boulder and Coal creeks. A few miles still further east, the St. Vrain empties into the north-flowing South Platte River at Platteville.
From there the South Platte turns northeast, absorbing the contributions of other watersheds -- the Big Thompson and Cache La Poudre rivers -- as well as more than a dozen smaller streams as it flows past booming Greeley and the dryland farm communities to the east. The South Platte exits Colorado at Julesburg.
Two hundred miles across the border, the South and North Plattes converge, then continue nearly straight east until the Platte pours into the Missouri River just south of Omaha. In St. Louis, the Missouri joins the Mississippi, which flows south into the Gulf of Mexico -- the body of water responsible for much of the previous day's dump of snow.
Up on the slopes of Longs Peak, Alpine Brook is a very long way from the big, muddy river that passes through New Orleans. The crystalline sound beneath the white blanket of snow is intoxicating, hypnotic, an invitation to break through the ice and scoop up a handful of the cold, clear water. But Carney, who left Queens some 25 years ago to study at Colorado State University and then settle in the West, knows better than most native Coloradans that except in rare times of surplus, every drop of water in the South Platte corridor -- from the Continental Divide to Colorado's borders and well beyond -- has already been claimed.
As it is, there's not enough water to satisfy the claims on the east side of the mountains, not without pumping millions of gallons over from the Colorado River on the west side of the Continental Divide. And if growth along the Front Range continues at its current breakneck pace, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, a quasi-governmental entity established in 1937 and charged with making sure there's enough water in the South Platte from the Divide to Nebraska, predicts that within forty to sixty years, the equivalent of twice as many rivers will be needed to meet the region's demands. In the meantime, this part of Colorado will lose more than a third of the land currently classified as agricultural -- some of the most productive farmland in the state -- while the price of water skyrockets.
But in this semi-arid land, water has always been the most precious of commodities. So precious, in fact, that men have cheated and killed for it across the West. So precious that in Colorado, it is against the law to collect and store the rainwater that runs off your roof: The water's owners are counting on every last snowflake and raindrop to find their way to a stream, irrigation ditch or reservoir.
Water is so precious here that throughout the winter and spring, the conservation service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, carefully monitors the snowpack, inch by inch, at predetermined sites. The primary purpose of such monitoring is to give those who need to know -- from river commissioners to municipal water boards to power authorities -- an idea of how much water there will be to divvy up once the snowfields start to melt.
There are so many people making demands on Colorado's waters. Fishermen. Farmers. Industries. Homebuilders. And there's not enough water to go around, so apportionment is a constant juggling act that requires knowing exactly how much water will be available.
Some of the monitoring sites provide up-to-the-minute details through remote-sensing equipment that beams radio waves off the trails of meteorites in the ionosphere back to Salt Lake City, where the information is compiled for the Rocky Mountain region. Other sites, such as the one Carney climbs to at an elevation of 10,500 feet on Longs Peak and which was installed back in 1950, must be checked physically.
Gathering snowpack data is just one of Carney's many tasks as the resource conservationist for the USDA's district office in Longmont, where he has worked for the past few years. He spends much of his time aiding farmers with agricultural engineering problems such as erosion mitigation and water control. For example, he may help a farmer draw up plans to switch over from traditional ditch irrigation to a more efficient and water-friendly sprinkler system.
As point man for the USDA, Carney knows what farmers are going through in Colorado. He knows that housing developments and Boulder County's otherwise laudable pursuit of open space have driven up the price of land -- driven it so high that farmers must choose between several tough options. They can continue to hang on to their property, some of which has been in the family for generations, and struggle to make ends meet. They can sell the land to developers and get out of farming altogether. Or they can sell, pick up and move out on the eastern plains to communities like Wiggins, where land is cheaper, but water is often worth more than the ground it irrigates.
The wide-open spaces that give Colorado's Front Range its character are disappearing at an increasingly rapid pace. Amber waves of grain have been replaced by water-hogging bluegrass lawns. Carney wonders what the changes mean, not just to farmers, but to our collective psyche. Now when you take a drive in the country, you see not farmhouses, but row after row of house farms.
There are more practical concerns as well. As Colorado farmers are priced out of the business, the production of food moves elsewhere. Prices are bound to rise. Instead of being self-sufficient, we'll buy more and more produce from other countries, like Mexico, where rules governing such things as the use of pesticides are lax.
And what of the water itself? Eric Wallace, who owns the Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont, boasts to Carney that the waters of the St. Vrain are the best in the land. But by the time the South Platte leaves Colorado, the river has been wrung out, its waters used, recovered, filtered and reused again nearly a dozen times. At this point, the water is of such poor quality that it will no longer nourish certain crops, including most vegetables. And yet across the border, Nebraska can hardly wait to get its hands on it, even going so far as to sue its neighbor over the amount of water it receives.
