Colorado's Cold Draught


March 28, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

DENVER. — You cannot fling a brick in this city without hitting a water lawyer, which strikes some people as a good reason for brick-flinging. Some people here say (some of them through clenched teeth) that 90 percent of the West's water lawyers practice in Colorado. No one here says ''Poor California!,'' parched though it is.

California has a drought but also has some Colorado water. And Coloradans are ahead of downstream Californians in making hard decisions -- and having some made for them -- about the West's limiting resource.

Last December one such decision determined that the Two Forks Dam, discussed and planned intermittently for 50 years, will not be built. Cheesman Canyon 50 miles south of here, a favorite of fishermen, floaters and backpackers, will not be inundated by 359 billion gallons of river water behind a dam 615 feet tall.

The result has been a scramble by communities and other interests to see what water rights are for sale. That depends on prices, which depend on -- well, that depends. Decisions, essentially political, must be made about what the West is going to be. They will affect the rest of us, not only when we vacation but also when we buy food.

Less than a century ago much of the territory west of the Mississippi was designated on many maps as ''The Great American Desert.'' Water, or the scarcity of it, made the West what it is -- inhabitable and productive, or not.

To understand Colorado's testiness, understand geography. Colorado is the only state that has no rivers flowing into it from elsewhere. Eight -- the Platte, Rio Grande, Arkansas, Yampa, White, Dolores, San Juan and Colorado -- rise here and flow out. Some of the Colorado reaches California.

Water is a peculiar sort of resource. It falls from the sky or gathers underground. It flows down from mountains and through many jurisdictions. Water has been a reason for bloodshed for as long as mankind has been fighting, and the West has its share of water wars.

Today we are civilized as all get out, so we litigate rather than fight. Sorting out the property rights to this precious fluid (more precious, over time, than oil) made Westerners unusually litigious even for Americans. It also made them highly political and uncomfortably wedded to the federal government. The federal government owns much of the West (79 percent of Nevada, Idaho 61, Utah 60, Oregon 52, Wyoming 47, California 45, Arizona 45, Colorado 30, New Mexico 33, Montana 30). And the West's fate has been bound up with the Bureau of Reclamation.

But now another, much newer federal agency matters, too. The Environmental Protection Agency sealed the fate of the Two Forks dam, thereby probably putting an end to the era of the big dams that made the modern West. The animating value of that era -- economic development -- collides everywhere with other values, including environmental preservation.

The species whose habitats are threatened include not just trout but suburbanites. Many people moved to Colorado to enjoy the environmental assets that their moving here has jeopardized. Some would like to close Colorado's door. They can slow its growth. One way to do that is to turn the water tap until local governments find it difficult to authorize more sewer hookups.

Denver does not need more water for itself, and the surrounding satellite communities are not yet in dire straits. However, Two Forks dam would have facilitated continuing urbanization of the front range of the Rockies, from Fort Collins to Pueblo.

Residential and commercial development requires water, but agriculture requires much more of it: 90 percent of Colorado's water goes for irrigation and other agricultural purposes. Furthermore, fly fishing and other recreational uses of water are now big business -- tourism is a $5.6 billion chunk of Colorado's economy -- as well as recreation for the natives.

Americans, a people of plenty, are loathe to learn this lesson: Scarcity can be an improving experience. Just as recessions wring inefficiencies from the economy, increased competition for a scarce resource encourages economic rationality.

Water has flowed into current uses because it has been cheap relative to economic returns from using it. It has been cheap not only because it has been plentiful but because it has been allocated politically rather than economically -- by legislation and litigation rather than by auction, meaning markets.

Americans are more ready to praise markets than to surrender their destinies to them. Economic rationality is just one value among many. Water will increasingly force the West to make, as no other region must, semi-socialist choices. It must choose between government policies that will plan different futures.

So henceforth the West's wide open spaces, home to rugged individualists, will ring with political rhetoric. Westerners are condemned to a grand argument about the collective decisions that will allocate the scarce resource on which everything depends.

* * * It was good to hear from Walter Mondale again, even if he wrote only to box my ears for writing in a recent column that he had opposed the liberation of Grenada. I erred and, well-boxed, am pleased to set the record straight.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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