For the past 150 years, Colorado Springs has had the same mantra: Live here and enjoy life! We’ll all be prosperous and happy, so rock on! Here’s to another 150 years of growth and development ... but maybe there’s an unexpected reckoning on the horizon. One ingredient vital to growth in the arid West could be in short supply in the not-so-distant future: Water.
And this reckoning could force us to make radical and unwelcome adjustments to our lives and community.
Colorado Springs was an unlikely location for a small town, let alone a major city. We have no native source of water, so we’ve transported it from ever more distant sources. We started with well water, then a canal from upper Fountain Creek, then reservoirs on Pikes Peak, then from the upper Arkansas and finally from tributaries of the mighty Colorado River. Where there was water available, we went for it — regardless of environmental impacts, social inequities or damage to other communities. As the city’s website notes. “Colorado Springs is a community that lacks a natural water source. 80% of our community’s water comes via pipelines from the western slope, 200 miles away.”
Colorado law allows water rights to be bought and sold, and the point of diversion from a river changed. All water rights aren’t equal — prior appropriation, or “first in time, first in right” means that senior right holders get their water before any owners of junior rights. Farmers and ranchers in far southeastern Colorado held valuable senior rights, and that’s why Colorado Springs bought up such rights decades ago. The rights were more valuable than the land, and the once-prosperous towns that were supported by the agricultural economy have sadly diminished. As Colorado Springs grew, we used those and other Arkansas River water rights to supply the Southern Delivery System. Even though agriculture still accounts for most of Colorado’s water use, rural Coloradans tend to see Front Range cities as Colorado’s alpha water predators.
Sure, we have to comply with the laws that govern water rights, just as we have to comply with environmental regulations. And we may have some political differences with Denver, Aurora, Boulder and Fort Collins, but we have a common goal: water for our lawns, houses, gardens, businesses and industries.
But what if the game is changing? Despite our nice rainy week, the long-term regional drought will likely continue indefinitely. Colorado River flows will diminish every year, triggering shortage declarations by the Bureau of Reclamation. Seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Mexico draw from the river and all will have to reduce their shares. Every user will be scrutinized, and wasteful practices will be condemned.
All seven states have grown by importing people from water-rich states and creating artificial oases like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Colorado Springs. We’re water buffaloes, using our liquid wealth to water lawns, grow almonds and nourish golf courses. It’s all legal and proper, of course… if you don’t believe me, ask a water lawyer!
One thing that’s certain about the water future of the Southwest is that there will be winners and losers. And as the cheese hardens in years to come, the have-nots will attack those whom they believe benefit from a fundamentally inequitable system. Colorado Springs could be once again demonized as a water pirate, destroying agriculture, small cities and mountain streams to keep lawns green in our verdant suburbs. That’s what happened in the 1980s when the city and Aurora partnered in the Homestake II project, which would have diverted water from the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. The Eagle County Commissioners nixed the deal, thanks to House Bill 1041, which gave counties the power to control developments proposed by entities beyond their boundaries.
The demonizing stopped when the dam went away, but this long drought may be here to stay. So, will we have to give up our lawns? Oh, that reminds me — I need to turn on my sprinklers.