Where’s All the WATER?

Many years ago, before Greeley was named Greeley, the first residents, Union Colonists, awoke to a battle cry when they found that their ditch was dry: “To your tents, gentlemen. Guns and ammo.”

The belief was that their neighbors, Fort Collins, had stolen their water and they were planning to settle things, as the saying goes, the old-fashioned way.
Roy Otto, Greeley’s city manager, recounted that moment in history last year in a column, and he brings it up again in his office while discussing the message he wrote for the Loveland Reporter-Herald. The moment was an important one, he says, because, instead of bullets, the two towns exchanged handshakes that day. The first Colorado Water Law was created, a system of water rights by first ownership that still exists today. Instead of fighting, they collaborated, Otto says with a smile.

Today, Otto and a growing number of, for lack of a better word, important people are hoping that spirit of collaboration continues when it comes to water. Water, after all, is the most important resource in Northern Colorado.

“When you look at the history of Northern Colorado and the history of the West, water has shaped everything we are about, even more than most people realize,” says Ray Caraway, president of the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado. “All the growth and development along the Front Range would not be possible without a tremendous amount of thought and planning about [water].”

It may seem strange for a community foundation that manages more than 500 charitable funds to be involved in water, but because of its importance, water is “an obvious thing to get into,” Caraway says. “We are simply trying to get people to think more creatively about the future of Northern Colorado.”

The foundation is involved, he adds, because the planning that brought all that water to Northern Colorado decades ago doesn’t appear to be occurring today.

He hopes to change that by bringing the important people together. First, with a partnership with the Colorado Water Center of Colorado State University, the foundation offers a class modeled after those leadership classes that teach people about their city history such as Leadership Weld County. People give up one half-day a month for nine months to learn about water issues. He calls it the Water Literate Leaders of Northern Colorado. The foundation also formed a group with the mayors and city managers of leading cities in the region to talk issues, and water is a prime topic.

The hope out of all this, Caraway says, is that all those important people have serious discussions about how to collaborate, rather than fight, over the last drops of the water still available in the region. There are a few reasons for that beyond just Kumbaya.

The most important is that water is a finite resource. And there’s a chance Northern Colorado could lose it, or without being too dramatic, at least some of it.

“We need to get people on the same page,” says Loveland Mayor Jacki Marsh. “The time to secure it is now, not necessarily when you need it. By then, it’ll be too late. We need to be proactive, and at this point, I’m not even sure it’s proactive.”

In the 1980s, when water seemed more plentiful, Thornton, a Denver suburb the size of Fort Collins, bought about 100 farms in Larimer and Weld counties to secure water diverted from the Poudre River.

Today, Northern Colorado officials all point out that Thornton did nothing wrong, before they start talking about the move a little like the way the rebels talked about the Empire in Star Wars. That move, after all, is the reason why there’s a sense of urgency, the kind Marsh projects, about collaboration over water projects.

“What I want Northern Colorado to understand is, by law, others like Thornton do have the right to come up and purchase water rights to support their growth,” says Otto. “So, I get concerned [when we are] fighting ourselves over how we are going to deal with the water resource. We need to focus our attention on not fighting one another but on ways to collaborate over what’s happening behind our back.”

The move, in fact, and the resulting 70-mile pipeline that Thornton wants to build to bring that water to their city (over much squabbling), gave Otto some new perspective.

He never really understood why the Western Slope seemed so upset over water all the time until he realized he was part of a community that was taking water from that area, something that happened with the Colorado-Big Thompson project, a massive effort in the mid-20th century to move water from the Western Slope to the dry but more populated Eastern foothills. It is considered by Otto and many others to be one of Greeley’s greatest achievements.

“I think it’s the coolest thing,” Otto says of the Colorado-Big Thompson. “But now we are the next Western Slope.”

But that project also showed what can happen when cities collaborate. Loveland and Greeley share the benefits from that project. Greeley and Fort Collins share the Poudre River.

There is an urgency here beyond simple fears: Thornton needs that water by 2025. Northern Colorado will run out of water by 2065 (if not sooner), and so will, in theory, other Denver-area cities.

Those images of parched cities stuffed with thirsty residents seems apocalyptic, and it’s enough to raise the anxiety of city officials and spark desires to protect their own.

Indeed, most discussions about water have taken place in court, not on retreats.

“The way we administer it is through a court system,” says Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Center at CSU, “and for the last 150 years, because we’ve used that, it’s adversarial. We should shift that mindset.”

Waskom pauses after he says that. In the past, he admits, city officials would probably prefer to duke it out, and it’s easy to understand why: Water is power. But so are alliances, especially when pitted against a larger, looming threat such as those Denver communities.

“To me, that’s the change,” Waskom says. “The leadership here has matured in the sense that it realizes it needs to do this.”

Northern Colorado, despite the efforts to preserve land that officials call “community separators,” is growing together, and one day it may be hard to tell the difference, even if the idea that we could look like all those Denver suburbs makes residents here blanch.

