After two months without any significant moisture here on the Westside, it was nice to wake up one day last week and see 3 or 4 inches of snow. The dogs cavorted happily, the neighborhood seemed magical and I hoped that the sun would melt it away so that I wouldn’t have to shovel the sidewalk.

I found myself thinking about water, and what it means for the future of our state and city.

Let’s start with the snow that fell on my yard, and maybe on yours as well. It’s only partially the gift of heaven to our desiccated landscapes, since much of it will run off, evaporate or seep into the aquifers beneath. Once gone, it becomes the property of others. Those others include the city, which owns the water beneath your property and claimants to water that flows down Monument/Fountain creeks and eventually into the Arkansas River.

Water law in Colorado — and most Western states — is governed by the doctrine of Prior Appropriation, often expressed as “first in use, first in right.” Originating as a means of settling disputes over water use among miners during the California gold rush, it has evolved into a remarkably complex nexus of practices, laws and regulations that have shaped Colorado since the 19th century. 

Three important features: Water rights are severable property rights that can be bought and sold. If water is diverted in any way, it must be for a defined “beneficial use,” including agricultural and urban use. Most significantly, the 1922 Colorado River Compact between Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California, Mexico and 29 Native American tribes allocates the river’s annual flow.

Originally hammered together by representatives from the seven states led by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, the compact led to the construction of vast water diversion and storage projects along the Colorado. Population in arid communities far from the river exploded — and one of those was Colorado Springs. 

Absent transmountain water diversions from the Colorado and Arkansas rivers, the Springs could not have grown to even a fraction of its current size. Thanks to the Southern Delivery System, we have more than enough water — but for how long?

The compact’s allocation of river water was based upon estimates of annual river flows that were significantly higher than those of today’s drought-diminished river. In the last 20 years, average flow has declined by 20 percent. Climate change means that allocations will and must change — but how?

Seventy percent of water in the Southwest goes to agriculture, from small family farms with century-old water rights to the massive irrigated spreads of modern agribusiness.

Colorado is a peculiar state, essentially divided into three sectors: the Front Range metroplex, the farming/ranching/small metro communities of the eastern plains and far west and the prosperous mid-mountain recreational/environmental communities. Who gets the water? As the old saying goes, “water flows uphill toward money.”

That’s the way it worked several decades ago, when the prescient “water buffaloes” who led Colorado Springs Utilities snapped up water rights from broke farmers on the lower Arkansas, transferred the water diversion point far upstream, and eventually got it to Colorado Springs. And that’s the way it’ll work in the future, but this time we may be the prey, not the predator.

As The New York Times reported Sunday, New York-based water speculators are buying up water rights throughout the Colorado River Basin, hoping to make a buck by middling the transfer of water use from agricultural to urban use. While the public entities that once acquired such rights are now slow, underfunded and bureaucratic, hedge funds are agile and rich.

The Times quoted Matthew Diserio, the co-founder of hedge fund Water Asset Management, who said “[The U.S. water business] is the biggest emerging market on earth, a trillion-dollar market opportunity.”

As the Colorado River’s bounty shrinks, and water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell drop even farther, the urbanized West will have to find the water somewhere. So who are you gonna call? Maybe not this year, or this decade but eventually some of our local water providers may have to make deals with WAM … just think of kindly young Matthew as your payday water lender.

And here’s a piece of advice for mayor and council: Stop making deals to provide water to other jurisdictions!

 

John Hazlehurst, whose great-grandfather came to Colorado in 1859, is a Colorado Springs native. He has worked as a reporter/columnist for the Indy since 1997 and the Business Journal since 2006.