Western Water and Civilized Inertia

Article by George Sibley

Water – September 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

“The status quo has tremendous inertia.”

— Steve Glazer,

at Western State College’s 19th Water Workshop

WESTERN STATE COLLEGE hosted its 19th annual Water Workshop late in July, on the topic of “Quenching the Urban Giant.” Around 250 members of the “water community” — water lawyers, water engineers, water administrators, water bureaucrats, environmentalists, and even a few “water users” (farmers, recreationists, toilet-flushing citizens, etc.) — turned out for what has established itself as an important forum on western water issues.

The operational verb in the Workshop title did not come in for as much direct discussion as it might have. “Quench” is an ambiguous verb meaning “to slake, satisfy or allay” a “thirst, desire or passion,” but also “to put out or extinguish” if that desire or passion is burning too hot.

Predictably enough, some presenters were there on the assumption that “satisfying the urban giant” in its water needs/demands was our purpose. Others clearly would have been as happy to “extinguish” it.

Then there was the further problem of deciding who or what was the “urban giant” of most concern.

As always, when Coloradans — especially Western Coloradans — gather to talk water, Denver and Colorado Springs came in for their usual lumps.

But the Sodom-and-Gomorrah trinity of this millennium — Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix — were also liberally invoked; and Washington, from whence emanates all Beltway banditry and beneficence, got its share of nominations, too.

Western’s Workshop Coordinator Lucy High brought together a commendable array of presenters and panelists from what have emerged as “the big four” in western water issues:

1) urban utility interests,

2) nonurban “conservancy” groups (originally dominated by agricultural interests but less so now),

3) local/regional environmental interests, and

4) a wild-card mix of state and federal government and large-scale environmental forces (not always allied but ever-present) that might be called “the national interest.”

Water supply for growing western cities was the general issue: to what extent should water for “the urban giants” be met through increased supply, and to what extent through better “demand management” (the new water managers’ term for “conservation”)?

And if increased water supplies are deemed necessary, to what extent should — or can — that need be met through the traditional practice of tapping into resources in the non-urban regions (i.e., trans-mountain diversions).

And to what extent can or should it be met through cooperative “first-use and re-use” agreements with more immediate agricultural and municipal users — perhaps downstream users as well as upstream users?

The upshot of most of that discourse was moderately encouraging to residents of the less populated but water-rich mountains. The metropolitan water managers are all at least talking the talk of “demand management” as their most reasonable and affordable first priority. And a number of them are starting to walk the talk.

A fair portion of the workshop involved descriptions by water managers of metropolitan conservation efforts, and of efforts to put together cooperative deals between urban and agricultural users to increase urban supply through water savings from city-financed irrigation improvements.

Only one of these managers — Rod Kuharich from Colorado Springs utilities — seemed to defend the right of the urban citizen to remain blissfully ignorant, unbothered by comfort-threatening thoughts of supply limits and conservation.

That place we all love to hate, Southern California, has actually led the way with cooperative arrangements between the huge Metropolitan Water District (Los Angeles area) and the farmers of the vast Imperial Valley and Central Valley irrigation districts. For the city that started the century with the infamous Owens Valley water grab, this has to be evaluated as meaningful change.

MORE IMPORTANTLY, however, from a Colorado “headwaters” perspective, the Front Range metropolitan water managers all seem resigned to the realization that there is no more cheap and easy water in Western Colorado. Those who need water know they will have to negotiate with the whole Colorado Basin, and if they get it, they know it will be soberingly expensive.

Altogether, it is increasingly evident that all the money in the world will not be able to redirect water unless some large players are satisfied that water quality considerations are being met all the way downstream, and that in-stream water quantity considerations are also addressed. These players include the Colorado River’s downstream states (California, Arizona and Nevada); Mexico; and a number of national interests like the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the watchdog national environmental groups.

National interests were, in fact, as much the focus of discourse at this Water Workshop as were the “urban giants.” In western water issues, there seems to be a need for some entity to fear, hate and litigate. Thus, as the old war between the urban and non-urban entities moderates toward consensus-building, the necessary new war seems to be taking shape.

Now, urban and non-urban entities align against the federal government on the issue of “endangered species” protection and other implicit or explicit federal reservations on western watersheds.

To reduce a pretty complicated issue to some essential oversimplifications — federal resource managers (notably the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife) are trying to comply with the mandates of the Endangered Species Act and various water quality laws by altering old leases for reservoirs and other water structures on federal lands when the leases come up for renewal. Usually, the Feds require “bypass” diversion structures with occasional but significant flows of water at specific times of year, as is deemed necessary (by their experts) for maintaining or restoring habitat, and otherwise restoring the integrity of possibly overused streams.

It is difficult at this point to tell whether federal intervention in old lease arrangements actually threatens water users, but it’s obvious that our government agencies have initiated and pursued their course with their usual ham-handed delicacy, using, as one conferee put it, “great big sticks and little tiny carrots.”

All told, Western’s 19th Water Workshop was an interesting gathering that reflected the evolution of western water philosophy as well as policy changes over the workshop’s two decades. I have been sneaking into these water workshops ever since the first one in 1976, when Gunnison water lawyer Dick Bratton and Western history teacher Duane Vandenbusche hatched the idea of bringing together in a non-adversarial environment “water interests” more accustomed to meeting in court or threatening each other through the media.