About three miles up the trail, Carney spots a yellow Soil Conservation Service sign nailed to a tree: "Snow Course Marker." He stops and unzips the canvas bag, pulling out several sections of aluminum tubing, about two inches in diameter, that he carefully screws together into one long pole. The bag also yields a hand-held scale.
Taking the equipment, Carney heads to a spot near the marker and plunges the tube into the snow as far as it will go. The depth is 61 inches, just over five feet. He then weighs the tube. A few math steps later, he knows the moisture content of the snow.
Carney repeats the procedure at ten different spots, traversing down and across the slope from left to right, then making a 45-degree turn and heading back down and across the slope from right to left, ending at a second Snow Course Marker sign. As he measures, he writes figures down in a small notepad. These figures will later be fed into a computer that compiles month-to-month and year-to-year statistics.
Finally finished, Carney packs his equipment. Over the next couple of days, he will need to check sites in other areas; he'll check them again at the end of April. But today the news is good. Although the snow is pretty average in terms of moisture content, the snowpack is 117 percent of the average for this time of year.
After one last look around, Carney begins plodding back down the trail on his snowshoes. Soon the snow will melt and also make its way downhill, to creeks and streams and, finally, the St. Vrain.
The St. Vrain River was named after Ceran de Hault de Lassus de St. Vrain, a descendant of French aristocrats. Born in 1802 in St. Louis, he moved west to seek his fortune and became a mountain man, explorer and merchant, a contemporary and friend of the more famous Kit Carson.
St. Vrain spent most of his adult years in New Mexico, forming the most successful trading company in the Southwest with his partner, Charles Bent. They were men who understood the importance of rivers, both for commerce and for feeding the communities that sprang up around the trading posts. Together with Bent's brother, William, they established Bent's Fort at the confluence of the Arkansas and Purgatoire rivers in Colorado.
Years later, St. Vrain returned to an area he had first encountered in the late 1820s when leading a trapping party. North in the Colorado territory, the mountain canyons were cut through by three forks of a river, pure mountain streams filled with native cutthroat trout and dammed only by beaver, the waters shared by deer, elk and bear. St. Vrain built Fort St. Vrain where those waters emptied into the South Platte, and the river and its forks took on his name.
Few areas in Colorado were more fertile or hospitable than the valleys watered by the St. Vrain, and as the trappers moved on, farmers and ranchers moved into the area.
In 1880, Edward Lyons, a disabled Civil War veteran who'd originally come to Colorado to look for gold, founded the town of Lyons. After his mining attempts failed to pan out, Lyons decided to try his hand at ranching, riding north with his men along the dry foothills until he came over a rise and saw the green valley at the confluence of the south and north forks of the St. Vrain.
There were already farms in the valley, but the land where the two forks met was empty. Lyons purchased 320 acres from one of the homesteaders. After he spotted the outcroppings of sandstone and limestone on his property, though, he never got around to ranching. The sandstone found in Lyons was initially deposited by sand-, gravel- and silt-laden rivers that flowed from the ancient Rocky Mountains toward a shoreline to the east. These materials are all that's left of the "Ancestral Rockies," a mountain range that was completely eroded to a flat plain. Later, as the region was flooded by large oceans, the sand, gravel and silt were covered with thick layers of ocean deposits. The pressure from these layers caused the Lyons sediments to compress and recrystallize into the hard sandstone. When the new, present-day Rockies pushed up through this layer, the sandstone was tilted on edge. The results are dramatically visible at Red Rocks and the Garden of the Gods, but the sandstone in Lyons, a particularly strong version, would not have been as visible without the St. Vrain cutting through the rock.
Lyons took one look at this cross-section of rock and promptly formed the Lyons Rock and Lime Quarry Company on part of his property. The rest of the land he set aside for a town on the cottonwood-lined banks of the river, a place for his quarry workers and their families to live. Stores, a church and a school were built, joined by a depot after the railroad extended its tracks from Longmont in order to haul away the slabs of sandstone. Many of the town's structures were built of that same sandstone.
Soon other quarries were opened to meet the increasing demand for "Lyons sandstone." In Washington, D.C., it was used for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Closer to home, rock from the cliffs of Lyons created the rust-red buildings of the University of Colorado in Boulder.
With nearby farms and ranches supplying food and the St. Vrain providing water, the town prospered. It was the first Colorado stop for many turn-of-the-century tourists whose train trips ended in Lyons. There they would meet the "Stanley Steamer" automobiles that hauled them to nearby Estes Park.
Things were going so well, in fact, that no one noticed that Lyons had little claim to the river that ran through it.
The gold rush that brought men like Edward Lyons to Colorado changed the way water was viewed in the West -- from something that fell free from the skies, to be shared by all, to something to be owned and fought over. A miner would construct a flume to divert water from a creek in order to rinse away all but the heavier gold ore, only to wake up one morning and find that the stream had apparently dried up. Further investigation would reveal that some other miner had started working a claim upstream, diverting all the water to his flume.
