Andersen: Take our Western Slope water, please
Water doesn’t just flow downhill, as gravity mandates. It also can flow uphill — toward money.
Western Slope water has followed that dictum for over a century, going uphill by flowing through the Continental Divide to where it feeds the exploding urban centers of Colorado’s Front Range.
You can see it while hiking many of the wilderness trails in Lincoln Creek or at Lost Man. It’s visible in upper Hunter Creek and the upper Fryingpan. On a hike last weekend with my family, we stopped just below a concrete diversion structure where we had a stark lesson in water management.
“Look on this side,” said my son, Tait, pointing to a former streambed that was as dry as a desert arroyo.
“Now look up there,” he said, pointing to a burbling stream flowing through a lush forest understory speckled with tall, nodding wildflowers. “That’s the difference water diversions are making on Western Slope river courses.”
At Lost Man on the Independence Pass road, you can walk a section of the Roaring Fork River that is completely dewatered. That’s because the river is channeled by a diversion dam that takes the entire river through a canal to Grizzly Reservoir.
From Grizzly, the water is piped beneath the Continental Divide and added to the flow of the Arkansas River. The Arkansas then flows to Front Range reservoirs, where it waters lawns and fills taps in high-growth regions.
It feels irrefutably wrong to see a dried-up river course, because it violates a basic precept of nature by destroying an aquatic environment in the naturally lush riparian ecosystem.
While environmental ethics once caused me to decry transmountain perversions as destructive to natural hydrology, I’ve become ambivalent. I say, “Go ahead and take our water, Front Range, and feed the growth and development that could otherwise have been imported here to the Western Slope.”
There’s nothing I can do about the loss of that uphill-flowing water, so I accept it because those diversions spare the Western Slope from the rapid urbanization that is killing the rural mountain ambience that once described Colorado.
It began many years ago in our region when transmountain diversions were instituted in the 1930s to water agricultural lands on the Eastern Plains of Colorado — namely sugar-beet fields east of Pueblo at a crossroads called Sugar City.
The Grizzly tunnel was completed in 1935. Back then, it was deemed by the Bureau of Reclamation that there was surplus water in the Roaring Fork. Deals were made that still channel 625 cubic feet of water (280,500 gallons) per second through the Continental Divide at peak flow.
As parched California relocates to Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and their orbital suburbs, water is the currency on which urban sprawl banks. An intricate system of canals and tunnels takes snow runoff from the mountain drainages of Brooklyn Gulch, Tabor Creek, New York Creek, Lost Man Creek and Lincoln Creek into the Grizzly tunnel — mostly for urban growth.
Population projections of Colorado reaching as many as 10 million people by 2050 are dystopian if you value open space and rural atmosphere — and even more so if you value the rights of natural streamflows.
Rural charm is quickly disappearing on the Front Range, where traffic is often at gridlock, and parks and national forests are overrun by mobs of humanity seeking succor in cool summer weather and limpid mountain streams.
I rode in a truck through the 4-mile-long Grizzly tunnel eight years ago while writing the water section for “High Road to Aspen: A History of Independence Pass.” It was like exploring a watery subway where trout swimming in a small offseason flow jumped up into the headlight beams.
What felt like a violation of natural rights has shifted for me to appreciation for the comparatively quieter, if drier, Western Slope. Despite dewatering ranchland that converts pastures into fields of thistles, transmountain diversions have helped protect rural landscapes on our side of the Divide.
Water definitely flows uphill but not necessarily to the highest use. It just goes to the highest bidder. And those high bidders are not growing hay or raising cattle.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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