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Colorado Growth Puts Pressure on Dwindling Water Supplies

Resources: The war over the precious liquid opens a rural-urban front to join the historical east-west fray. Much of the fighting will take place in court.


DENVER — Don Ament has seen both sides of Colorado's water experience.

As a youngster, he hiked up and down the state's western mountains with his grandfather, a water commissioner. He got a firsthand look at how far people on the water-rich Western Slope would go to protect what some Coloradans call "gold" and others call the lifeblood.

"I was a little kid walking along with my grandfather and I'd see him open and close the head gates on tiny little streams of water that come from snowmelt," Ament said. "And he'd lock them, put a chain around them after he'd look at them. And I'd think, 'We're putting a padlock on this little trickle of water.' "

On the eastern side of the Rockies, his other grandfather farmed Colorado's arid high plains. Water was just as precious there, but nowhere near as plentiful.

"My grandfather bonded his farm and got into an irrigation company," Ament said. "And with their money they built a reservoir and took water out of the river and stored it and ran it out for these farms to make a dry country green."

The division in his family's experience mirrored the division that defined water management and control in Colorado from the start. Western Colorado has most of the state's water. The Western Slope gets about 80% of the precipitation that falls in Colorado.

But the eastern face of the Rockies has about 80% of the state's 3.8 million people and, as a result, much of the political power.

The sprawling network of huge tunnels and pipelines funneling water from the Western Slope to the Front Range of the Rockies and reservoirs dotting the mountains are testament to the pull of that power.

Ament, a Republican state senator from Iliff, expects the growth that made Colorado the fifth fastest-growing state last year to strengthen that pull. The farmer and rancher remembers how valuable water was to both his grandfathers 40 years ago.

"And you know what's happened to the growth in this state over the last 40 years and you know what's going to happen to the growth from now forward," he said.

But Ament fears Colorado is risking its future by not preparing for it. Ament, who headed a legislative study of water issues this summer, thinks dams are needed to store some of the water flowing out of state.

"I have no intent to take anybody's water or cause environmental tragedies. I just think I know a lot from experience," Ament said.


While the east-west tension still exists, a rural-urban battle line has also formed. Denver built its dams and pipelines from the Western Slope early, making it a major water supplier. With a population of about 500,000 and little space to grow, Denver's water supply is set.

The real action has switched to the suburbs. Plans by Aurora, Thornton, Colorado Springs and other Front Range cities to suck water from less populated areas have riled folks in outlying parts of the state.

The momentum behind various water schemes picked up after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency killed the $500-million Two Forks Dam, proposed on the South Platte River near Deckers and designed to meet the Denver metro area's needs for 30 years.

Coloradans also have to worry about the water owed other states. Several major rivers, including the Colorado and the Platte, start in Colorado, and a number of agreements ensure other Western states a share of the water that flows out of Colorado.

Within state boundaries, state and federal laws require a certain amount of water in rivers and streams to sustain wildlife.

Plans to pump more of the huge underground water formations called aquifers have stirred concerns that what took thousands of years to develop could be depleted in decades.

Flowing through all the water transactions is the doctrine of water rights as property rights. Water can be diverted from one river basin to another, as long as other users aren't harmed.

And under Colorado's "first-in-time, first-in-right" policy, people with the oldest water claims get to draw all their water first in times of drought.

"Your ability to provide water and secure water is provided for in the [state] Constitution," said Doug Robotham, assistant director of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Even that seemingly straightforward mandate, however, takes twists and turns. The courts upheld Eagle County's right to deny land-use permits to Aurora and Colorado Springs, blocking a diversion of water from a wilderness area in the mountains to the cities.

Legislators fearing water grabs have introduced bills making it tougher to transfer water between river basins. Lawmakers aiming to protect water rights have tried to make it tougher for local governments to block water projects through land-use regulations.

All to no avail, resulting in what some people see as gridlock.

"That would be kind of the East Slope view," said Jim Lochhead, the state's natural resources director. "The West Slope view might be what we have is a balance, and what's created out of that standoff is consensus."


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