FOR THAT FIRST Water Workshop they corralled a couple of the T-Rexes of the Age of Big Water Development. From the Front Range came Glenn Saunders, who led the Denver Water Board through its mega-project, the Dillon Reservoir-Roberts Tunnel diversion into the South Platte, a project that almost doubled Denver’s actual water supply. For years, that project watered the illusion that water would not be a serious constraint on the Front Range’s future growth.

Also at that 1976 workshop was the West Slope’s top gun, Congressman Wayne Aspinall. As Chairman of the House Interior Committee, Aspinall masterminded the Colorado River Storage Project, which gave us (like it or not) most of the big dams in the Upper Colorado Basin, including Glen Canyon and the Gunnison Valley’s Curecanti Unit, diversions like Fryingpan-Arkansas, and proposals for a host of smaller projects like the Animas-La Plata Project — most of which have pretty well been staked through the heart by cost-effectiveness studies. Yet dam ideas still rise like Dracula whenever people of certain political and economic persuasions gather.

Both of these giants (actually, both small wizened men) had pretty well had their day — even at that point: “Mr. Chairman” had been forcibly retired from Congress a few years earlier by a brutal piece of Republican gerrymandering, and Saunders was physically not well.

But what I remember most about that Front Range-West Slope confrontation was genial old men displaying friendly respect, and talking in generalities about the need for cooperation in the water-short west — while outside the window, an afternoon monsoon was unloading about an inch a minute with the college’s sprinklers going full tilt.

In ’76 the shape of things to come was inadvertently revealed when an Assistant Commissioner from the Bureau of Reclamation (ever the western water developer’s friend previously) had the misfortune to be scheduled to talk very shortly after the Carter administration released additions and amendments to the epoch-ending “Hit List” of western water projects that did not stand up to a new set of cost-benefit analyses.

The speaker was literally left hanging at the podium, shaking his head as he tried to figure out how to put positive spin on the news in the Federal Register. As suddenly as that, the federal government went from the West’s ally to an antagonist. And within a few years, the environmental movement had muscled its way to the table, via the courts, the national media, and a shifting national sensibility.

The number and nature of players have expanded over the two decades, but more players have not changed the basic game. Talking in generalities about the need for cooperation is still a staple of the Water Workshops, for entities whose very existence was born in, and continues to depend on, a kind of a winner-take-all adversarial environment.

IF YOU ARE THE “Water Task Force Director” for a national environmental organization, for example, is there any job security in successful negotiations with the enemy? Why not hold out, like Don Quixote, for the unattainable Ideal?

And do water lawyers have anything to gain from encouraging their clients to negotiate toward consensus — especially if, as was the case with the Eagle River Assembly, the participants decide the only way to work seriously toward consensus is to forbid participants from bringing their lawyers?

So now, as 18 years ago, the Water Workshop leaves one with a feeling akin to going to church: everyone has gathered to affirm virtues and values they have no intention — or even institutional capability — of applying once they leave.

Marcia Hughes, legal counsel to the Metropolitan (Colorado) Water Providers, stated that the “Colorado water community is a close-knit group of friends whose friendship is based on our ability to fight together over water.”

As the Eagle River Assembly indicated, cooperation at the inter-institutional level has to occur almost in spite of the institutions. This is basically the tremendous inertia of the status quo that environmentalist Steve Glazer observed. So maybe now that the Water Workshop has established a certain stature in the regional water community, it is time to begin seriously probing at that inertia.

Some possible topics:

Is water really a viable “property”?

You can pretty well measure what you take out of a river, but it’s a lot harder to measure what trickles and dribbles its way back into the river — unless you sell what you take out to Denver, in which case you know for sure that none of it is going to trickle back into your river.

Does it make any sense to buy, sell and trade the most absolute sine qua non for life on earth as if it were just a commodity?

Or should it be remembered that, to those who live on its banks, a river is more than just water flowing downstream?

There’s a Zennish statement to the effect that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” But the successful consequence of the appropriation doctrine and its conception of “beneficial uses” is: “You can’t even step in this river once.”

Which makes one ask: Why are Western Coloradans so concerned about the unholy trinity of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix?

FROM A RURAL Colorado perspective, it makes more sense to “give” our excess water to the unholy trinity, than to keep it in Colorado — since to get to California, our water has to flow through our whole network of rivers.

Whereas, to go to the populated areas of Colorado, water gets taken out of the basin at the top, decreasing water quality and quantity throughout the basin.

In the cultural madness imposed by boundaries ignorant of geographic reality, the unholy trinity are Western Colorado’s most powerful allies in keeping our water where we need it now: In our rivers. Whereas our “fellow Coloradans” on the Front Range pose a serious threat to those “beneficial in-stream uses,” rafting, fishing, recreation, habitat, and natural beauty.

Thus, even though we may not care for what the Californians do with “our” water when it finally gets there, at least they’ll leave us a river to wade in.

George Sibley, a former sawmill operator and small-town newspaper publisher, now teaches writing at Western State College in Gunnison, where he also organizes the annual Headwaters Conference; the next one will be in May of 1995.