Robert Crifasi, a former City of Denver hydrologist and Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks water resources administrator, is the author of a new book “Western Water A to Z: the History, Nature and Culture of a Vanishing Resource.” BRL recently chatted with him to get his take on the dynamic water situation in the Boulder area.
Turns out, Boulder had a hand in establishing Colorado’s “prior appropriation doctrine,” also known as “first in time, first in right,” that was put into our constitution in 1876. The doctrine states that a farmer or city that started using water first has a priority over those who began using water later. Boulder is sitting pretty in terms of water rights, having acquired many since the 1850s. This means our town has more water at its disposal than somewhat younger communities, like Lafayette. But increasing strain on the Colorado River might reverberate across the Continental Divide and force Boulderites to reassess our water use in years to come.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where does Boulder tie into the history of Western water?
Lefthand Creek was the focus of a seminal Colorado water court case in 1882 called Coffin vs. Lefthand Ditch Co. That was the case that worked out the details of what prior appropriation [would mean] for Colorado. Then it spread around the rest of the West.
Editor’s note: Lefthand Ditch Co. is currently located in Niwot, with Lefthand Creek flowing nearby after coming down Lefthand Canyon.
How did that court case come about?
There was a farmer out on St. Vrain Creek — a little east of what’s now Longmont — who woke up one day to find no water in the lower St. Vrain. He knew the farmers on Lefthand Creek were taking water [from the St. Vrain] and irrigating [their farms with it], because back in 1863, farmers had made a diversion from the St. Vrain River to the tributary of Lefthand Creek.
So Coffin and a number of other fellas rode up above Ward and tore out the diversion dam.
The folks on Lefthand Creek were obviously pissed off, and they sent armed guards up to their diversion and rebuilt it. Then they went to court and Coffin lost.
When Coffin tore out the diversion, was that because he had been taking water first, so he felt it was his right?
He claimed that the eastern system of riparian rights was to prevail. Editor’s note: Much of the Eastern part of the United States follows the riparian doctrine, which gives water rights only to those who own land next to water.
In the East, if you own land along the river [like Coffin did], you have rights to take water. But during the [West’s] territorial days, people recognized that rich people or corporations could buy long stretches of creeks and effectively cut off the water supply to tens of thousands of acres surrounding the creek. By buying little strips of [creek] land, corporations could control vast tracts of land.
So this early riparian rejection came about by people rejecting corporatism and the control of water resources they saw as necessary for development. It’s really a socialistic perspective that got written into the Colorado Constitution allowing anyone to claim water rights.
When Coffin v. Lefthand occurred, a lot of the nitty gritty details of how [a water rights system] would work were left to that case to sort out. In all water law courses, that’s one of the first cases you read. Because it’s the origin story for Western water. And that happened right here in Boulder.
What are the negative effects of this water rights system?
Because you can buy and sell water rights over a long period of time, [Western] cities and large industries have systematically purchased senior water rights. Because of that, they’re now invested in that system to the tune of billions of dollars. Boulder’s water rights are worth many billions of dollars. Denver’s are worth tens of billions. And because they’ve got such a huge economic stake in the ownership of these senior rights, they’ve kind of become the power brokers in the water system. Every few years there will be calls to make water distribution more equitable. But when you see the amount of money older cities have invested, that kind of call is a real challenge to the economics of those water rights.
I noticed a disparity this past summer when Lafayette had water restrictions in place for residents while Boulder didn’t. Is that an illustration of some cities having more water rights than others?
Yes, and you also have areas like Douglas County, where a lot of houses are on groundwater supplies, and those are non-renewable supplies. They’re drawing down their aquifer. And a lot of southern suburbs of Denver are also on a slow train to huge water problems because they’re pumping out the groundwater.
What about the city of Denver? Is it draining its groundwater as well?
The City of Denver is not. When I worked for Denver years ago, they wanted to build a 1.1 million acre-foot reservoir up on the South Platte river [called Two Forks]. It was the environmental battle of the 80s and early 90s. It eventually went to the first George Bush who vetoed it.
So Denver then looked at alternatives to Two Forks. The environmental coalition said ‘we should look at groundwater.’ Another alternative was to enlarge Gross Reservoir. The thinking was Gross was already built and had already destroyed a canyon, so why destroy another canyon when we could enlarge Gross?
Editor’s note: In 2021, the Boulder County Commissioners approved the expansion of the Gross Dam Reservoir, more than tripling its holding capacity. The controversial project is underway and will be until at least 2027.
How do you feel about the Gross Reservoir Dam expansion?
I have mixed feelings about it. I do think conservation and reduction of use is a better overall answer. But I’d rather see Gross enlarged than see a new dam built somewhere else. There is no easy answer.
Do you think as the population continues to increase in this area we’re just going to see more struggles over reservoirs and water rights?
That, I think, will continue. What I don’t want to see is continued extraction from the rivers away from the environment. I think that’s a mistake. Editor’s note: Water in established waterways is needed to support those ecosystems, like fish and plant life.
What’s the alternative? How do we avoid depleting our rivers?
Green lawns are a luxury. And [watering those lawns] accounts for upwards of 50% of water use for a lot of these cities, like Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins. There’s really no justification for putting water on people’s backyards when it could be doing ecosystem services.
Where does climate change fit into this?
One of the problems we’re going to face with climate change is the timing of when water falls to the earth. Precipitation is going to shift. There’s going to be a need to provide some storage because there will be less soil moisture in late summer and early fall.
Climate change, for states like Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, is a huge deal. Colorado is fortunate that it has a lot of water, so if we’re smart about use and reallocating water in the future, we might be able to dodge that bullet. But it’s not going to be easy.
Arizona and Nevada? They’re in a world of hurt. They’re exploiting groundwater reserves that are non-renewable. They shouldn’t be having golf courses in Arizona. That’s becoming irresponsible.
I’ve written about Boulder’s plans to store more water in the landscape through introducing beavers and building beaver-like dams. What are your thoughts on that? Is that a possible solution?
I would posit it isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s one of many things that would be intelligent water management.
How do you view Boulder’s water situation?
The city has done a pretty damn good job of building up its water supplies. We are way better off than a lot of communities. One of the things that has the potential to affect us is this Colorado River thing happening. Editor’s note: The Colorado River is drying up, with the six states drawing water from it discussing how to reduce use.
It seems remote to us in Boulder, but remember, we get a lot of water from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (NCWCD) that diverts water from the Colorado River. If there are calls on the Colorado River…
A call is when a senior water right holder says ‘I want water’ and people upstream from them [with less senior rights] are told to shut down.
If Glen Canyon goes down to dead pool [the water sinks below intakes for the power plants] and they’re not able to release water downstream — and they’re getting to that point of risk on the Colorado River — at some point there will be a call on the Colorado River that will affect the [NCWCD].
I don’t know the numbers, but we’re looking at a certain amount of reduction in these west slope to east slope diversions as that situation gets worse. We feel like it’s far away, but [Boulder] drinks Colorado River water.
Crifasi is giving at talk on his new book at 6 p.m. on February 21 at Norlin Library, Room M549.