Sink or Swim – Our Future Lies in Our Water Supply

“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

One could aptly quote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge when observing the snow­capped mountains and rushing rivers of Colorado.

 

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Casual travelers or newcomers to the state may be shocked by the rules and regulations that govern our water supplies. The creek that flows through a backyard may not be the landowner’s to claim. Rainwater that falls on my property rightfully belongs to someone further down the line. None of it makes sense to someone from, say, the Midwest, where usually an over­abundance of water is the problem.

Colorado’s water law has a rich and detailed history. Decisions on how to fairly share this precious and increasingly scarce commodity have shaped the very landscape of the state. And sadly, as often happens when humans meddle with nature, not all of the choices made were for the good of either the land or all of the inhabitants. Water, in its own right, is more valuable than gold or oil. As with all precious commodities, greed and power often create selective blindness to the bigger picture. As John Love, governor of Colorado from 1963 to 1973, aptly remarked “In the West, water flows uphill toward money”.

San Isabel Land Protection Trust (SILPT) offered local residents the perfect opportunity to learn more about this crucial topic when they recently sponsored a showing of “The Great Divide.” This documentary by Havey Productions chronicles the influence of the four rivers that have their headwaters at the very top of Colorado. Waters from these rivers are the most coveted in the United States and are claimed by eighteen states as well as Mexico.

Three of these rivers—the South Platte, the Arkansas, and the Rio Grande—naturally run down the Eastern Slope. The rivers continue through several states and eventually make their way into the Atlantic Ocean. The Colorado River flows down the Western Slope toward the Pacific. This river contains 80% of the state’s water, while the Eastern Slope holds 80% of the state’s population. You can see the quandary in those conflicting statistics. Thanks to some amazing feats of engineering, a significant amount of the Colorado has been diverted to flow eastward. By the time all claims are pulled along the way, a very small amount of this mighty river actually makes its natural way into the Pacific Ocean.

From the days of the earliest settlers, Coloradans have labored and battled to get their fair share of water. Farms vs. cities, ranchers vs. rafters, humans vs. wildlife—all have legitimate needs and concerns, but often some have more influential voices than others. Those of us in Coaldale have recently experienced this situation with the CB Ranch purchase by Security Water & Sanitation District, just outside of Colorado Springs. While no new developments have occurred in recent months, you can be sure that this issue will at some point bring changes to our green valley. Just how deleterious remains to be seen.

The state has brought water issues to the forefront for 2016 and beyond. Finalized in late 2015, Colorado’s Water Plan contains no legislation but serves as a guideline for future regulation and planning. Thanks to Kristie Nackord from SILPT, who can explain the newly compiled Plan in a way that does not make my eyes glaze over, I have a better understanding of exactly what went into this document and how it may affect our community. Eight significant water basins – Arkansas, Gunnison, South Platte, North Platte, Colorado, Rio Grande, Southwest, Yampa/White, plus the Denver metropolitan area – formed roundtables that were assigned the years long task of compiling a local water needs assessment, known as BIPs (Basin Implementation Plans). The results were based on consumptive needs (municipal, agricultural, industrial), non-consumptive needs (recreational and environmental), available supplies, and projects or methods proposed to achieve long-term sustainability.

We are a part of the Arkansas River Basin, which encompasses the entire area from Leadville to the Lower Ark. According to Kristie, who has attended the monthly meetings, most of the Arkansas Basin’s fifty participating roundtable members are aware of the CB Ranch deal. She believes them to be, for the most part, very pro-agriculture, progressive, and action-oriented (hurray for us!). Because each of the nine water basins in Colorado is represented in the formation of future water policy in the state, we are at least in the loop when it comes to any decision-making

It can only be hoped that pro-agricultural and pro-environmental input will be seriously considered as any new water legislation is crafted and implemented. And legislation will definitely need to be created to keep up with the growing demands for water. It is estimated that Colorado’s population will double by mid-century. Colorado’s Water Plan is our best hope, at this juncture, to stay ahead of what will inevitably be a water supply crisis.

 

About the author: Debbie Gaj is a “retiree” who finds herself busier than ever. She works part-time as a veterinary assistant, serves on the Board of the Coaldale Community Building, regularly contributes to columns in “The Mountain Mail” newspaper and “In the Valley” newsletter, provides foster care for Ark-Valley Humane Society, and enjoys exploring Big Horn Sheep Canyon with a weekly hiking group. Debbie shares her cozy home on Cottonwood Creek with her own little pack of rescued dogs and cats.

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