Come to the Well: A Ditch in Time


Denver, Colorado   March 6, 2013

Patricia Limerick, Professor of History and Faculty Director at The University of Colorado’s Center of the American West, discussed her recent book, A Ditch in Time: The City, The Water, and the West at “Come to the Well: Conversations on Wine and Water.”   The Environmental & Natural Resources Law Program at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management at the University of Denver Daniels College of Business, Metropolitan State University, and One World One Water: Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship sponsored the evening.  Professor Tom Romero, 2012-13 Hughes-Rudd Research Professor at the Sturm College of Law, and faculty advisor to the Denver University Water Law Review, introduced Limerick, with whom he worked at the Center of the American West from 2002-2003.  During that time, Romero served as the Center’s Western Legal Studies Fellow and completed a statewide survey of resources related to the legal history of Colorado.

Limerick presented her book, A Ditch in Time: The City, the Water, and the West, with an overview of each chapter, and used maps, charts, and historical photos to demonstrate the complex development of the Denver Water supply system that transformed Colorado’s Front Range.  Limerick traced the growth of her main character, the Denver Water department, through the “Era of Improbable Comfort Made Possible by a Taken-For-Granted but Truly Astonishing Infrastructure,” as a challenge to the complacent disconnect between consumers and the provider of this essential resource.  Noting that topics such as infrastructure, bureaucracy, and legal technicalities may not entice the general reader, Limerick wrote the book—and gave her presentation—in an engaging manner that combined detailed scholarship with wry humor.  She opened each chapter with a limerick designed to set the tone for the topic contained within, for example, Chapter One: Engineered Eden:

The Tangled Ties of Growth and Water

The West left settlers aghast;

It was dry; it was rugged; it was vast,

They thought water was the trigger

For making towns bigger,

An idea whose time is now past.

Limerick reported that early explorers, Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long described the Front Range as the great American desert, and believed that the dearth of trees and flowing water made the area unsuitable for settlement and, in fact, provided a necessary check to potentially unrestrained westward expansion.  Noting that the Front Range is now home to a million people, Limerick described the explorers as “failed prophets” who did not foresee the ingenuity and determination of Denver’s early visionaries who turned the arid landscape into a picturesque town of flowers, gardens, and lawns by the 1890s.  What began with the Platte Company’s Big Ditch and side street canals that drew untreated water from the South Platte River, is now Denver Water’s four-thousand square mile system of dams, tunnels, and diversions that draw water to Front Range treatment plants from points west of the Continental Divide.  Throughout her presentation, Limerick gave highlights from each chapter in A Ditch in Time to tell the story of how this remarkable transformation occurred.

The book’s title, a play on the aphorism “A stitch in time saves nine” aptly describes Denver Water’s approach to water planning throughout its history, noted Limerick.  Various private water companies in the area took forty years to become the municipal entity known as Denver Water, but the department’s approach to water acquisition never mimicked this drawn out process of municipalization.  Denver Water did not react to shortages in the system, but rather prevented them in the first place, by expanding its reach to develop the four-thousand square mile water supply system.  It did so in order to fulfill its simple mission “to provide an adequate supply of water to the people of Denver.”

Limerick observed that Denver Water, throughout its history, has demonstrated an unexpected ability to adapt to changed circumstances, belying the stereotype of the entrenched bureaucracy.  It shifted from litigation to collaboration with a change in leadership, and from an emphasis on use to an emphasis on conservation in response to climate change.  In short, Limerick concluded, Denver Water has never simply maintained the status quo; it recognizes the economic, environmental, and political factors that influence water use and responds appropriately.

For more information about Limerick’s history of Denver Water, as well as other projects at the Center of the American West, go to the Center for the American West’s website.  In addition, please be looking forward to the Water Law Review’s upcoming Book Note with a full review of A Ditch in Time: The City, The Water, and the West.