It seems silly, then, for each city to spend tens of millions of dollars on its water supply when there could be ways to share that expense by sharing the resource, some say.

Some of the broader ideas include sharing water treatment facilities, ways to deliver that water and developing a way to help each other in emergencies, such as 2013, when the floods knocked out a water treatment plant in Evans.

“We are dependent on the snow melt,” Marsh says. “Just think about that. That’s not something you can really control or predict. One bad year, and whether people believe in climate change or not, wetter gets wetter and drier gets drier. It’s going to take everything.”

The real key is the vulnerability we are willing to have.

More immediate (and possible) ideas include developing a non-potable water system to keep our lawns and golf courses green without the expense of treating the water. Millions of gallons of treated and fluoridated water go every year to that land, and, as Otto points out with a smile, grass doesn’t have teeth. In fact, maybe cities could talk about ways to reduce those thirsty bluegrass lawns, or possibly encourage residents to plant more native grasses by offering incentives off their water bills.

Perhaps cities could even buy the water rights of area farmers and lease them back, so that water will be available in dry years and used by farmers in wetter years to keep area agriculture alive.

That makes Marsh think about the recent effort of communities to buy land as community separators and open space. “It seems water should be in that same category, with each area setting aside money to preserve water going into the future,” Marsh says. “There’s always a fear to increase taxes, and I get that, but maybe if you’re doing it to preserve water in the future, maybe residents would embrace that. I’d be willing to let voters have a say in that.”

Another advantage to collaboration, besides saving water and money, is it allows cities to develop plans to preserve the rivers and keep them as natural as possible, Waskom says, which preserves recreation and agriculture as well as the supply. Both bring millions to the area economy.

“I’ve heard some talk about just draining the Poudre,” Waskom says and laughs. “But that would obviously kill the golden goose.”

Of course, all these proposals can seem as scary as being surrounded by dried-out farms, because ultimately it means giving up advantages one city may have over another. “The real key,” Otto says, “is the vulnerability we are willing to have.”

Perhaps that’s why there’s been some talk about joining forces, but there’s been no significant action to-date, even when Otto wrote his column calling for collaboration more than a year ago. That’s a little frustrating to someone such as Caraway, who helped get leaders together years ago but hasn’t seen much come out of it.

“We’re letting the future happen to us,” he says. “We are in a default mode to some extent. We don’t have a plan or a vision. We are just sitting idly by while water leaves our region.

“The thing is,” he continues, “I’ve never met anyone who advocates for the idea of drying up our agriculture and sending the water to Thornton. There’s a pretty unanimous agreement that there’s nothing in it for us as a region. But that’s the route we are going down right now.”

Farmers, everyone agrees, should be able to sell water rights, which many times are more prized than the land they serve. It’s probably even illegal to prevent it from happening, says Caraway, who was an attorney before he became the foundation president. But that also means other creative solutions aren’t out there.

“I’m somewhat frustrated with the slow pace of change,” Caraway says. “I also haven’t observed a real push from the political arena to address this.”

Water is not only powerful, it’s as good as gold, both for the growth it can bring and the money it demands, Marsh says, and that makes it difficult. Personal interests are always an issue when the stakes are this high, and as just one example, water directors may not be too eager to embrace a system of collaboration that could eventually mean they will be viewed as duplication, which is a good way to lose your job in city government.

“I do think a regional approach is good,” she says. “I don’t know if each city has bought into that. You get into this problem anytime multiple people need the same commodity, and then you add to the fact that it’s immensely profitable.”

Cities will have water for the next few decades, and all three major cities in the region are taking steps to prepare for a continued growth boom. Loveland owns the rights to Colorado River Basin water that will become available through the Windy Gap Firming Project. Fort Collins hopes to triple the size of Halligan Reservoir. Greeley hopes to expand Milton-Seaman Reservoir to 10 times its size.

“We’ve got three major reservoir projects planned, and residents should stay tuned and watch what happens with those three,” Waskom says. “If we do it right, we can gain operational flexibility and base flows and coordinate on some flushing flows. Or it could be every municipality for itself. Let’s see what happens.”
Waskom, though, does have hope. “I am very much an optimist,” he says, “and I do think there’s a real desire among the current leadership of the surrounding cities, both elected and city staff.”

The Water Literate Leaders class may have had something to do with that, Caraway says, and he knows leaders who thought a lot more about collaboration after they took the course. The foundation has had to turn away people now, but more and more important people are going through that class.

Otto doesn’t mind admitting he’s one of those people. He’s now trying to host a weekend retreat among all major cities in the Northern Colorado area, including, yes, Thornton, to find ways to collaborate. He hopes this meeting can take place soon. He, like leaders before him, are calling for gentlemen (and women) to go, in a sense, back to the tents. Only this time, he hopes they leave their guns and ammo at home.