A Fountain in the Desert: Heritage and Water Wrangling on Colorado’s Western Slope | Jeffrey Widener

Figure 1. Aspinall’s dry memorial at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Palisade, CO, August 2012.

Figure 1. Aspinall’s dry memorial at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Palisade, CO, August 2012.

Geographers embrace cultural landscapes as frames for understanding how humans treat places. How we make sense, then, of the ideas behind the creation, conflicts, and emotions imbued in the cultural landscape requires a variety of sources of information—firsthand observation, archives, oral interviews, and primary and secondary resources—to help us form our understanding. There is, in fact, really nothing better than a landscape that piques curiosity, prompting ideas for further study. In the tiny town of Palisade, Colorado, a water fountain honoring former US Congressman Wayne Aspinall represents more than just Aspinall’s legacy in water politics, it represents a larger theme of land and life in the American West.

A few blocks south of Palisade’s tiny downtown district is Veteran’s Memorial Park. In its southeast corner is a bust of native son Congressman Wayne Aspinall. His face looks out toward the Grand Mesa, which has one of the watersheds from which the valley gets its water (Fig. 1).

Aspinall’s bust is part of a water feature that honors his contribution to water conservation on Colorado’s Western Slope. The “Palisade Peach” was a significant player in the water history of the region, making sure that during his tenure in Washington, D.C., that his home region received its fair share of the water that flowed toward the Pacific. Aspinall’s legacy in water conservation makes sense as to why town members honored Aspinall with a water fountain. His words, “In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything,” are engraved in stone.

When I first saw Aspinall’s memorial in August 2012, however, it was dry. The region had been in a drought since 1999. Grand Junction and Palisade city leaders have worked to conserve water in this arid region for sometime, and some residents have tried conserving water as well (Figure 2). And in the early 2010s, the Bureau of Land Management began approving leases that allow oil and gas companies to drill on Grand Mesa.[1]

Perhaps, these were good symbolic reasons for having a dry fountain? It turned out that the fountain was out-of-order, and water returned to it sometime later. Still, that dry fountain represented for me the paradox that exists in the American West. Your eyes tell you that humans have made it appear to have plenty of water, but most of it is in fact quite dry.

Figure 2. Location map for Colorado’s Grand Valley.

Figure 2. Location map for Colorado’s Grand Valley.

Some Water Background

For nearly a century, 80 percent of Colorado’s population has lived on the Front Range (Figure 3). In contrast, 80 percent of the state’s precipitation falls in the higher elevations on the Western Slope and that water naturally flows toward the Pacific (Figure 4).[2] By 2004, however, it could be said that when “someone in Denver drinks a glass of water, 55 percent of the water in that glass comes from the westward flowing Colorado River.”[3]

Figure 3. Colorado’s 2010 Population Distribution.

Figure 3. Colorado’s 2010 Population Distribution.

Figure 4. Precipitation in Colorado, 1981-2010.

Figure 4. Precipitation in Colorado, 1981-2010.

Water use for agriculture gets more attention. Eighty percent of all water in Colorado goes toward agricultural. This statistic gets used repeatedly by environmentalists and urban planners, but it is a number that farmers in the valley would argue against. Farmers claim that agriculture may use, or is guaranteed 80 percent of the water in the state, but agriculture does not consume all of that 80 percent.[4] In the Grand Valley, for instance, farmers reported that a large percentage of the water they use runs off their land and returns to a canal or to the river, proceeding to move downstream for Lower Basin use.[5]

More efficient water-conveying technologies and more effective watering schedules have enabled some Grand Valley farmers to leave more water in the canals and in the rivers (Figure 5).[6] A changing national and regional economy, however, that is based more on services and specialized production than on agriculture, filters over into the ideas of how water should be allocated. People in the valley, for example, are using water that used to go to farmland for their lawns and for recreational activities on reservoirs and in rivers.

Figure 5. Localized, micro-jet irrigation enables farmers to consume and use less water.

Figure 5. Localized, micro-jet irrigation enables farmers to consume and use less water.

