RBC I Whose water flows in the White River, and who cares?
The answer to the first question is complicated. The answer to the second question is everyone in the Southwest United States.
The Colorado River is used by millions, within and outside its natural basin, for agriculture, household use, industry and recreation.
Along its river banks and all of its tributary streams, the water serves the natural environment. Water from the Colorado River drainage is diverted out of its basin to the eastern side of the Continental Divide for use in Colorado, to California, where agriculture in the Imperial Valley and the metropolis of Los Angeles depend on it, and to Arizona, where it goes all the way to Tucson.
Who cares? You might. The White River is a major tributary to the Colorado River and this fact connects us to every other user of the river.
The connections must be considered in a historical light.
Maj. John Wesley Powell, the famous explorer, scientist and the first through the Grand Canyon, made some profound observations about the West. Most important, for the long-term sustainability of the region, water is the key ingredient. Water is so important that he suggested state’s boundaries be based on river basins. Like many scientists, he was ignored, and he foretold a future of conflict and litigation. So far he’s been right. Water is the major limiting factor in the West, and there has been considerable conflict.
One famous conflict in Colorado came after settlers in Greeley begun depending on irrigating from the Poudre River. Later, some new upstarts, upstream in Fort Collins, dried up the river with their diversions. Eventually, this led to the “prior appropriation doctrine,” which gives the priority for water use to the first person who diverted it—when there’s not enough to go around. The date of first use, amount of use and type of use is the foundation of a prior appropriation water right.
Legal battles over water rights, particularly for diversions that take water across the continental divide, are stuff of legend for water nerds.
In the past, these disputes were mostly between those using water within a specific river basin when new water rights or diversions were proposed. People in the White and Yampa rivers mostly watched from the bleachers regarding diversions in other basins and vice versa.
That is now changing as the total amount of water use in the Colorado River system may exceed supply, particularly during droughts and demands continue to increase.
Delph Carpenter, a lawyer and rancher from Greeley and prior appropriation’s architect, recognized a potential problem in the early 1920s.
The Supreme Court of the United States had applied prior appropriation to Western rivers flowing between states, and California was developing faster than Colorado. Under the prior appropriation doctrine of “first in time first in right” California might claim most of the Colorado River’s flow, limiting use upstream—in Colorado.
Ironically Carpenter, one of the champions of the doctrine, looked for a way to limit its use, and the Colorado River Compact was born. It split up water between the states based upon an apportionment (a defined amount), not the date of use, protecting an amount for future uses in Colorado. Colorado has never decided how to split up that compact amount between the Colorado Rivers tributaries.
This leads us to one of today’s conflicts, framed by two ideas, those of prior appropriation and apportionment, and the State of Colorado has used both.
The Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable is advocating for an amount of water, an apportionment, to protect existing uses and allow for some future uses here. This is equitable because we use comparatively little, a small percentage of our native flow, compared to other basins.
Some, on rivers that have more use and developed sooner, prefer a prior appropriation approach to governing among all tributaries to the Colorado River. However, it seems odd that a state that negotiated a compact apportionment, conceived to avoid having its future dimmed by prior appropriation, would use the prior appropriation to leave some of its river basins in the very position the state sought to avoid. It could leave the region with no future use of its own water, and even in the position of paying for its existing use. Stay tuned.
Through Colorado’s water planning process, the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable has offered a plan that protects all water users on our river and offers an olive branch of sorts.
This vision includes protecting local water for agriculture, the environment and recreation, commerce, drinking and bathing. It offers collaboration with others in the state by suggesting we might consume less of our natural flow than other basins do, thus providing some relief for basins with over-used rivers. After all, East Slope communities long ago used all of their local rivers, sometimes drying them up, and now divert water from the Colorado River basin as well. The state water plan calls for collaboration, not litigation. Please stay tuned.
I told you the answer to the first question was complicated. I wonder if Maj. John Wesley Powell is laughing or crying.
Kevin McBride P.E., is a hydrologist, member of the Yampa-White-Green Basins Round Table and General Manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. The District owns and operates Stagecoach and Yamcolo reservoirs on the Yampa River.