Such leap-frogging inspired hard feelings and the occasional shooting. The miners recognized that there needed to be some method of controlling water rights and resolving disputes short of murder, so as early as 1859, the mining districts of Central City adopted a system that had been used during California's gold rush. The concept known as "first in time, first in right," established a priority list based on seniority -- who had first diverted the water to "beneficial use" -- and not on the miner's actual position on a stream. The Territorial Government established a process for electing water commissioners who would administer all water rights.
By the time Colorado became a state, in 1876, water rights were so important that water law was drafted right into the state constitution. The "first in time, first in right" concept, also known as the "Doctrine of Prior Appropriation," now also included the possibility of a person diverting water from a stream without having to own land adjacent to the stream.
In 1879, the legislature established an office of water commissioners and assigned district courts the responsibility of determining who had first, second, third and so on claims to water from each stream system; the rights were based on when the claimant first started using the water and how much he had used. The individual or irrigation-ditch company that had first diverted water for irrigation purposes was accorded the most senior water right. Since water rights could be sold and were not tied to the property on which they originated, it became critical to know if the sale price of a piece of land included water rights.
In those early days, there were thousands of general adjudications. Claimants were told to submit their applications for water rights by specific dates established by each district court. The water-right applicants would then go to court with whatever proof they had, including flocks of witnesses, to establish when they'd started using the water and how much they needed. But this process had its flaws, because the judges had little ability to determine if claims were realistic or excessive. As a result, in some instances the water rights that were granted far exceeded the actual amount of water that had been diverted by an irrigation ditch.
The water commissioner was responsible for determining how much water was needed to meet the needs of irrigators within his stream system. He listed those needs in order of the irrigators' seniority or priority dates. When the commissioner determined that there was not sufficient water to meet the needs of all the irrigators, he would work up from the bottom of the water-rights list, cutting off the most junior. This system, too, had flaws. Most commissioners had no training in how to judge the amount of water flowing in the streams -- or into each irrigation ditch, for that matter.
So in 1881, the legislature established the Office of State Hydraulic Engineer, who was responsible for measuring the amount of water in each stream and coming up with systems for measuring the water in each irrigation ditch. That information was then passed on to the water commissioners.
A second problem was tougher to fix: The commissioners were paid by their constituents, which made the system vulnerable to favoritism. Commissioners were often accused of favoring friends and family members. In 1896, for example, a group of three dozen farmers who relied on the Handy Ditch, which took water from the Big Thompson, became fed up with their water commissioner's special treatment of his friends. So the farmers camped out near the ditch's headgate with guns. When the commissioner came to shut off the headgate, they turned him away at gunpoint. They then hung him in effigy.
The governor considered calling out the militia. But before he could, a deputy sheriff intervened and worked out a deal between the ditch company and the farmers, ending that water rebellion.
The "first in time, first in right" law didn't put an end to all questions about water ownership, however. In fact, the waters of the St. Vrain were at the heart of one of the earliest suits challenging the interpretation of that law. The issue was "trans-mountain" diversion of water, or taking water from one watershed and diverting it into another.
Since 1863, the Lefthand Ditch Company -- a few canyons away in the Lefthand Creek drainage -- had been diverting water from the south fork of the St. Vrain to James Creek and then to Lefthand Creek; the company enlarged the ditch to take more water in 1870. There were no complaints until a drought hit nine years later. That's when a farmer named George Coffin, who lived on the lower reaches of the St. Vrain, wasn't getting enough water to irrigate his fields -- so he tore out a portion of the Lefthand Ditch Company's diversion dam, under the assumption that those who lived in the St. Vrain watershed were entitled to water before someone who diverted water into another watershed.
The ditch company sued Coffin for damages, and the case went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court. The state's highest court ruled in favor of the company, determining that a water user did not have to live in the same watershed from which he obtained water in order to rate a senior water right. The user had only to prove that he could put the water to beneficial use.
The ruling would affect communities like Lyons, which might be first in line geographically for the water tumbling through their town, but far down on the list when it came to historical use.
A descendant of one of Lyons's first settlers roars up to the front of the sandstone depot in an old Ford pickup. Lavern Johnson can barely see over the steering wheel, but she's a giant in this town.
City councilwoman, town cheerleader and grassroots activist, Johnson is also the person everyone points to as the local historian. Asked to dive into that history, she begins each new chapter "And then..." and ends those she finds amusing or ironic with a raspy "Ha, ha."
Nearly twenty years before Edward Lyons spotted the valley, Johnson's great-grandfather, John Reese, homesteaded a farm three miles east of what is now Lyons. Reese had come to Colorado with a wagon train, also hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields. He wasn't any luckier than Lyons would be, so he'd gone looking for a place to farm, which he found along the banks of the St. Vrain.
