It has been pointed out several times that the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill into the Animas River was, in one sense, a good thing. It re-awoke the public to Colorado’s checkered mining heritage, and the damage done to our rivers for more than a century. But Colorado’s mining legacy is more than old mines polluting mountain streams. It also gave us the fundamental laws and traditions that govern our rivers and the water they hold.
In 1859, David Wall dug a small ditch from Clear Creek to irrigate his two-acre garden from which he sold produce to the miners up stream in Gregory Gulch. People back east objected to Wall’s diversion to land not directly adjacent to Clear Creek. But the miners from California who had come to Colorado brought with them a new idea of water allocation called prior appropriation. On Nov. 7, 1859, the territorial legislature passed a law making Wall’s and any other agricultural diversion legal under the “rules of the diggings.”
For the next 114 years, dams and diversion projects were built with no concern for rivers or the health of the ecosystems they support. Water left in the stream was considered a waste and many rivers were severely degraded from altered flows and lack of water. That began to change in 1973, with the passage of Colorado’s in-stream flow water rights program. While not perfect, and not as protective as some might want to think, it recognized the natural environment as a beneficial user of water.
Now Colorado is developing a coordinated plan for the growing water needs of farms, ranches, communities, and – for the first time – the environment and the recreational economy that supports so much in Colorado. Rather than a simple endorsement for more projects that could further harm rivers, this water plan lays out all of the anticipated needs and myriad ideas for meeting them. Indeed, it lays out a path by which we may start saving our rivers.
The Colorado Water Plan has been in the making for more than 10 years, crafted by water stakeholders and the public from all across the state through the Basin Roundtables. Ranchers, farmers, municipal water providers and utilities have worked closely with many from the environmental and recreational communities to make sure that the plan incorporates serious consideration of the health of rivers, including bringing them back from the damage caused by past projects.
This has not been an easy task, and completion of the Colorado Water Plan does not guarantee success. A lot of time has been spent simply building trust after a long history of distrust between people with competing needs and values, and there are still stark differences between competing water uses that must be overcome. Colorado faces a daunting future: Balancing the needs of agriculture, cities and rivers will not be easy. Growth, climate change, new economies and values, the need to fulfill downstream compact obligations and the simple reality of living in an arid region where water supply is shrinking, all make the transition from the Colorado of Dave Wall’s irrigation ditch to 21st century water management complex and challenging. Solving the puzzle of our water needs and restoring rivers will take all of us, working together, looking to the future, not the past.
Ken Neubecker is associate director of American Rivers Colorado River Basin Program. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.