Water Wranglers: The 75-Year History of the Colorado River District: A Story About the Embattled Colorado River and the Growth of the West

George Sibley is a freelance writer and former educator who has written several histories on Colorado’s Western Slope, where he has roots and is a longtime resident.  Water Wranglers: The 75-Year History of the Colorado River District, A Story About the Embattled Colorado River and the Growth of the West depicts a history of the Colorado River Water Conservation District (“CRWCD”).  The book explores the CRWCD’s work protecting the Colorado River for West Slope residents against transmountain diversions, as well as maintaining Colorado’s share of the river under the Colorado River Compact.  In providing the story of the CRWCD, Sibley explores much of the progression of the water history and law of Colorado as a whole.  The book’s sections each discuss roughly a decade of the CRWCD’s existence.


The book’s first section explores conditions leading to the formation of the CRWCD.  With arid conditions in Colorado in the early 1930s, western farmers developed a grand desire to store and conserve water for future use.  This movement culminated in the Colorado River Compact’s signing, in large part authored by attorney Delph Carpenter.  Soon thereafter, Colorado’s East Slope made its first attempts to divert water from the Colorado River Basin across the mountains in 1933.  Officials justified the diversions to reluctant West-Slopers under the rationale that most of the state’s population lived on the East Slope and under Colorado water law there is no legal prohibition against transmountain diversions.  In response to the transmountain efforts, the Western Colorado Protective Association (“WCPA”) formed and, partially due to its actions, these first attempts at transmountain diversions failed.

This section also introduces the formidable West Slope Congressman Edward Taylor.  A powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee, Taylor ensured that any transmountain water project requesting federal support would need to also provide compensatory storage for the West Slope—one acre-foot of storage for one acre-foot diverted.  The Congressman also strategically changed the name of the “Grand River” (the upper fork of the Colorado River until it meets with the Green River in Utah) to the “Colorado” as a way of dispelling notions that most of the lower river’s water originated elsewhere.

Parties from both slopes supported a Bureau of Reclamation (“Bureau”) study for future water needs.  In these years, the WCPA found itself trying to work a middle ground between East Slope ambitions and an increasingly intransigent Congressman Taylor.  To reach compromise, these parties agreed that if the East Slope was in a rush, the West Slope would insist on acre-foot for acre-foot compensation; however, if the East Slope conducted the process in a reasonable and studied manner, all sides could work together.

The federal government completed the Boulder (Hoover) Dam in 1935.  However, President Roosevelt indicated that the Public Works Administration would not provide free money for reclamation projects—rather the state had to work through the Bureau, meaning that the Colorado would have to repay the federal funding.  The section ends with Congress passing the Grand Lake Project (now called the Colorado-Big Thompson).  Colorado also passed several bills, including one creating the Colorado Water Conservation Board (“CWCB”).  The CRWCD formed June 7, 1937 as a parent organization to valley-specific authorities.  Additionally, voters elected Judge Clifford Stone to the Colorado General Assembly, who would later be an important part of the CRWCD’s history.


Sibley next charted the CRWCD’s earliest years.  Originally representing seven West Slope counties, the CRWCD aimed to use as much of the Colorado River’s waters as possible within the state, preferably for mining and agriculture on the West Slope.  Judge Stone, though not on the board, was a de facto member of the CRWCD staff.  At this time, the WCPA turned over its work to the CRWCD and dissolved.

During these years, the CRWCD and Stone attempted to demonstrate to the West Slope that, although they could not be legally halted, compensatory storage for transmountain diversions could still benefit West Slope interests.  Work began on the Colorado-Big Thompson project and, when finished in 1957, the project diverted on average 232,000 acre-feet annually.  Following its completion, the Gunnison Valley and Congressman Taylor opposed a request to study a potential Gunnison-Arkansas transmountain project.  However, Taylor’s death in 1941 enabled federal funding for the study to come through.  Completed in 1948, the study charted a project that exceeded the Colorado-Big Thompson in size and complexity, allowing for 655,000 acre-feet to cross the mountains each year.  The CRWCD supported the Gunnison-Arkansas diversion, much to the displeasure of the Gunnison Valley.  In this dispute, the Gunnison Valley users portrayed the CRWCD in an almost traitorous light.  However, in mid-1949, the CWCB approved a smaller diversion plan, which became the Frying-Arkansas project.

Congress divided the lower basin states’ allocation of the Colorado River Compact in the 1928 Boulder Canyon Act.  To determine Mexico’s share, the seven basin states formed a “Committee of Fourteen” with Stone as chair.  In 1944, the Bureau published its long-awaited study of the entire Colorado basin, with a plan to develop the river “to the very last drop.”  In 1946, Stone then represented the state of Colorado at the upper basin states’ compact commission.  The resulting Upper Colorado River Compact allotted Colorado 51.75 percent of the upper basin’s share of the river’s waters, though the state produced 73 percent of the total flow.

