The Great Divide Documentary Screening

UNIVERSITY OF DENVER SUSTAINABILITY OFFICE: THE GREAT DIVIDE MOVIE SCREENING WITH QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION

Last winter, the University of Denver Sustainability Office and the Anderson Academic Commons Sustainability Committee hosted a screening of “The Great Divide,” a documentary on the history and future of Colorado water.  Havey Productions, in association with Colorado Humanities, created the video and released it in the summer of 2015.  Currently, there are screenings in various locations.  The documentary includes footage from throughout Colorado, including the Colorado River and other areas where Colorado water flows.  It provides a way to look forward regarding Colorado’s water consumption by looking backwards through history.

The documentary provided a fascinating look into all aspects of Colorado water history, replete with historic photos, videos, and expert commentary.  It contains four easy-to-follow sections with in-depth analysis of different aspects of Colorado’s water.

First, the viewer learns about the history of Colorado water, starting with pre-settlement history and moving through modern developments.  This includes how the early settlers and survey teams viewed water in Colorado.  The documentary then discussed how the lack of rain and wet ground led to ditches and the application of Spanish law.  It then covered how Spanish law led to the famous case, Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co., 6 Colo. 443 (Colo. 1882), which established that the prior appropriation doctrine, rather than riparian proprietorship, applied to Colorado water rights.

The documentary’s next section explored the impacts of agriculture and urbanization on development and law.  It discussed the growth of agriculture in Colorado, starting with sugar beet farming in Weld County and orchards in the West.  The documentary also covered the development of in-stream storage projects to try and meet seasonal flow demands.  It explained how the use of storage and diversion projects allowed farmers to use the arid landscape for major agricultural projects as they continue to do today.  The documentary then looked at growth of Front Range cities and how the growth has led to a need for urban water in addition to the water needed for agriculture.  The section ended by addressing problems and alternatives to the growing “buy and dry” policy that some cities have which transfers agricultural water rights to cities and municipalities that need water for their citizens.

The documentary’s third section discussed the environmental movement and the changes in law and policy that resulted from the movement.  It explained how Colorado used inter-basin tunnels and large dams to move and store water in order to meet the needs of the growing Front Range at the expense of the Western Slope.  It then discussed how various projects have directed water from their natural paths into the areas that need water.  This set the stage to discuss how these projects have impacted the areas supplying water and why Colorado needed new laws and policies.  The documentary continued by providing an in-depth discussion of the Colorado River Compact and its limits on local water use and required downstream flows.  It also discussed how Colorado cities have now started a movement to try and make laws that keep sufficient water in the Western Slope in order to support recreation, parks, and the mountain ecosystem.

Finally, the documentary discussed Colorado’s history of conflict over water.  It focused on major disagreements concerning moving Western Slope water to the Front Range, and the way those conflicts morphed into an attitude of cooperation.  The documentary ended by looking at a variety of methods of conserving water and saving aquifers and stream flows.  Specifically, the documentary touched on inter-basin compacts, Aurora Water’s renewable water loops, and the Colorado Water Plan.

Gregory Hobbs, Jr., Senior Water Judge and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice, and Kristin Maharg, the director of programs for the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, answered questions after the showing.  One audience member asked what efforts there were to conserve water without costing people their existing rights.  Justice Hobbs discussed the various existing methods, such as sustainable groundwater management, augmentation plans, and some of the effects on fossil groundwater sources.  Ms. Maharg discussed how agriculture water consumption relates to consumer spending habits and how some farmers are selling their underutilized water rights.

Another audience member asked how the current laws impacted the controlled release of water from dams and why the dams did not release the water in a power-generating way.  Justice Hobbs responded that agreements on water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead required those releases and that the releases were to control sedimentation, rather than to generate power.  The question and answer section concluded with an audience member asking if there were any state initiatives to help farmers obtain new infrastructure, cooperatives, and terminal markets to grow less water-intensive crops than they currently grow.  Justice Hobbs did not think that there would be any state intervention and that this private funding would handle these kinds of initiatives.

The Great Divide documentary and book are available to order online at www.thegreatdividefilm.com.

Robert Petrowsky