Conservation of American West water resources in order to sustain agriculture, industry, and, metropolitan growth were formidable goals of the Bureau of Reclamation and its projects. Projects designed to help struggling farmers get water to their fields during the Dust Bowl era droughts and to provide jobs to those impacted by the Great Depression spun so many pipes and tunnels that the network looks like a spider’s web.[7] Since the Great Depression, Western Slope access to Colorado River water has suffered setbacks as conservationists looked to manage water efficiently so as to not “waste” resources for the sake of progress.[8]

During the 1930s, a prolonged drought resulted in large-scale diversions from the Western Slope to the Front Range. In 1934, the Northern Colorado Water Users Association organized to lobby, often successfully, state and federal leaders to fund projects that would divert water over the Continental Divide. In 1937, Congress approved the building of Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County and the Colorado-Big Thompson Project—the latter completed after WWII.[9] The growth that occurred in the American West after WWII led to other reclamation projects such as the Colorado River Storage Project, which took more water away from the Western Slope.[10]

Ideas about strategically using and specifically securing every drop of water for consumptive and/or beneficial use are still ongoing in this arid to semiarid region, in spite of the Colorado River basin region’s current status as being in the midst of one of the worst (circa 2015), if not the worst, droughts ever recorded. Essentially, a Colorado drought is not the same as a Midwestern drought; as a Daily Sentinel writer stated it: “A better definition of drought for Colorado might read: A period of insufficient snowpack and reservoir storage to provide adequate water to urban and rural areas.”[11] Especially dry years invite new ideas.

Water disputes arise constantly. Laws are perpetually changing, and no one knows what Mother Nature will do from year-to-year. Some years, local American West newspapers are heavy with columns commenting on proposed bills and studies, amendments and filibusters, and water checks and rations. Government committees and subcommittees battle it out, while conservation districts across the West butt heads with progressive state and local governments seeking to grow their populations and their industries—channeling the water here while impacting people and places there.

Water in a Colorado Drought

During the late 1970s, the nation was able to see how efficient the reclamation projects in the American West were. Specifically, in 1977, the worst drought in the region since the Dust Bowl era was made even worse because too many people were tapping into the short supply of water. By mid-August of that year, Grand Valley Project managers had to issue a 1908 call on the Colorado River—“all diversions with priority dates after 1908” were shut down, which included diversions “from both the Colorado River main stem above the project’s roller diversion dam in De Beque Canyon and from tributaries above there.” The Daily Sentinel unfurled the incredible give-and-take complexity of the situation:

Denver may continue…to store inflow of water to Dillon Reservoir and to make diversions from the Blue, Williams, Ford, and Fraser Rivers if an amount of water equal to the flows of those streams is released from Williams Fork Reservoir on the Williams Fork River. The Colorado-Big Thompson project may continue to store or divert flows of the Colorado River above Lake Granby and Willow Creek, provided the Bureau of Reclamation releases an equal amount from Green Mountain Reservoir… John Savage of Grand Valley asked why his junior pump on the Colorado River was shut off when there is water in Green Mountain Reservoir. The only answer The Sentinel could run down was that by placing the call on the river, the Grand Valley Project shifted to the junior appropriators the task of requesting releases… Colorado Springs, Aurora, Pueblo, Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. and other transmountain diverters that do not have reservoirs for release of replacement water have been shut off. The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project quit making diversions through the Charles Boustead Tunnel in the middle of June, when water in the Fryingpan River and tributaries dropped down to minimum amounts of water which must be left in streams under operating principles for the project… Some water does double duty at Vineland. It either generates electricity at the project hydro-electric plant or runs hydraulic turbines that provide power to run pumps lifting water to the Orchard Mesa and goes back into the Colorado River through a canal to a point above the diversion dam of the Grand Valley Irrigation Co. This process is called checking-back. Gates across the tailrace of the power and pumping plant divert the water into the canal taking the water upstream. Because Plateau Creek flows into the Colorado River below the roller dam, the water users in the Plateau Valley were not affected by the call. Ute Water Conservancy District, however, is prepared to replace water being diverted from Plateau Creek by water purchased from Ruedi Reservoir through the Colorado River Water Conservation District. The Redlands Water and Power Co., which diverts water from the Gunnison River in the canyon south of Grand Junction, placed a call on the Gunnison River earlier this summer. Redlands is using what water is available to generate as much power as possible and is buying power from the Public Service Co. of Colorado to lift 70 feet of water to four canals on the Redlands. The Denver Board of Water Commissioners has refused to release 28,662 acre-feet of water stored this year in Dillon Reservoir which the Colorado River Water Conservation District argues must be allowed to flow down the Blue River into Green Mountain Reservoir under terms of 1955 and 1965 stipulations and decrees. A hearing will be held in Federal District Court in Denver Aug. 19 and 20 on the motion of the river district to require Denver to comply with the decrees and release the water.[12]