Once he had a place to stay, Reese sent back to Illinois for Kate Gifford, who in 1869 became his wife and the town's first schoolteacher. "And then they had two kids, Bertha and Frank," Johnson says, settling on a flat rock outside the depot that now, thanks in part to her efforts as president of the Lyons Historical Society, serves as the town library. "Bertha was my grandma. The guy she married was James Albert McConnell. He'd come out here from Cranberry Lake, New York...He'd worked at a sandstone quarry back there and heard about the sandstone here."
McConnell started a business to make the mortar used between the blocks of sandstone. "And then he married my grandma in 1890," Johnson says. They had four kids; one of them was her father, Bernie, who married Irene Lavern, "which is where I got my Lavern, without the 'e.' "
Johnson's parents settled down on a farm on what is now the Adams County Fairgrounds. But in 1928, when Lavern was six months old, her great-uncle took sick and her parents moved back to Lyons to help run the family farm.
Lyons was not the prosperous town it had once been. The invention of cement just prior to World War I meant that quarried rock was no longer the building material of choice. Although several of the quarries hung on, supplying decorative stone, others went under and their workers left town.
In 1945, Johnson graduated from high school as the valedictorian of her class of five. She was married in 1950 to a man she'd met at a victory dance in Boulder back in 1942. His name was Laverne Johnson, which served as a nice icebreaker. "He said he married me to see if I was lyin' about my name," she says.
Johnson calls herself a "crusader." In the 1960s, she and several other mothers who resented having to haul their boys to Longmont to play baseball in the summer got the town to create its own ball fields. That led to Johnson's appointment to the parks and recreation commission, where she was largely responsible for championing a sales-tax increase to fund the parks department -- to pay for a director, as well as to purchase and improve park lands and clean up the banks of the St. Vrain as it passed through town.
As president of the Historical Society since 1976, Johnson spearheaded the drive to save more than a dozen old buildings around town, including the schoolhouse where her great-grandmother taught, which is now a museum. She proudly notes that Lyons was designated a Historic District in 1980 by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Last month she was honored by Colorado Preservation, Inc., for her "lifetime of civic accountability."
But Johnson is perhaps best known for her role in creating the Dam Concerned Committee, a grassroots organization formed in 1982 to stop Longmont from building the Coffintop Dam project on the south fork of the St. Vrain. She was motivated less by environmental concerns than by fear of the river itself.
The St. Vrain River had flooded violently several times over the past hundred years, carrying off houses and killing a few people caught unawares by the rising waters. Now Longmont was proposing to build its earthen dam about a half-mile upstream from Lyons; there would be no warning if something went wrong and a wall of water came crashing down the canyon.
The town's residents already knew what it was like to live under a dam. The Button Rock dam, also owned by Longmont, had been built in 1969 up the north fork of the St. Vrain. And ever since, Lyons had been resisting attempts by Longmont to expand that dam, now renamed Price Reservoir after a former mayor.
"There's no flood control," says Johnson, who has studied dam failures from Idaho to Europe. "Most places keep 'em a quarter down in case there's a flood. But they keep Button Rock full...It's kind of scary living under it. They say they got it monitored by a guy up there who'll call and warn everybody if it starts to go. But you know where he'll be if that happens...running up a hill."
(Jim Dubler, dam safety engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, has been inspecting Button Rock for eight years. The dam is safe, he says, adding that it's not accurate to suggest that all dams are kept low for flood control. A Longmont city employee does live at the site. Although his job is more that of park ranger, "he would call if there's a problem," Dubler says.)
With another dam project looming, Johnson, who laughs when she refers to herself as a "dam fighter," urged her husband to run for city council. After he was elected, he immediately moved that the town do whatever it could to stop the project. Johnson and her compatriots picketed for the television cameras, holding signs that read "Damn the Dam" and "There's Coffins in Coffintop." Still, for a time it appeared that Longmont would get Coffintop.
At the eleventh hour, the state commissioned a study at the Dam Concerned Committee's urging, which revised an earlier report that had determined the dam site was safe. This new version showed that the site was on top of a fault line and so would pose a danger to Lyons in the event of an earthquake. The state killed the project. The Johnsons had their victory -- but at a cost.
Lyons was now safer from a catastrophic flood, but not from drought, because this town with a river running through it is essentially dry. Oh, residents can fish in it, play in it, hunt game along its banks and listen to the sound of it. But when it comes to taking water for their homes and businesses, somebody else owns most of it. More often than not, that somebody is the town of Longmont, twelve miles downriver.
Johnson believes there's no record of Lyons filing water claims when the current system of allocating priority rights was established. Perhaps the records were lost, she says, or town leaders simply forgot to file. "I don't know how that happened," she says ruefully. "But we're paying for it now."
