On a summer evening in 2003, high in the Colorado Rockies, cocktails and dinner were to be served in a spacious tent along the banks of the Snake River at Keystone Resort, one of Colorado and the nation’s most popular ski areas. Seated at the tables were some of the most powerful players in Colorado’s deeply divided water world. They were here, at least ostensibly, to break bread and make peace.

The public wasn’t invited, nor was the press. When I learned of the dinner and asked to attend as a reporter, after the usual handwringing I was allowed to do so, as were other reporters.

Such uneasiness in dealing with the media is typical among the state’s water power brokers. Most of the entities that control water in Colorado don’t report directly to an elected body, though their constituencies are public. They operate in a parallel universe—neither wholly public nor fully private. Though water is a basic utility, there is no central regulating entity like those that oversee phone and electric service. Water quality is monitored by the state health department, and the state makes sure each entity gets its legal share. But that’s about it when it comes to state regulation. There is no statewide water planning, policymaking or rules governing conservation. Instead, fragmented quasi-public water districts control the water and decide how it will be used.

When I arrived at the Keystone dinner, staffers from Denver Water—the state’s largest urban water provider—let me know I wouldn’t be seated with attorneys, urban water bureaucrats, and rural elected officials gathered at the carefully arranged tables. Instead, reporters were to sit at a separate table to the side of the room, well out of earshot of any discussion among the feuding parties. Within moments, however, the rural water officials on whose turf this dinner was being held and who are at war with the city dwellers reversed the order to sequester us and graciously offered reporters seats with the participants. The “let-them-in … no keep-them out” squabble over the seating chart would occur two more times that evening. Ultimately, the press was allowed to mingle freely with those in attendance.

This was a small skirmish in the grand scheme of things. But it was a telling sideshow in the ongoing battle to shed light on water issues in the semiarid American West. In one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, there isn’t enough of the precious resource. Consider this:

  • At Niagara Falls, water flows at about 100,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), an astounding liquid bounty—enough water each day to serve 400,000 urban families for one year.
  • In contrast, a typical day at Dotsero on the Colorado River—the historic source of water for 25 million people from Denver to Los Angeles—average flows might hit 3,000 cfs, enough for about 12,000 urban families for one year.

That is the “normal” water situation in a semiarid region. But a five-year drought and a striking population boom are testing the limits of Colorado’s water supplies and the fiefdoms that control them. Roughly 80 percent of the state’s drinking water supplies are derived from melting mountain snows. But for each of the past seven winters, snowpack has been well below average, and reservoir levels have registered historic lows. In addition, the state’s population has nearly doubled in the past 14 years, growing to more than four million people. In the next 25 years, it’s expected to top seven million.

It was in March 2002—after the winter snowpack was measured at 19 percent of what it usually averages—that the Rocky Mountain News assigned me full-time to cover drought and water issues, with a team of others—including science and environmental reporters. Nearly 20 years of abnormally wet weather—coinciding with this massive growth spurt—came to a screeching halt and a mad scramble began to find new supplies. Inherent in this scramble are public policy questions state officials have never really answered. Should the new supplies be taken from the state’s already stressed mountain watersheds? Should urban dwellers begin drinking recycled water? Or should they simply use less?

To help Coloradans answer these questions, we’ve worked hard to find ways to penetrate special water districts and powerful water bureaucracies, to explain the state’s elegant natural water system and its 150-year-old antiquated way of divvying up water and storied water wars. For writers and editors, finding ways to demystify—and then write about—water issues has been difficult. The beat is shrouded in arcane procedures, measurement conundrums, unanswered legal questions and, of course, closely guarded meetings. Water attorneys, engineers and bureaucrats complain that no one—not journalists, the public, nor state lawmakers—understands what they do. But they spend very little time trying to educate, relying instead on old ways of doing things—protecting water rights in court and meeting behind closed doors to keep their long-term water plans private.

Complexity of Water Issues

In fairness to these water officials, Western water issues are complex. Water is considered private property that can be freely bought and sold, not a public asset to be shared. In addition, Colorado and other Western states allocate water under what is known as “prior appropriation system,” or first in time, first in right. This means that if a water right was claimed in 1861, in a time of drought when stream flows are low, the entity with the oldest water right will receive its water before another diverter on the same creek, with a later water right date, receives its claimed water.

Because ranchers and farmers arrived in Colorado first, many of the older, most bountiful water rights once belonged to agriculture. That’s slowly changed as cities along Colorado’s Front Range (that’s east of the Continental Divide) now own many of the best water rights in the state and guard them closely.

All water sales are handled in water courts and are rarely subject to public scrutiny. So protective are the utilities that some water right records that are more than a century old are considered too sensitive for public view. Earlier this year, for example, I asked to see old water engineering notes archived at a large urban utility. I was looking for historic color for a series we did called “The Last Drop,” which chronicled how Colorado cities first began staking claims to vast mountain water supplies back in the late 1800’s. These old claims—while perfectly legal—mean that now some of Colorado’s most scenic rural resort communities, from Vail to Keystone, won’t have enough water to make snow and to keep streams full for fish and kayakers.

Though the utility’s engineering notes were written by water prospectors more than 100 years ago, the utility stamped them “confidential work product,” which barred them from public view. Why? Legal paranoia. Water rights are bought and sold and challenged in court every day. And old water rights are like liquid gold. Therefore any old notes that might bolster or jeopardize the legitimacy of a claim are stamped “confidential work product.”

How long Colorado’s 145-year-old water rights system will hold up during these times of drought and growth isn’t at all clear. This system has befuddled ranchers and governors for more than a century. Long ago it wasn’t unusual for Coloradans to take the water laws into their own hands. As an old rancher likes to joke, “Always better to be at the top of an irrigation ditch with a shovel, than at the bottom with a water right.”

As more and more of Colorado’s water supplies are constrained by growth, chronic drought and environmental concerns, there is a sense that somehow the state’s citizens need to demand a broader, less fragmented approach to allocating water. In the meantime, reporting on Colorado’s far-flung water fiefdoms and their ongoing power struggles remains a challenge. But as we travel back and forth across the Continental Divide, we hope to help readers stitch together a clearer view of the statewide water picture, with its interconnections between urban water demands and Colorado’s picture-perfect mountain landscapes.

Jerd Smith covers the water beat at the Rocky Mountain News. She worked as a business writer and editor for 10 years, including three at the Rocky Mountain News before joining the paper’s city desk in 2001.

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