Who owns water?

Day 1 comes to a close in Estes Park, CO, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Tomorrow we explore the park and meet the Shadowcliff staff with whom we will work for the next three days. But today we began to tackle the issue central to our course–who owns water in the West?


After touching down in Denver, grabbing some provisions, and setting some norms for our time together, we traveled to Gross Reservoir, a body of water central to the controversy of water rights. Denver is a city of close to three million that sits in the rain shadow of the Front Range on the western edge of semi-arid high plains. Yet it is as green as any city back east. Denver’s landscaped yards, golf courses, fields, and parks are fed, in part, by the Gross Reservoir. And although the reservoir draws water from the watershed that flows into it, a great deal of Gross Reservoir’s water comes via diversion tunnels that transport water across the Continental Divide…from the west slope of the Front Range to the east slope. From the watershed of the Colorado River to that of the Mississippi.

And so, in times of drought, like the one Denver has experienced for the last 16 years, who has senior rights on the water from the Colorado River…the citizens of Denver or the inhabitants of the watershed itself?

While at Gross Reservoir we played a thrilling game called “Rights of Prior Appropriation,” which is a lot more fun when you have the snow-capped Indian Peaks Wilderness as your backdrop. In this game students learned of the competing interests (towns, farmers and wildlife), and what rights each have relative to the other.  For example, protected species of fish enjoy certain privileges that others do not. This has very real effects when it comes down to deciding how to allocate water in times of drought. The boys, acting as pawns in this gravity-fed game of chess, move as if on a conveyor belt as they pass through towns, farms and wildlife habitats, dumping water, at time reclaiming some of the water they had previously lost. The result is the oft-repeated axiom from your introductory Economics classes…”there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” In places like the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, water use really is a zero sum game.

To further develop the day’s lesson, we will spend the next two weeks speaking with and learning from people whose lives depend on and are enriched by the finite resource that is the Colorado River watershed. These are real people (and fish) with real concerns engaged in a rapidly deteriorating battle for the ownership and stewardship of water. 

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What do you see?

In addition to our introduction on water rights, we laid the groundwork for our observational journaling. We asked the boys to engage in simple observation (“I notice…”), inquiry (“I wonder…”) and connection (“This reminds me…”). Whether applied to a cottonwood leaf (which we did) or a streambed (which we will do), the discipline of distinguishing observation from assumption or analysis cannot be overstated. We invoked Emerson who said, “To a dull mind all of nature is leaden. To the illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light.”

Here’s to chasing the light.

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