The section also provides a brief history of the Denver Water Board of Commissioners (“DWB”).  Always highly autonomous from the rest of the city’s municipal government, the DWB saw itself as a providing for the future of a large metropolis with a “thousand-year” water supply system.  Represented by attorney Glenn Saunders, the DWB pursued an aggressive policy of acquisition of West Slope rights.  With the Colorado Supreme Court’s holding that municipal plans for future growth is not speculative, the DWB began planning for the large Blue River project.  This led to years of litigation between DWB and the CRWCD.  During this time, Denver grew a great deal, and the DWB saw its water supply was running short.  It confined services to within a certain defined area in 1950, forcing some suburbs to develop their own water systems.   Judge Stone died in 1952, and with him, so too did the CRWCD’s formative era.


West Slope Congressman Wayne Aspinall had a significant impact in the next decades.  Running for Congress in 1948 as a “second Edward Taylor,” Aspinall became chair of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, which allowed him to exert substantial influence over federal reclamation projects.  Aspinall exemplified the thinking of historical western water management, aiming to harness and conserve as much water as possible for reclamation and mining developments.  However, the period also saw a burgeoning environmentalist movement which felt that conservation should keep the West in as natural a state as possible.

The 1950s and 1960s were the biggest dam-building period in the nation’s history.  The Bureau composed a list of their most promising storage projects and dubbed it the Colorado River Storage Project (“CRSP”).  The Bureau envisioned transforming the Upper Basin into a new industrial and irrigation center for the United States.  The CRSP planned storage of forty-eight million acre-feet—three times the Colorado River’s annual flow.

The new environmentalist movement defeated the planned Echo Park dam (located where the Yampa River meets the Green River) despite the support Aspinall and the CRWCD.  As a compromise, Aspinall offered an amended CRSP bill which did away with Echo Park but included the Navajo (New Mexico), Glen Canyon (Utah), Flaming Gorge (Utah), and Curecanti (Colorado) dams.  Glen Canyon dam construction began in 1957, eventually allowing storage of twenty-seven million acre-feet (twice the annual flow of the river, and three-quarters the total storage for the CRSP).  Construction on Flaming Gorge and Navajo dams began next in 1958.  While both were finished in 1962, Glen Canyon, which began earlier, was not finished until 1963.  With much of the CRSP thus under construction, the CRWCD ended the decade on a high note.


By the early 1960s, CRWCD grew to encompass the entire West Slope, with the exception of the San Juan counties, which formed their own Southwestern District.  The CRWCD engaged in further courtroom disputes with DWB, the Colorado Supreme Court often ruling in favor of the latter.  Though the parties sometimes reached settlement, there was still a mood of distrust.  Following completion of the three dams of the Curecanti project, construction on the biggest units of the CRSP was complete.

During this period, the new conservation movement, supported by Congressman John Saylor of Pennsylvania, Aspinall’s environmental-friendly counterpart, slowed down construction on several new dams.  Environmental movement advocates began to perceive Aspinall as a reactionary and foe to the movement, though Sibley argues Aspinall merely supported an evolutionary approach to public land law.  Aspinall won a major legislative victory in 1962 with Congress’ passage of his Wilderness Bill and the Fryingpan-Arkansas project.  However, this marked the apex of his career and the beginning of its decline.  Sibley notes that Aspinall and the CRWCD did not realize that a future of recreation and skiing was replacing the old vision of water use for agriculture and mining.

This decade also saw further developments in the lower basin states.  In 1961, Mexico complained that its allocation of the Colorado River’s waters was too saline, due to runoff from a California canal.  In response, the Western Governors’ Association reconvened the Committee of Fourteen from the 1940s to coordinate the basin states’ interests in the salinity question.  Additionally, Arizona Senator Carl Hayden dreamed of a vast Central Arizona project supported by Colorado River water.  Despite opposition by environmentalist movement and Aspinall, Congress eventually approved the Central Valley Project.


The Colorado General Assembly passed the 1969 Colorado Water Rights Determination and Administration Act, reorganizing much of the state’s water law procedures and marking the beginning of the ecological era.  Shortly thereafter, on January 1, 1970, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Protection Act, creating the EPA.  And finally, in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act.  At the same time, Aspinall’s critics accused him of becoming too supportive of mining interests, particularly uranium.  In 1970, for the first time, he faced a primary election challenge.  Though Aspinall won that election, the 1970 census redistricting cut his West Slope district in two.  Facing another primary challenge in 1972, he lost by sixteen-hundred votes.

The 1970s saw further developments in the Colorado River salinity issue.  Although studies found that the salinity in Mexico was largely natural, the newly-formed EPA involved itself by supporting a regulatory solution.  President Nixon guaranteed low salinity to Mexico, providing the EPA with an opportunity to intervene.  This demonstrated that Aspinall’s world of quid pro quo solutions was gone, replaced by a highly centralized enforcement scheme.

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the Colorado General Assembly passed an “instream flow” law in 1973, despite the CRWCD opposition to the law.  In February 1977, President Carter issued his “hit list” of nineteen water projects, asking Congress to cut funding for these projects.  Carter’s hit list put certainty to the suspicion that the era of big federal reclamation projects was coming to a close.