The 1908 call that occurred in 1977 limited the Front Range’s use of Colorado River water, initiating proposals for securing more water that have not stopped coming.[13] Residents on the Western Slope have learned some things—particularly that they needed to pay attention to the water flowing downstream that they did not use but that Lower Basin states were able to use without paying for it.[14] Despite the Western Slope’s senior rights to the Colorado River, water managers became exasperated because there is no set division between the Front Range and the Western Slope of the state’s 3.9 million acre-feet share of the water as established by the 1948 Upper Colorado River Commission. The only thing in place, dating from over 100 years ago, is that many Western Slope places tied to the Colorado River, such as the Grand Valley, have senior water rights that stipulate set amounts of water they are entitled to, thus enabling river districts to place calls on the Colorado River. Western Slopers are worried about these rights, given that their representation in the political arena, sans Aspinall, has been weakened and that there are no plans for reining in population growth projected to occur on the Front Range (Figure 6).[15]

Figure 6. Aspinall’s fountain symbolizing conjunctive water use in the American West.

Droughts and Ideas Continue

Droughts continue to be a catalyst for change. The year 2002 was pivotal for Colorado and was significant for the Front Range because this region was in one of its worst droughts on record.[16] That year marked the second driest year for the state over the past 40 years (1977 was number one), leading all Colorado River basin states to begin taking water conservation measures.[17]

In December 2002, Colorado’s government passed Senate Bill 156. [18] This bill allows the owners of water rights to apply through the water courts to gain instream flow rights, with more options for what is considered to be consumptive/beneficial use of water. For example, water in streams, rivers, and lakes could be “used” and maintained for recreational purposes, for the enhancement of picturesque landscapes, and for sustaining fish, wildlife, and other ecosystem-related functions.[19] The bill also helped change the idea that “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” to one that encourages conservation.[20] A Trout Unlimited representative stated that SB 156 gave “Colorado a powerful new tool to improve the health of its rivers, which is good for the fish, for the anglers,” and for other elements associated with the New West economy.[21] The framers of the bill formed it on the idea of conservation easements or land trusts, in which landowners capitulated development rights of their properties in exchange for tax benefits and for the sentiment of helping protect the environment.[22] Not everyone was on board with the proposal, including farmers and even some environmental groups.[23] The 2012 drought marks the third worst drought year reported in Colorado. The wetter 2011 did keep water storage facilities in better conditions to handle the water shortage, but 2012 reminded Grand Valley residents of water flux.[24]

By 2050, Colorado will likely have a 1.5 million acre foot shortfall because its population will probably double. Grandiose ideas exist for how to deal with the water side but not for controlling population growth.[25] For example, the Colorado Aqueduct Return Project, better known as the Big Straw Project, conceived by Ralph E. “Butch” Clark, an environmental planner from Gunnison, would move water from the Colorado and Utah borders into the Colorado River basin for Western Slope communities.[26] The idea of piping in water from the Midwest comes up occasionally.[27] An $11.2 billion project proposal surfaced in 2012 to build a 670-mile-long pipeline to ship water west from the Missouri River. An article from Oklahoma’s Tulsa World warned that “Any plan for diverting significant amounts of water from the Missouri would encounter opposition…in the Midwest given [its own] drought and competition for water resources.”[28]

A number of other issues affecting the Western Slope’s access to Colorado River water exist. These include the decades-long salinity issues and efforts by the Bureau of Reclamation to lower salt levels in water flowing to Lower Basin states and into Mexico.[29] As well, a group was working at one point to raise awareness about arsenic levels in the drinking water, often a problem where mining and agricultural activities take place.[30] Oil shale and gas development will continue to haunt water supplies in this region, too.