What actually happened, however, had less to do with an oversight than with a lack of foresight. Initially, only irrigation ditches -- not communities -- were allowed to apply for water rights.
In 1882, the St. Vrain water court let irrigators file for water rights. The most senior rights -- with a priority date of January 1, 1860 -- were awarded to four irrigation ditches.
It wasn't until 1907 that municipalities were notified that they could file for water rights. Lyons did so and was given rights to a minimal amount of water dating back to July 6, 1892, when water was first diverted by the Lyons pipeline. (Until then, most people in town had relied on private wells.)
Longmont, which had been founded as an agricultural colony in 1869, also filed in 1907 and obtained rights dating back to March 1, 1882. But Longmont didn't stop there; the town aggressively pursued buying other senior irrigation rights and then changed them over to municipal use. Those water rights date back to 1863.
In the 1920s, Longmont started acquiring senior water rights from irrigation reservoirs in watersheds, including along the St. Vrain above Lyons. The smaller town did have a conditional right to store water in a reservoir up the north fork but never built the facility. Longmont later purchased the right to build the Button Rock dam, in exchange for Lyons obtaining 300 acre feet of water storage in the resulting reservoir.
The way it works now, Longmont takes out most of the river's water -- other than a minimal flow and any excess during spring runoff -- just below Button Rock dam. That water bypasses the river and goes through an old power-generation facility owned by Longmont just above Lyons; from there it moves into a holding pond, then either to another pipe and a Longmont filtration plant east of Lyons, or back into the river to meet Lyons's minimal rights. About five years ago, Lyons, Longmont and Boulder County worked out an agreement for Longmont to release more water into the river during the winter in order to provide fish habitat.
But in the event of an extended drought, Lyons has very little water storage, according to Gary Cinnamon, the town's administrator and former mayor. Lyons does own that 300 acre feet of storage in the Button Rock/Price reservoir. An acre foot is the amount of water it would take to cover an acre with twelve inches of water, or about 326,000 gallons; it's also the amount needed to meet the demands of a family of four for a year. Given Lyons's current population of approximately 1,400, the town's share of the water in the reservoir would last up to two years, depending on conservation efforts, says Cinnamon.
The town also buys 365 shares of water -- each share about 70 percent of an acre foot -- from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, built in the 1930s, which pumps millions of gallons of water from the Colorado River watershed through tunnels into the Big Thompson watershed. Because that water is actually downstream from Lyons, the town "trades" its purchased shares with Longmont by taking water from the North St. Vrain and "replacing" it later with the CBT water. During a drought, however, there might not be enough water flowing into Button Rock to trade. Lyons would still own its shares of CBT water but would have no way of using or storing them.
Right now Lyons runs three seasons of the year on the water it gets from the river from the 1907 adjudication, and the rest of the year off its CBT water, only rarely dipping into its stores at Button Rock. "But during a drought, we could find ourselves in a real bind," Cinnamon says.
So the town council is exploring ways to secure more water. And Johnson, who got herself elected to the council last October, is right in the thick of things. The council has come up with a list of options, any of which would be pretty pricey for a town without much of a tax base.
One is to spend about $1 million to build a new pumping station that would enable the town to use gravel pits on the east end of Lyons as storage for the CBT water; the disadvantage to this plan is the electrical costs involved in pumping water back uphill to the Lyons filtration plant. Another is to go to water court and try to get the right to pull water from the aquifer by sinking wells in the river. But that effort would cost about $4 million, and Lyons could expect to run into opposition from others with more senior water rights, especially Longmont. Lyons would also have to prove to the courts that taking the water from the wells would not "injure" downstream users with senior rights.
A third option makes Lavern Johnson's stomach churn. The town could spend about $7 million ($3 million for infrastructure and $4 million as a sort of "tap fee") to hook into Longmont's water supply out of Button Rock; again, Lyons would have to pay to pump the water uphill from Longmont's filtration plant. Although this might be the best way to secure a dependable source of water, Lyons would have to give up more than money.
The town council would have to sign a pact with the devil. "If Longmont decides to enlarge Button Rock," Johnson points out, "we can't squawk about it."
But without more water, Lyons can't grow much.
After decades in the economic doldrums, Lyons is prospering again, a small town filled with civic pride. It's a popular bedroom community for people who commute to Longmont or Boulder -- so much so that Highway 36, which runs along the foothills from Boulder to Lyons, is being expanded from two lanes to four.
Realtors laugh when they remember the days when they couldn't give property away. Now those properties are going for three, four and five times what they sold for during the early '80s. If they had more houses, they could sell those, too. But there isn't much flat, buildable land left in Lyons or in the surrounding area, especially since Boulder County purchased two large ranches for open space.
