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Use it, don’t lose it

Letter by Jim Ludwig

water – November 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Water: Use it, don’t lose it, but use it thoughtfully

To the Editors:

I find your October Colorado Central, devoted to Colorado water, most interesting. Particularly the letter from the Editors, which is an open attempt to really discuss the issues, not a blind partisanship of a single viewpoint. I believe Gunnison would be much better off if they used their money to consider the best way to use the Union Park venture to the best local advantage possible, rather than blind opposition. The same is true of the Closed Basin water proposal. We of the high mountains will suffer forever for the out-of-state power, avidly sought by some, which killed the Two Forks project, an attempt to more efficiently use incompletely developed water rights.

Boyce is right in arguing that the state constitution says the unappropriated waters of Colorado belong to the people of the entire State. As long as this remains true, lawyers and engineers will always find a way to properly develop, under law, what nature has given us, and money from the population centers will assure that the water flows in that direction. May God help us if the population center moves to the high mountains or the western slope. In the meantime, we must vote the best we can in our own interest.

COLORADO WATER LAW, hammered through the courts by miners, ranchers, municipalities and downstream states is administered very well. Much of the United States is blessed with an abundance of rainfall, and it is hard for people from those areas to understand our problem, and simplistic solutions are a dime a dozen. A common proposal is to not use water above normal rainfall for private or municipal landscaping.

Is this feasible? If so, why don’t we simply stop landscaping? We could save millions, perhaps billions in developed water costs. I have lived or had property in Buena Vista since 1958, forty years. This year was the first with water meters, and a lot of people let their lawn dry up. Frankly, it looked like hell.

Stop Landscaping? Historically, culturally and philosophically it is nearly impossible.

Irrigation is as old as the beginnings of civilization. Radiocarbon dating methods show that agricultural communities were well established in the Near East by 6000 BC. About 4000 BC, at the head of the Persian Gulf, societies developed methods of water conservation and irrigation of the adjacent semi desert. The Sumerians, probably the first people to use writing, not only understood how to grow crops, but also how to control the rivers, by leading off water through ditches and canals when it was scarce, and building dams and escape channels to control floods. The need for mutual cooperation to make good use of the water supply may have acted as a stimulant to create the civilization that was born there.

Hammurabi (2123-2081 B.C.) who wrote the historic code of laws from which much modern law has been derived, wrote in his prologue: “I dug the canal–, which bringeth copious water to the land of Sumer and Akkad. Its banks on both sides I turned into cultivated ground; I heaped up piles of grain, I provided unfailing water for the lands. . . . The scattered people I gathered; with pasturage and water I provided them; I pastured them with abundance, and settled them in peaceful dwellings.”

Unfortunately, as was always the case, the barbarians from the north and east, in this case the Kassites, plundered and destroyed this culture. Builders and barbarian destroyers have alternately occupied the near east to this day, and the use of available water has always been a contributing factor.

The great Nebuchadnezzar, starting about 600 B. C., rebuilt the irrigation systems and established the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. (The Christians among you may remember his son as the villain of the Book of Daniel.) The Greeks listed the Gardens as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS had a three season agricultural system, with the use of domestic animals recorded as early as 4000 B. C. Their cycle was flood, growth, and drought. They too established gardens. The ancient Chinese system was, and often is today, to flood and hold the water as long as possible, trying to wrest three crops from the same land. Irrigation practice determined the crops developed, rice in the far east, for example. The far eastern, formal, clipped gardens have existed since time immemorial.

Always, periods of agricultural-based culture were interrupted by barbarians who would destroy the irrigation system. Always, when irrigation allowed civilization to build, gardens were developed as a sign to all that they were civilized.

The Roman villas and gardens were legend, as were the gardens of Alhambra in Spain a thousand years later. Then, as we Europeans slowly progressed from our own barbarian background which destroyed Rome and the Alhambra, we too began to landscape to show our progress.

Much of Europe, and Eastern North America did not require the development of irrigation in order to support an agricultural society and its gardens, but this changed radically as the West was settled. Almost immediately the need for irrigation was apparent, and our present systems of dams, tunnels, canals and pipelines, now aided by modern industrial technology, came into being.

Again, the rule of law was of utmost importance in this development. The Spanish of the Southwest brought with them a long history of semi-desert irrigation, and their unwritten rules of administering the water along a ditch. Now, however, we have a democracy with an economic system where votes and money determine what will be done.

Along with agriculture, landscaping and gardens are important to demonstrate civility. Thus, seeing the environment would not support the design and plants of the civilized Eastern Seaboard, let alone Europe, the environment was changed by the use of irrigation. Unfortunately, the broad expanses of tillable land, and therefore the cities, were developed on the eastern slope, and the water of the prevailing westerlies was wrung out on the western slope by the High Rockies.

WE AS A PEOPLE cannot take lightly proposals to change existing laws concerning irrigation, a cornerstone of civilization known for 8,000 years to affect the cultures of man. We will find it hard to change a culture that views gardens and landscaping as a sign of the advance of that culture.

Nor can we ignore the fact that the physical structure of the land and the vagaries of the weather have conspired against our desire to develop and populate our eastern slope. The technical abilities to collect, store, transport and use water have increased many-fold since the ancient aqueducts supplied water to Rome. The rule of law has advanced to aid and protect a municipal, agricultural or even household user.

This rule of law has allowed the Denver Water Board, during the early years, to protect and hold for Colorado much of the western slope water which would have disappeared downstream to far west users. For this foresight we should all be thankful, but does it justify continuing diversion when the water could be used within its natural basin?

We must remember that the barbarians who would return man and the land to a primitive state are still here, and as always they recognize that destroying or hampering the water system has been a proven method since time immemorial. They would drain the reservoirs, and let water flow more swiftly to float the boats and save the fishes. They would prevent water development, even though it is clearly in the interest of the common man.

Their weapons are laws, not swords, but the effect is the same. Each of us is obligated to consider carefully and vote in the better interest of our land. A quick and thoughtless vote, less than two hundred years into an 8,000-year-old problem, is inexcusable.

My advice? Vote against the two proposals as presented.

Jim Ludwig Buena Vista