Willoughby: Decisions of the past determine spring runoff here and now
Legends & Legacies
Deep snow brings high spring runoff. We may worry about flooding and poor fishing here. And we may hope for crazy rafting now. But decisions of the 1930s have already determined the water’s path and destination.
To understand local water, start in the 1920s when Western states began to consider the limits of the Colorado River. Few population centers dotted the region at that time, but agricultural acreage was expanding. Western crops need irrigation, and that need created demand along the river’s course through desert states. Downstream Arizona, California and Nevada divided the water, with a requirement that upstream Colorado and Utah must not use it all.
Just before 1920, Western Colorado had been going through an agricultural boom. Aspenites, including Aspen Times editor B. Clark Wheeler, and grocers Emmett Gould and Ed Grover, bought land. My grandfather invested in orchard land in the Hotchkiss area, and formed an irrigation company. Similar enterprises began to tap the Colorado River and its tributaries.
The Great Depression lowered crop prices and curtailed agricultural growth. A simultaneous drought, the Dust Bowl, created a double whammy. The drought hit with three severe strikes: 1934, 1936 and 1939-40. The 1933-34 winter registered as the scantiest snow accumulation for Aspen.
When drought pummeled Eastern Colorado, enterprising developers quickly realized that the Continental Divide could be rendered irrelevant. They tunneled through the mountain, and created a new path for water that would have flowed west. Instead, the water flowed to irrigators east of the mountains.
In other times, the risky, costly scheme would have failed. But during the Depression, the federal government, through the Reconstruction Finance Corp., funded dams and projects to put people to work.
In that same time period, Los Angeles — long on growth and short on water — began to secure its water future. The city began a famous takeover, grasping water from the Eastern Sierra. In a less well-known story, LA’s water guru, Mayor Mulholland, looked to the Colorado River. He started construction on an eight-year project to dam the river and ship the water 242 miles to his city. Half of LA’s water today comes from that project.
The Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. of Ridgeway wheedled $1.1 million to dig a 3.6-mile tunnel under Independence Pass, to divert Roaring Fork water to the Arkansas River. Aspen welcomed the project, because tunnel workers spent their wages in town.
At the time, the Roaring Fork literally roared with water, so few felt concern about a decrease in spring runoff and the associated risk of floods. But the summer when the Twin Lakes tunnel began to divert water, 1937, fell in a dry year. Ranchers and farmers felt alarm. They had never seen the Roaring Fork so diminished, “so low you could walk across without getting wet.” They worried that the small flow would freeze in the winter and destroy the area’s famous trout fishing. The gauge readings in Glenwood for the year registered 70% of normal.
Mayor Fred Willoughby (my grandfather), State Sen. Doc Twinning and Tom Flynn — partners in the new Highland Bavarian skiing project — raised their concerns with officials on the Colorado Water Board and the Colorado River Water Conservancy District.
Meanwhile, the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. began to run into problems with their patrons. The company did not deliver enough water, and they charged too much. The company tried a new tactic: to offer their water to Pueblo.
The parties came to an agreement. The numerous projects planned for trans-mountain diversion would include water-compensating reservoirs. The upper sections of diverted streams would be dammed to store enough spring runoff to compensate for diverted water.
My grandfather devoted several years, alongside irrigation company officials he knew in Western Colorado, toward getting a storage reservoir built. Some thought the Roaring Fork should be dammed in the Stillwater area, just east of town, a site that remained on the “possible” list for many years. In the end, the Bureau of Reclamation built the Ruedi Dam on the Frying Pan River.
Since that time, demands for Colorado River water have increased. In the face of increased water storage, and ever more water diverted to the eastern slope, the war for managed water continues. Global warming adds uncertainty, such as increased drought and earlier spring runoff. Colorado River dams are nearing the point where the water levels at so low that water cannot be released to make hydroelectricity or to supply the lower states. All these factors intensify our celebration when snow accumulated foot after foot and added up to a grand Aspen ski year.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has tested positive for the coronavirus. Polis and his partner, Marlon Reis, both have COVID-19 and are asymptomatic, the governor said in a statement Saturday night.