The town still has room for 400 more houses, Johnson says, but because of the water shortage, it's under a moratorium that allows no more than 25 houses a year to be built. Johnson and her supporters on the council would like to see those 400 houses constructed, and they have considered annexing developments outside the town limits. For old-timers who watched Lyons go through hard financial times, more houses would mean more tax revenues for schools and parks (which get 75 cents for every square foot of house built).
But others in town would like to see growth slowed or stopped altogether. Using the lack of water as ammunition, they've shot down the last two annexation bids.
Johnson blames the opposition on "newcomers" who've moved into town and now "want to slam the door" on anyone who follows. Some are from California, "but I think most are from Boulder," she says, adding that they come north with all their strange college-town ideas, telling folks who have lived here all of their lives what to do. "Most of the time, I don't know what they're squawkin' about.
"But there's never an end to the fights in Lyons."
"I've been here thirty years, and Lavern is still calling me a newcomer," says Mike Clark, laughing. He's standing at his workbench in the back of his shop, South Creek Ltd., planing a strip of bamboo that will someday be a fly-fishing rod.
The shop on Main Street is built of two-foot-thick sandstone, which holds off the near-record heat bearing down on the Front Range during the first week of June. His friend and fishing buddy, John Gierach, slumps in an old easy chair. "To people like Lavern," says Gierach, who has lived in town nearly as long as Clark, "there's the people who have lived here all of their lives...and everybody else. One of the last mayors actually said, 'Renters and newcomers don't count' at the podium."
While some look at the St. Vrain as a means of watering crops or developing housing, Clark and Gierach see it as something else entirely -- not just a source of recreation, but a spiritual base. The pair often can be found exploring the St. Vrain's three forks up to their headwaters at the Continental Divide, like trappers from the last century. But while these two occasionally hunt the deer and elk that wander the canyons, their main interest is stalking trout with bamboo fly rods.
Only in the West would the St. Vrain be described as a river, especially up in the high country before the forks join forces. Although the waters are vigorous, and during spring runoff the current is swift and deep, the channels are narrow, rarely more than twenty feet wide. The fish are small, too, mostly nine to ten inches. Still, every summer it seems that some kid who doesn't know any better hauls a twenty-inch brown out of the water and gets his picture in the Lyons newspaper.
The two old friends sneer at the fashion-statement fly fishermen to whom size matters, city folks who suffer from "Big Fish Syndrome." These headhunters don't understand that with fly-fishing, it is truly the journey, not the destination; the act of fishing is more important than actually catching a fish.
Gierach is the author of a number of philosophical tomes based on fishing, including Trout Bum and the recent Death, Taxes and Leaky Waders. The last time he bothered to look up such a thing, in a journal he keeps to help with recollections for his books, he counted 210 days spent fishing in one year. At 53, his hair and full beard are closer to white than gray, and his blue eyes are set in a face with more lines than a contour map. He has long, skinny legs and a rolling stride that's efficient over rough ground. His six-foot frame is about as spare as one of the bamboo rods that his sidekick, Clark, makes by hand.
Physically, Clark is Gierach's opposite. He's broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, with forearms like Popeye's. Red-faced and at one time red-haired, he has a braided ponytail that's mostly gray now.
Gierach and Clark both moved to Lyons in the early 1970s, a couple of hippies who found themselves surrounded by "miners and rednecks." Back then, many of the stores on and around Main Street were empty and boarded up -- except the bars. "Pretty much if you wanted something to do on a Saturday night," Clark recalls, "you went down to the bars on Main Street and got into a fistfight."
During the day, though, there was the river, and the fish.
When Clark and Gierach started fishing the St. Vrain, almost nobody else was. The locals seemed to think the waters had been fished out, and with good reason. "You'd hear stories about how when they were kids, they'd catch 'washtub loads' of cutthroat out of here," Gierach remembers. "Then they turn around and say, 'All the damn tourists took the fish.' Well, tourists don't take fish -- it was those washtubs and wagon loads."
The cutthroats native to these waters are long gone. Now the fish are mostly imported browns or brookies, even a few rainbows whose ancestors must have been stocked in the 1950s or 1960s, the two figure.
Because the St. Vrain rarely turns up "lunker" fish, the headhunters who've watched A River Runs Through It (but never read the book) and spend more time selecting their hats than their dry flies don't come here much. They go to the big rivers with the big fish, the kind they can brag about until the fish rivals the marlin in The Old Man and the Sea. Gierach and Clark have fished those rivers and a thousand more on this continent and others. "But these," Clark says, "are the home waters. Two blocks out my back door."
"I moved here to be near the fishing," Gierach agrees. "I've fished these waters longer, continuously, than any others." Or as he put it in his 1986 Trout Bum, "I don't consider myself lucky, because my location wasn't a matter of luck. To be honest, it wasn't exactly planned, either. It's just that when I was out West looking around after college, I realized where I was and was smart enough to stay."