Even though Front Range communities and Lower Basin communities are making improvements to use water more efficiently, those enhancements only masquerade the larger issue of uncontrolled growth and consumption in the American West. This, in fact, makes it extremely hard for farmers and agricultural regions to survive when there is no water. While every drop of water in the Colorado has been accounted for—for a fountain that commemorates heritage to a local community, a car wash, a fish ladder, a house, a golf course, or for an orchard—not every drop has to be consumed. Indeed, the cultural landscape in the American West mirrors important clues to how we value this precious resource. More care, however, could be taken to sustain its permanence in this arid region.


Jeffrey M. Widener is the GIS Librarian and an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Jeffrey is a cultural and historical geographer with varied research interests—including conservation, cultural landscape change, place attachment, geography education, and the digital humanities. This paper stems from a chapter of his dissertation entitled “Holding True: Agriculture in Colorado’s Upper Grand Valley,” a study that explores how farmers in this small irrigated corner of the American West survive as the world around them develops at a furious rate. He can be reached at jwidener@ou.edu.


[1] Marija B. Vader, “GJ Council Unveils New Plan for Watershed,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), June 5, 2003; Mike McKibbin, “‘Don’t Drill in Watersheds,’” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 6, 2006; Sally Spaulding, “Trust U.S. with Water, City’s Told,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 13, 2006; Mike McKibbin, “Residents Flood BLM with Water Worries,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 16, 2006; Mike McKibbin, “State, Fed Agencies’ Help Sought on Watershed Worries,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 27, 2006; Sally Spaulding, “Protests over Grand Mesa Leases Yet to Be Resolved,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 27, 2006; Mike Wiggins, “Watershed Ordinance Approved,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), September 7, 2006.

[2] Chris P. Jouflas, “Water-Wise: Time Has Come for Formulating Statewide Compact,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), May 11, 1986.

[3] Josh Nichols, “Local Group Gets Look at Issues Upstream,” Grand Junction Free Press (Colorado), June 29, 2004.

[4] Trout Unlimited boosted the percentage to 90. See: Trout Unlimited Colorado Water Project, A Dry Legacy 2: Progress and New Threats in a Drought Year (Boulder: Colorado Water Project, 2003), 3; likewise, this article: Michael C. Bender, “Owens to Push for Laws to Foster Water Projects,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), December 11, 2002, put the figure between 85-90 percent. 80 percent is what many Grand Valleyers I spoke to agreed on.

[5] Mark Harris, in Panel on Drought and Agriculture, “Natural Resources of the West: Water and Drought,” Colorado Mesa University Water Center Seminar Series, aired online on December 3, 2012.

[6] Heather McGregor, “Despite High-Dollar Budget, District Keeps Low Profile,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), July 14, 1996; Bruce Talbott, in Panel on Drought and Agriculture, “Natural Resources of the West: Water and Drought.”

[7] Thomas E. Cronin and Robert D. Loevy, Colorado Politics and Government: Governing the Centennial State (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 67-68.

[8] George Sibley, Water Wranglers: The 75-Year History of the Colorado River District: A Story about the Embattled Colorado River and the Growth of the West (Glenwood Springs: Colorado River District, 2012), 2-5, 405.

[9] Marija B. Vader, “Officials Claim Fed Agency Waters Water from W. Slope,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), January 7, 2001; Carl Abbott, Stephen J. Leonard, and Thomas J. Noel, Colorado: A History of the Centennial State, 4th edition (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2005), 383.