Lastly, the 1970s saw the arrival of the West Slope’s long-awaited oil shale boom.  Following the 1970s oil crisis, President Nixon gave several large companies leases on the West Slope for development.  However, oil development was in direct opposition to the environmentalist movement gaining strength in the region.  In any case, Black Sunday in 1982 effectively ended the boom before it ever began.  Environmentalist post-urbanites and skiing then began to dominate the West Slope.  Work on the Windy Gap Reservoir, the most recent transmountain diversion project, completed in June 1985.  Congressman Aspinall died in October 1983, definitively ending the era in which he played a key role.


The 1980s and 1990s saw another period of change for the CRWCD.  The DWB sought to build the Two Forks Reservoir at the confluence of the North and South Forks of the South Platte River, despite a sure to be strong opposition from environmentalists.  Governor Lamm convened a roundtable for the Denver metro area but also included representatives from both East and West Slopes.  Lamm also included forward-thinking policy makers, and not just old-fashioned “water buffaloes” (referring to those who bellow, splash around, and muddy the waters).  Though the roundtable limited discussion to water supply in the immediate metro area, the CRWCD thought it would be easier to deal with the DWB than with many individual suburbs.  By this point, new players and strategies were beginning to change water policy in Colorado.  A demonstration of this shift occurred when aggressive DWB counsel Glenn Saunders left the organization.  DWB and the CRWCD decided to begin attempts at cooperation rather than their previous near-constant litigation.  Further, the DWB regarded Two Forks as a way of building unity within the Denver-Water supply.  Denver metro communities signed a Memorandum of Agreement, with the idea of cooperating and preventing courtroom battles.  The DWB, now headed by manager Hamlet “Chips” Barry, announced a new conciliatory direction and the organization changed its name to Denver Water.

At the same time, the CRWCD tried to take stock of changing situations on the West Slope.  The CRWCD wanted to work on better terms with the environmentalist-friendly headwater communities.  Differences proved to be mainly cultural: urban expatriates seeking a more rural lifestyle, but not reflecting the region’s traditional culture, began replacing the remnant population from the mining era which the CRWCD originally served.  Environmentalists then formed a separate organization, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (“NWCCOG”).

The environmentally-conscious headwater communities, led by NWCCOG general counsel Barbara Green (the state’s first major female water figure), succeeded in using its land use powers to delay diversions across the Divide for a large Colorado Springs and Aurora project.  The CRWCD, however, did not take part in the litigation.  Later, NWCCOG, this time with CRWCD support, also blocked another large planned diversion at Union Park.

The environmental movement took another step forward when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed four fish in the Colorado Basin as endangered by 1991.  The Upper Colorado River Basin Coordinating Committee conditioned further diversions and management on the fish populations but the biggest evidence of the burgeoning environmental movement came when the EPA vetoed the Two Forks project in November of 1990.  After an eight-year planning process and many millions spent, the federal government shut down the project solely because of the EPA director’s judgment that it was incompatible with Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.  Finally, former DWB counsel Glenn Saunders died in 1990.  His death signaled the fact that water issues were no longer in the hands of the old-time “water buffaloes” in the West.


The book’s final section describes the CRWCD’s history up to the present day.  Environmentalist actions on the West Slope continued, particularly to protect the four endangered fish.  Parties adopted a Programmatic Biological Opinion in 1999, recommending running all of the Upper Colorado as an integrated system to aid fish populations.  It is unclear today if the four fish are rebounding, but efforts seem to be helping allow future construction projects while not further endangering the fish.

This section also describes how the National Park Service finally quantified its reserved water right for Black Canyon National Park.  In 2001, the Park Service filed for a flow that mimics the canyon’s natural flow to the greatest extent possible, with a 1933 priority date.  There was much opposition, and Department of Interior director Gayle Norton reduced the application to a later and effectively meaningless priority date.  A federal court, however, rejected this alteration as an abuse of discretion.  The water court issued its final decree in 2007.

Sibley also provides a description of the severe drought that struck the state through early 2000s.  The Colorado General Assembly passed the Colorado Water for the Twenty-First Century Act in 2005, which called for Basin Roundtables in each of the state’s eight water basins, plus another for the Denver metro area.  The future is uncertain as to whether cooperation will continue and whether the Colorado River will contain enough water for all in the future.

The book draws to a close by providing estimates for available unused water remaining in the Colorado River, running anywhere from zero to nine-hundred-thousand acre-feet.  Faced with these possible shortfalls, communities are exploring several proposals for planning for the future.  The book ends with a quote from Justice Gregory J. Hobbs of the Colorado Supreme Court: “We are no longer developing the water resource; we are learning to share a developed resource.”


Water Wranglers, despite its length and extremely in-depth discussion of a complicated historical subject, is an easy and enjoyable read for anyone interested in the history of water development in the Colorado River Basin and the state of Colorado.  Well-researched and containing useful maps and photographs, Water Wranglers provides valuable, objective information for individuals, neophytes or experts, interested in Colorado’s transmountain diversions.  As seen through the lens of the CRWCD, the book describes a complex history in pieces that illustrate how a region’s goals and priorities shift over time.

George Sibley, Water Wranglers: The 75-Year History of the Colorado River District: A   Story About the Embattled Colorado River and the Growth of the West, Colorado River District (2012); 466 pp; ISBN 978-0520254770; paperback.