Clark began building his split-bamboo rods more than twenty years ago, "in a wood-stove-heated garage in northern Colorado doing things the hard way," his brochure states. Ten years ago he moved into the store on Main Street. Each of his rods represents sixty to seventy hours of work -- costing between $1,300 and $2,800 (depending on "cosmetic" requirements), and he'll make no more than two rods annually per customer. He's pretty much "maxed out" at forty per year.
Clark is assisted by Kathy Jensen, "the prettier one between the two of us," he says. She keeps the office paperwork in order and wraps the fine thread around the ferrule and guides of the rods.
Jensen is truly a newcomer to the area, having moved from California when her husband's company transferred him to Longmont. She quickly discovered what Clark and Gierach mean when they talk about "home waters," having first been attracted by the place's beauty and then drawn by something more powerful. She's an avid fisher now, taking just about any offer to step outside the shop as an invitation to go to the river.
The two men insist there's something different about a town through which a river runs. "They have more character," Clark says. "Towns that don't, always seem dry and dusty...the people don't seem to care as much. But if you got a river, you can sit and watch it, and the hassles of the day will float away. I can sit on my deck at night, and though the river's two blocks away, I can hear it...it soothes me."
"Anytime there's a trout stream," Gierach adds, "there's a fishing subculture. I can't get a cup of coffee in town without some ol' goober asking me, 'How come you ain't fishing?' I feel comfortable around people who ask each other questions like that."
"Yeah," Clark says and laughs. "I mean, what do they ask each other in Hugo: 'How come you ain't out killin' jackrabbits?'"
But even in a river town, not every resident views the water the same way. Unlike many of their neighbors, Gierach and Clark oppose more growth -- especially with the town's water-storage problems unresolved.
They've witnessed the decline of the West's rivers. Clark's voice goes hard as he describes fountains in Phoenix that spray water from the Colorado River a hundred feet into the air, with little falling back to the ground (the rest has evaporated in the 115 degree heat). "I've seen the Colorado in Yuma," he says. "Hardly a trickle. A big, brackish swamp."
On this day, the home waters are running swift and deep down the North Fork of the St. Vrain on the outskirts of town. Gierach eyes the stream, but with the water up, the fish are lying low; it's not worth getting his line wet until the runoff is over. So instead, he plans to go after bass in a pond "out east."
As a fisherman, Gierach likes it when the spring snowmelt that feeds the trout streams comes and ends quickly. He hates to be kept waiting through a long, slow runoff like the one in 1999, when cool temperatures and unusually high precipitation extended the duration.
But Gierach also realizes that what's happening this year is not good. It's too much, too soon. This water will run off downstream, and there'll be little to replace it later in the summer.
When the St. Vrain leaves Lyons, it also loses most of its charm. Three-fourths of the water disappears into ditches. What's left when the water is reclaimed is filled with agricultural pollution. "Sucker water," Clark says.
"Once it passes beneath the Highway 36 bridge, it's not our river anymore."
But whose river is it? Over the past year, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, which oversees the river commissioners, has aggressively pursued private landowners, small businesses located on the St. Vrain, even the town of Ward on the upper reaches of the Lefthand Creek watershed, for illegally taking water without replacing the "injury" done to senior rights-holders farther downstream.
The practice of dipping into the river on a small, private basis has been going on for generations. In each instance, the amount is not large -- but taken together, it adds up.
Water is so important in Colorado that the state supreme court has ruled that "even a drop" is "injury." So with water costs going through the roof and practically every drop promised to a rights holder, the division decided to put a stop to pilfering.
The division sent workers into the upper reaches of the St. Vrain, asking landowners how they got their water and sending notices to stop if they were getting it illegally. Meetings quickly degenerated into shouting matches, with the water thieves vilifying the division. (According to some rumors, a few landowners came armed to those meetings.) Outraged citizens could not understand how they could live at the highest point on the watershed and not have a right to the water.
The landowners and the town of Ward were not without recourse. The Colorado Legislature has deemed that when no other water is available, historical users must be accommodated. The restrictions on this provision are very tight, however. For example, a homeowner given the okay to use water inside the house can have that right taken away if he waters his lawn.
Finally the division worked out a deal with the Lefthand Ditch Company and the St. Vrain Water Conservancy District to provide water to replace any injury caused by the 140 "water diverters" and Ward, for a small annual fee. The agreement was similar to one worked out recently with private water users in the Big Thompson watershed; the division next plans to take on the private diversions in Boulder Creek.
But the division could soon get much busier.
The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District recently completed a Regional Water Demand Study, designed "to compile future land use and growth plans and projections, and to estimate associated future water demands." The district covers the watersheds from Boxelder Creek in the north to Cache la Poudre River in the south, as well as the Big Thompson River, the St. Vrain and Boulder and Coal creeks. It follows those drainages into the South Platte all the way to the Nebraska border.
