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Colorado River District 75th Anniversary and History

Colorado River District celebrates 75 years

with a commemorative poster

Governor John Hickenlooper's Proclamation

Chapter 5 -- the 1937 Chapter of "Water Wrangler's: The 75-year History of the Colorado River District"

In 2012, the Colorado River District is marking its 75th year of existence. The Colorado General Assembly formed the River District in 1937 to ensure that the West Slope could protect itself in the contentious negotiations over water projects that impact Western Colorado.

This was a direct result of the battle over the Colorado-Big Thompson Project that resulted in Granby Reservoir in Grand County, Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County and a host of reservoirs and canals in Northern Colorado.

The River District was also given the responsibilities of working on all of Colorado's behalf on Colorado River Compact issues and developing Western Colorado water for Western Colorado.

Timeline of history
In Colorado, water development knows no geographical boundaries. The Colorado Constitution states that under the Prior Appropriation System the right to appropriate water shall not be denied. But in Colorado there is a critical boundary, the Continental Divide.

On the west side lies most of the surface water in Colorado but a minority of the population.

On the east side, water is comparatively scarce but that is where the state was first heavily settled in the wake of the 1859 Gold Rush.  Time has neither altered that dynamic nor the drive to move West Slope water to the East Side to accommodate the climactic and geographic imbalance.

In the midst of drought and the Great Depression, the quest for large projects to divert water from the West Slope to the Front Range reached the Colorado General Assembly. This caused a group of concerned West Slope citizens to mobilize the Western Colorado Protective Association (WCPA), which began negotiating the Colorado-Big Thompson Project

(C-BT). Boosting the C-BT were northern Colorado agricultural interests who needed supplemental irrigation water.
The C-BT became a Bureau of Reclamation project and Green Mountain Reservoir was built in Summit County as basin-of-origin mitigation, thanks to the WCPA.

It became clear to the West Slope that it needed an organization with a dedicated funding stream to watchdog water issues.

In 1937, the Colorado legislature created the Colorado River Water Conservation District to continue the work started by the WCPA. The legislation also assigned the Colorado River District the task of working on behalf of the entire state on Colorado River Compact issues. In that landmark year, the legislature also created the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy Act, allowing for the creation of the Northern Water District. The founding counties of the Colorado River District were Delta, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield and Mesa. Grand County opted out, thinking it had gotten a bad deal with the C-BT.

The first board president was John Heuschkel of Garfield County. The first general counsel was Frank Delaney and the first secretary-engineer was Frank Merriell.

The staff and board launched into an era where the missions were to keep an eye on developments downriver, an eye on the East Slope and to try to "conserve" as much water as possible by developing it first for West Slope use.
While construction started on the federal C-BT, Denver Water became a focus with its Moffat Tunnel Project in Grand County, thus beginning an engagement that continued in detail through the 21st century. For the first five decades, the relationship with Denver went from bad to worse.

Meanwhile, talks heated up over a large Gunnison-Arkansas transbasin diversion that ignited a revolt in Gunnison County, and thus began another long-term engagement internally and externally that finally resulted in the federal Fryingpan-Arkansas project three decades later.

On the home front, work began on planning West Slope irrigation projects in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation. Some of the larger projects  were Silt, Rifle, Paonia and West Divide, the latter, which was never built but still makes the news today. The theory was a good offense was the best defense: obtain water decrees on the West Slope to protect against outside uses of Western Colorado water.

Always on the front burner, however, was Denver Water with its Moffat Project, which was built after courtroom battles over water rights and subsequent attempts to tap the Blue River Basin. What would become Dillon Reservoir and the Roberts Tunnel in the 1960s only resulted after epic legal battles over Green Mountain Reservoir water rights. Denver had initially tried to prove Dillon was senior to Green Mountain.

And pressure continued for a Gunnison-Arkansas Project. It had become clear that in Colorado, if the Front Range was willing to pay for a project that was feasible, it could be built. The Colorado River District's job was to take steps to protect the present and future water supply for the West Slope.

Concurrently, the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project arose as a first stage of the Gunnison-Arkansas Project. Negotiations resulted in the Fry-Ark and its 1962 Congressional authorization. Ruedi Reservoir was built as compensation to the West Slope.

 Another result of this work was the start of construction in 1962 of what would become the Aspinall Unit reservoirs on the Gunnison River.

Looking farther west in the 1940s, the issue became how to equitably split the Upper Basin's half share of the Colorado River Compact of 1922. In 1948, the four Upper Basin states agreed to the Upper Colorado River Compact. Colorado got 51.75 percent of the water made available by the river system. Now plans could commence  to develop the river, resulting in the federal Colorado River Storage Project Act of 1956 that authorized the Glen Canyon, the Aspinall Unit, Flaming Gorge and Navajo projects as well as a host of participating projects in Western Colorado.

The Colorado River District began the race to file on water rights before others on the Front Range could and to form water conservancy districts to help build the projects, along with the Bureau of Reclamation.

In the 1950and '60s, the District expanded with the additions of Grand, Montrose, Ouray, Routt, Rio Blanco, Hinsdale, Saguache and Moffat counties. Frank Delaney and Frank Merreill resigned. They were replaced by a new generation of leadership in General Counsel John Barnard and Secretary-Engineer Phil Smith. By the late 1960s, Rolly Fischer was Secretary-Engineer.

The 1970s to Present
This became an era on the Colorado River that saw the advent of environmental laws, minimum streamflow water rights, snowmaking water rights, recreational water rights and eventual cooperation with Front Range water users on mutually beneficial projects. The era of Reclamation Projects was ending. In response to the new times, the District raised its profile on the state and national governmental fronts.

The District constructed its first project, Taylor Draw Reservoir at Rangely in the early 1980s. Cooperation with Northern Water and Denver Water resulted in the District building Wolford Mountain Reservoir in the mid-1990s, creating water supply for the West Slope while settling issues with the Windy Gap transmountain diversion and separately, matters regarding Denver Water and the filling of Dillon Reservoir. Planning also resulted in the District's enlargement of Elkhead Reservoir in 2006.

Cooperation continues to this day. In 2011, a historic proposed water-supply agreement was reached between Denver Water and 34 West Slope entities. And as the state ponders a water supply for a population slated to double by 2050, the District is helping to find balanced solutions that will support the state economy on both sides of the Continental Divide.

Eric Kuhn became the General Manager in 1996 and continues in the position to this day. Peter Fleming just celebrated 10 years as the District's General Counsel.

P.O. Box 1120 - Glenwood Springs, CO 81602 - 201 Centennial, Suite 200 - Glenwood Springs, CO 81601
(970) 945-8522 FAX (970) 945-8799
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