Aspen Times Weekly cover story: When the water runs out |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: When the water runs out

Amanda Charles
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo by Pavel OsiakCover by Afton Groepper

“Seniors rule, freshman drool,” if remembering correctly, is a term used back in high school by the older kids to assume right of power over the young and inexperienced new kids. Perhaps trivial speech in the mind of the graduated professional, this juvenile phrase has held more truth over the years than most of us would like to admit, especially when it comes to the ownership of earth’s most vital resource – water.

The ownership of water, as present an issue it may seem, dates back to the 1900s when Western water law was based on the doctrine of prior appropriation, or the standard, “first in time, first in right” example. Similar to the senior-freshman phrase, the law gave grandma and grandpa rights to water before their kids, leaving the kids in constant fear that there wouldn’t be enough water to satisfy the whole.

To resolve this pivotal issue, the seven basin states came together to negotiate the Colorado River Compact in 1922, which would divide the watershed into the Upper and Lower basins and allocate the water between them – including the established agreement that each basin would receive 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually. After almost a year of revision the Compact was enacted, setting precedence for a model we would stand by for the regulation of the Colorado River and surrounding streams for years to come.

But what if there really isn’t enough water to go around?

Two years ago, Aspen Public Radio broadcasted an interview with Jon Waterman, author of the book, “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River.” In the interview Waterman discusses his findings along the basin, including the dim discovery of a river that not only hasn’t reached the Sea of Cortez in Mexico since 1998, but in every stage is diverted, dammed, irrigated or used to supply arid cities in the lower basin.

According to Waterman, the 1922 Compact allocated approximately one- fifth more of the Colorado River than actually flows today, which means its signers failed to consider the immense population growth or the implications of climate change we experience today in the 21st century.

The fact that the river can no longer meet the demands of the Compact not only triggers a dangerous conflict in the already-dry West, which Waterman claimed in 2010 to hold a population of 30 million with more than 3 million acres of farmlands. It leaves us returning to the doctrine of seniority rules, or “first in time, first in right” to claim what is owed to us.

Now, two years after APR’s interview, Waterman’s findings of over-allocated water rights reveal a frightening truth as Colorado struggles to push through its driest year seen since 2002.

In the high country alone, the Roaring Fork River bares record lows as local conservancy groups partner with state programs for short-term water right loans in order to protect the stream flow and the stressed fish during increased temperatures.

Despite a city council vote to enact a Stage One Water Shortage with an objective to reduce water usage by 10 percent, farmers throughout the Valley bend over backwards to capture the last of their famished crop before their water gets shut off, while ranchers are forced to spend hundreds on domestic water and outsourced hay just to keep their animals alive.

Dave Whittlesey, owner of High Wire Ranch in Hotchkiss, struggles to provide a healthy environment for his livestock after his reservoir went dry two weeks ago.

“I’m spending between $800-$1,000 per month on domestic water for my elk and buffalo herds which are already down 50 percent from last year,” he said.

Whittlesey, who harvests his own hay for his animals, has seen a 40 percent decrease in production from last year, forcing him to send his animals to the butcher early.

“I usually send my male buffalo off when they are around 1,200 pounds; now I’m forced to send them off at 800 pounds. Y do the math.”

According to Whittlesey, neighboring ranches are selling their cattle at a rate almost four times as quickly as last year.

In his 320-acre operation at High Wire Ranch alone, Dave is sending a dozen buffalo to the butcher per month as opposed to the usual three.

On the management side, water commissioners throughout the districts face resistance between those who can’t understand why their water is being shut off.

“The people who have been here a long time know exactly what we are doing and are usually very cooperative,” said water commissioner of the upper district Bill Blakeslee. “It’s the people who haven’t been educated on the water laws who are resistant to let theirs go for someone else.”

When it comes to the fight for water, Blakeslee, who has lived in the Aspen region since 1963, credits not only the significant population growth in mountain towns, but climate change and the increase in water usage compared to 20 to 40 years ago.

The most consumptive usage of water, Blakeslee claims, comes from pond storage.

“We have all this growth in homes that hold ponds and fountains in the backyards. Of course it holds more aesthetic value and is less expansive than building a tank, but what people don’t realize is most of that water is evaporated and doesn’t make it back to the watershed.”

And while Blakeslee holds the 1922 Compact accountable for the water complexities, saying it fails to satisfy even one-third of the water rights decreed, he also believes that part of the problem lies within the county itself – who didn’t appear to consider the effects the city’s growth would have on our water system.

Nonetheless, everyone has his or her opinions as to how water should be used within the system.

Earlier this year, activist Richard Hamilton and accompanying lawyer Phillip Doe sought to overturn the prior appropriation doctrine and replace it with a public trust system. If approved by voters, the amendment would shift ownership of un-appropriated water to the public, and strip water rights from farms, municipalities and state organizations.

But according to Jon Waterman in his interview with APR two years ago, 78 percent of our river use goes to agriculture, and if these rights were taken from the farmers’ hands there would be anarchy.

So as Colorado breaks nothing but dry land as it makes its way into the fall season, questions still remain for how our water system can be used in the most efficient way.

For Waterman, the answer lies in visionary reform and conservation; we must talk to farmers and ask them to grow less-consumptive crops, to change their irrigation systems and rethink the cattle industry, which feeds on thousands upon thousands of gallons of water.

Perhaps most important, Waterman says, is the need to rethink the American law of consumption and stop indulging ourselves with sprinklers and ponds. In the past five years, places like Los Vegas, which have the least amount of accessible water, have become the largest conservators because they have found ways to recycle almost all of it.

For Dave Whittlesey, however, who came out of the drought in 2002 with no open ditches or runoff, a gravity feed system and no more than 3 to 4 percent evaporation loss on his ranch, the answer lies in the ability to plan ahead – a concept in which most farmers in the area have already learned and adjusted to.

“Irrigated agriculture is not going away,” he said. “The biggest misconception is that we don’t have enough water – we have plenty of water. It’s just a matter of realizing that our community is full of progressive and creative people. Once we set that loose, the ways for utilizing the water in the most appropriate way will come through.”

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