It’s East vs. East in new Colorado water wars
We have the makings of an excellent water war along the Arkansas River, where deadly disputes go back to 1875 when Judge Elias Dyer, son of the famous Methodist missionary John L. Dyer, was gunned down in his own courtroom in a dispute that started over an irrigation ditch.This time around, the conflict involves the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, known locally as “Fry-Ark.” It was constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and is administered by the nine-county Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Fry-Ark takes about 70,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Fryingpan River above Basalt on the Western Slope, and delivers it to the Arkansas drainage through a tunnel under the Continental Divide.President John F. Kennedy visited Pueblo in 1962 to sign it into law. The plan was to provide water to cities and towns in the Arkansas drainage in Colorado and to provide “supplemental irrigation water” to farmers. One major feature was Pueblo Reservoir, a few miles upstream of its namesake city.So there’s water coming from one basin on the Western Slope to another on the Eastern Slope. Enter another Eastern Slope basin – the South Platte, wherein lies the city of Aurora.Before I moved to Salida in 1978, I had edited Western Slope newspapers in Kremmling and Breckenridge, where Eastern Slope water raids were ongoing stories. After I moved to the banks of the Arkansas, an Eastern Slope river that received Western Slope water, I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to write about the latest schemes from Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.After all, I reckoned, there must be a sort of honor among thieves, and Eastern Slope water entities would not go after each other’s water. But I was wrong.In the 1980s, Aurora began buying agricultural water rights east of Pueblo. It can take water from the Arkansas at the Otero Pump Station, a few miles up the river from Buena Vista.Thus there are diversions from the Arkansas to the South Platte drainage, and Aurora wants to use Pueblo Reservoir for storage to facilitate the process. Aurora is willing to pay, but there’s a legal issue: Can Fry-Ark facilities, designed to serve southern Colorado, be used to benefit an entity in northern Colorado? Expensive litigation may answer that question.Meanwhile, towns east of Pueblo are agitating for a conduit that was supposed to be part of the Fry-Ark project. The project water they get flows down the river, where it is less than pristine on account of agricultural return flows and the like. They’d like a big pipe that carries clean water from on high, and they were promised one back in 1962. Congress never appropriated the money, though, and the towns think it’s long overdue.There might not be all this contention if history had taken a different course 60 years ago. A few years back, I found a 1948 Bureau of Reclamation preliminary examination of the “Gunnison-Arkansas Project.” It was immense. Gun-Ark included the diversions that eventually formed the Fry-Ark Project, as well as Maroon and Castle creeks above Aspen and the Crystal River above Carbondale. But mainly it took from the Gunnison Basin – the North Fork above Paonia, and the Slate and Taylor rivers north of Gunnison. Two tunnels under the Sawatch Range would have put water in a canal that fed hydroelectric plants as the water dropped to join the Arkansas near Salida.All told, it would have diverted about 540,000 acre-feet a year to the Arkansas, more than doubling its flow. Gun-Ark would have enabled Colorado to use most, if not all, its share of water available under the Colorado River Compact, and thus our politicians could have quit proposing new diversions from the Western Slope. The three Aspinall Unit dams west of Gunnison would never have been built, since the puny remnant of the Gunnison River could not have produced the hydropower to pay for them. The entire Colorado River Storage Project system, including Glen Canyon Dam, would have taken a very different form.The Arkansas Valley would have had an immense water supply from the Western Slope. But as things have turned out, it’s just as well, even for the Arkansas, that this project was never built. No matter how much water you divert into your own basin, some other basin will be after it.In our arid West, if there’s a choice between getting people to move where the water is, or moving water to where the real-estate developers are, we move the water. Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles have demonstrated this, and Aurora is coming along quite nicely.Ed Quillen is a writer in Salida, Colo., where he produces regular op-ed columns for The Denver Post and publishes Colorado Central, a small regional monthly magazine.
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