The district's study looked into the present and future water demands of 36 Boulder, Weld and Larimer County cities and towns within its boundaries, then generated estimates for future use. Among the findings: The region will need more than 2.5 times the water currently demanded for municipal and industrial purposes to reach "build out," the point at which the municipalities will fill out their planned growth areas over the next forty to sixty years. This amount, 264,000 acre feet, is roughly the annual dry-year flow for the region's four major tributaries: the Poudre, Big Thompson, St. Vrain and Boulder Creek.
With an estimated half-million people living in the three-county service area now, future growth plans anticipate a potential population of 1.5 million. As population increases, there will be a corresponding decrease in agricultural land, both irrigated and dryland. The district study forecasts a decrease of nearly 290,000 acres, or more than one third of the land presently classified as agricultural. Of that, 75,000 acres of the decrease will be converted to open space, according to the various land-use plans. But that leaves 215,000 acres that could soon be covered with nearly identical rows of houses with water-sucking bluegrass lawns that were never meant to grow in a semi-arid climate.
The transfer of water from agricultural to municipal use could provide up to 20 percent of the total needed, according to the study. Conservation measures such as rebates for low-flow fixtures, incentives for water-efficient landscaping and water metering could save 10 to 20 percent more.
Even so, the study concluded, "We'll need more water."
Determining who gets the water in the St. Vrain drainage now falls to the man in the cowboy boots sitting in the Hygiene Cafe, a half-dozen miles downstream from Lyons, one June morning. He's surrounded by the smell of good coffee, the sound of eggs skittering in hot grease, and the voices of large, sweaty men taking a break from the fields.
Bill Gambrell was born and raised in Greeley, surrounded by agriculture and the omnipresent aroma of the stockyards -- a true country boy at heart. For years he made his living selling farm and ranch real estate, "but that got boring," he says.
A friend of his was the river commissioner over on the Big Thompson drainage. Gambrell rode around some with him and found the work interesting. So when the position of river commissioner for the St. Vrain district -- which extends from a small ditch above Lyons to just west of Interstate 25 -- came open, he studied up and applied. That was fifteen years ago. In the years since, he's seen all kinds of weather and knows the travails it causes his clients, who are also his friends.
This past spring has been the worst yet for the St. Vrain.
What a difference two months have made since Carney took his measurements on Long's Peak. A few more dumps like that early spring storm might have made up for an otherwise dry, warm winter. Instead, this spring has been one of the driest, warmest and sunniest -- a critical factor for evaporation -- in the past hundred years.
On June 1, the last official report of the snowpack-survey season concluded that statewide, the snowpack had dropped to only 14 percent of average, "mainly due to continued warm temperatures and below average spring precipitation."
"These readings are the lowest statewide snowpack percentage for this date since records began," the Natural Resources Conservation Service reported.
The situation is most critical in the southwestern portion of the state -- in the Rio Grande, San Juan, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel basins. But according to the conservation service report, even the basins in northern Colorado, including the St. Vrain watershed, which maintained a near average winter snowpack, have now seen their snowpack percentages plummet to about one-third of the average.
Think of the snowpack as an enormous reservoir without a dam. During a normal year, the snowpack melts more slowly and supplies water over a longer period of time. It also keeps the forest floor, which acts as a sponge, wetter well into the summer -- cutting down on fire danger.
But with this year's early runoff, there's no place for the water to go but downstream. Since last year's spring and summer were wet, reservoirs and other storage sites are already full.
This year, the St. Vrain runoff peaked on May 31, more than a month ahead of normal. Farmers with junior water rights are already being cut off and will have to start dipping into supplemental water supplies.
Most farmers have a year's worth of supplemental water, and it's common to start dipping into those reserves in late summer, with the expectation that they'll be replenished during the winter. But with farmers already having to resort to those stores, they're now hoping for heavy rains in later summer -- normally the driest time of year.
If those rains don't fall and this winter is dry like the last one, the impact will be felt down the line. Not this year, while there's still stored water, but next year and the year after that, if the drought continues. And while there's always Colorado-Big Thompson water, the price is skyrocketing -- from $7,000 a share nine months ago to $15,000 a share today and climbing.
The situation has Gambrell worried. It's been a long time since anyone in these parts hung a river commissioner, even in effigy. Still, it's difficult to tell someone whose livelihood depends on watering his crops that he's been cut off. In other dry years, Gambrell has had to cut people off whose water-rights claims date as far back as the late 1870s. "They expect it, not this soon, but that's farming in Colorado," he says. But this summer, he predicts he'll have to go back even further, into the 1860s. "They're the ones who really aren't going to like it," he says. "They're not used to it.
"The best hope for many of the state's water users," according to the conservation service, "is for a wet summer monsoon and the ability to take advantage of the good reservoir storage across the state."
Or, as Gambrell says, "Pray for rain."