About the Gunnison Knot, Part 2

Sidebar by Central Staff

Gunnison Water – December 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

Last month, we began the saga of water development in the Upper Gunnison River valley — from the main stem of the Gunnison River down through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (which became a National Park in late October). This story of water details a history of ever-mounting complexity — as thread upon thread of legal, political and economic maneuvers have been woven into an ever more unwieldy knot.

In part one, Sibley explained how the controversy over the current Union Park proposal to divert water from the Gunnison to Colorado’s front range has been entangled by more than a century of water laws and customs designed to develop the arid west.

This month, he goes on to show how the old “use it or lose it” tenets of western water law have gotten everyone into the business of determining how to develop Gunnison’s water — even those who would just as soon let the water stay in the river and run to the sea, wild and free.

Once upon a time, western farmers and ranchers got in gunfights over ditches. So laws were passed. Slowly water laws evolved to serve the needs of an ever-growing company of users — mines, cities, industries, and power plants. And now there’s a new “user” on the horizon. Although environmental protectionists and our growing recreation industry aren’t demanding to “use” the water, they’ve complicated western water law considerably by establishing that the flowing water necessary for fish, wildlife, and river sports also constitutes a precious and claimable commodity.

Over the years, the demands on western water have increased — as have the number of water laws, lawyers, and cases — but the rainfall stays pretty much the same. So these days it isn’t just the farmers and ranchers who are wrangling over water. Today, it’s just about everyone in Central Colorado, and the object isn’t to claim more water; it’s just to hold on to what little we’ve got.

In this article, George Sibley details one local fight to stop a trans-basin diversion, and in doing so he shows just how costly and convoluted this process of wrangling over water has gotten. Or as Sibley puts it, “It’s a tangle that makes the fabled ‘Gordian knot’ look like a simple granny.”