[10] George Sibley, “‘Water Wrangling’ for the West Slope,” Post Independent (Glenwood Springs, CO), October 28, 2012.

[11] The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), “Grand Valley Drought & Water Conservation,” http://www.gjcity.org/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=2147485668 (last accessed December 3, 2013).

[12] William H. Nelson, “GV Project Issues Water Call on Colorado River,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), August 16, 1977.

[13] Sibley, Water Wranglers, 312.

[14] Michael Moss, “Battling for Colorado Water: ‘Greed, Growth, Power Grabs,’” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), July 18, 1982; Bob Silbernagel, “Water Lease Plan Stirring Controversy,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), June 20, 1990; Gary Harmon, “McInnis Wants to Tighten the Faucet on California,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), January 10, 2002; Sally Spaulding, “Water Pressure: Legal Battle Looms if Drought Lingers,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), September 5, 2004.

[15] Chris P. Jouflas, “Water-Wise: Time Has Come for Formulating Statewide Compact,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), May 11, 1986; Mike McKibbin, “Growth Doesn’t Depend on Water, Board Is Told,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), January 16, 2002; Marija B. Vader, “Lawmakers Expect West Slope Water to Be Target,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), July 14, 2002; Gary Harmon, “Water Bill down Drain,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), February 28, 2004.

[16] Bruce Talbott, in Panel on Drought and Agriculture, “Natural Resources of the West: Water and Drought;” Aaron Porter, “Water Wars,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), October 14, 2002.

[17] Scott Condon, “Drought of 2012—Sign of Times?,” The Aspen Times, December 3, 2012.

[18] Gary Harmon, “Water Bill Awaiting Governor’s Signature,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), May 2, 2002.

[19] Shannon Joyce Neal, “Gov. Undecided on Senate Water Bill,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), February 19, 2002; Gary Harmon, “Walcher: It’s Time to Change Water Law,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), February 20, 2002; Gary Harmon, “Compromise May Leave More Water in Streams.” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 14, 2002.

[20] Gary Harmon, “Farmers, Developers Blast Water Proposal,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 18, 2002.

[21] “Trout Unlimited Applauds House Passage of SB 156,” April 25, 2002, http://www.tu.org/press_releases/2002/trout-unlimited-applauds-house-passage-of-sb-156 (last accessed March 28, 2013).

[22] Gary Harmon, “Compromise May Leave More Water in Streams,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 14, 2002.

[23] Gary Harmon, “Farmers, Developers Blast Water Proposal,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 18, 2002.

[24] Scott Condon, “Drought of 2012—Sign of Times?, The Aspen Times, December 3, 2012; Bruce Talbott, in Panel on Drought and Agriculture, “Natural Resources of the West: Water and Drought.”

[25] Summit Economics and The Adams Group, Water and the Colorado Economy (December 2009), http://www.summiteconomics.com/FRWP_Econ_Final_2011910.pdf (last accessed March 3, 2013), 5, 7-9; Drew Beckworth and Dan Luecke, Filling the Gap: Commonsense Solutions for Meeting Front Range Water Needs (February 2011), http://www.westernresourceadvocates.org/gap (last accessed January 13, 2013).

[26] Zack Barnett, “Water Project Would Be Big, Bring Boom to Area, Backer Says,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 17, 2002; Zack Barnett, “Big Straw Should Be Studied, Says River District,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 17, 2002; Mike McKibbin, “River District Continues Backing of Big Straw,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), October 17, 2002; Erin McIntyre, “Sizing up Big Straw: Pros, Cons of Formidable Water Project Are Discussed,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), December 11, 2002.

[27] Marija B. Vader, “Lawmakers Expect West Slope Water to Be Target,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), July 14, 2002.

[28] “Major Pipeline among Ideas for Aiding Arid West,” Tulsa World, December 11, 2012.

[29] U.S. Senator Bill Armstrong, “All Water Not Created Equal,” The Palisade Tribune (Colorado), April 8, 1982.

[30] Shannon Joyce Neal, “Group Raises Awareness of Grand Valley Arsenic Levels,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 27, 2001.

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