WATER WARS ALONG THE SOUTH PLATTE RIVER: FEW PRISONERS LEFT TO TAKE
University Club Luncheon Series
Denver, Colorado March 14, 2013
Tom Cech is the current Director of One World One Water (“OWOW”) Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship at Metropolitan State University of Denver (“MSU”) in Denver, Colorado. Originally from Nebraska, Cech received his B.S. in Math Education and went on to receive his Masters in Community and Regional Planning from University of Nebraska. Highlights in his accomplished career include serving as Executive Director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District and educating future water experts at the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University in various water resources courses. Cech has also published articles and textbooks on water resource issues that have been translated into Portuguese, and he is in the process of completing a history of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado State Engineer’s Office.
Cech’s presentation at the University Club Lecture Series included discussion of (i) the OWOW Center, (ii) water resource course offerings at MSU, (iii) historical cultural water issues, (iv) historical issues of Colorado water, and (v) potential water supply issues for Colorado in the future.
The OWOW Center and Water Resource Course Offerings
OWOW is a new program at MSU designed to educate students on how to protect and preserve limited water resources. MSU undergraduates have the option of completing a minor in Water Studies (known as the Pilot Water Studies Minor) by taking at least 21 credit hours of course work in water resources and stewardship. Classes offered include: Water Essentials, Introduction to Water Law and Administration, Water Conflict Resolution, Limnology, Multicultural Water Issues, as well as other elective courses, internships, and capstone projects.
Historical Cultural Water Issues
After providing a brief introduction to the OWOW Center, Cech continued his presentation by discussing significant historical water issues. Resolution of water disputes has been around since the beginning of time. Some notable moments in cultural water appropriation began in Babylon when King Hammurabi created the “Code of Hammurabi.” These laws, created between 1795 B.C. and 1750 B.C., are the first examples of prior appropriation. The Stele of Hammurabi, a large stone statute the size of an adult human with the Code of Hammurabi etched into it, tells us the law that, “if a man has released waters and so has let the water carry away the works on his neighbor’s field, he shall pay 10 gur of corn for every bur (of land) flooded.” Many years after Hammurabi, farmers and villages in Iran and Iraq developed Qanats, whereby a massive aqueduct system was excavated underground to bring water from the mountainous regions to irrigate the farmland.
Cech further discussed resolution of historical water disputes in the years of Anno Domini, when Moorish farmers established the Water Court at the Cathedral of Valencia in Spain to settle disputes between local farmers. Since its inception in 961 A.D., seven elected members have met every Thursday at eleven o’clock in the morning to render judgment. The court is not a traditional western court, but holds hearing without oaths of affirmation, written records, or even lawyers.
In 1300 A.D., with the development of tin mining, England began using canals to divert water for mining operations. This process would become very important more than 500 years later when the Gold Rush brought settlers to Colorado.
Historical Issues of Colorado Water and Supply
In 1876, Colorado became a state and adopted the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation to ease the burden of the limited supply of water. In nineteenth century Colorado, miners constructed hundreds of canals along the South Platte River and throughout Colorado. The Doctrine of Prior Appropriation gave priority dates for irrigation ditches, but set no dates for wells. This doctrine plays a very important role in establishing water rights in Colorado and continues to evolve and be a source of guidance for the growing disputes. Cech also briefly discussed Theodore C. Henry who was responsible for constructing numerous irrigation canals throughout Colorado in the 1880s and was appointed by the Colorado governor to review irrigation laws and recommend changes.
Colorado has a rich history involving water law, as the oldest operational ditch in Colorado, the San Luis People’s Ditch, was built in 1852. While the last 161 years of Colorado water law pales next to Hammurabi’s water laws, Coloradans have also developed their own water courts for dealing with quarrels over water rights. Greeley, Colorado houses one of the many water courts have expanding throughout the United States.
Potential Water Supply Issues for Colorado in the Future
The common consensus in arid regions is that there is growing need with a limited supply of water. With continued drought conditions and increasing population, water experts are working to find ways to prioritize various uses. Without more quantities of water, supplying every growing need will not be possible. There are an estimated 5 million people in Colorado with a 2030-projected growth to 7.1 million. The Denver metropolitan area is home to approximately 2.4 million people and is estimatee to expand to 3.9 million by 2030.
While the South Platte River Basin supplies most of the water to the Front Range population, many communities have been forced to develop pipelines to bring much needed water to citizens. Yet transportation of water is not enough, the effects of global warming have created conditions that require water users to adapt and reevaluate water uses in order to be more efficient.
Cech’s brief overview of the history of various water laws around the world and the development of Colorado’s water law was informative and well presented. While there is constant controversy about where the water is going to come from and who gets to use it, if history dictates truth, then humanity will find the best possible outcome, even if it means sacrificing a lawn or two.