Water Leads to Clash of Cultures in Colorado
GOLDEN, Colo. — When winter ends and Mathew Ryan decides to sharpen up his kayaking skills, he doesn't even bother to leave this Denver suburb. The 36-year-old contractor can practice his rolls and turns in Golden's whitewater recreation park, a challenging playground of artificial rapids, rocks and eddies.
Six years ago, Golden won the right to use up to 450,000 gallons per minute of Clear Creek water for the park. Golden is not alone -- Breckenridge and Vail also have won legal rights to recreational water, and other Colorado communities are eyeing whitewater parks as another way to entice tourists and satisfy residents.
But the trend has sparked a debate that touches a nerve in the arid West: How much water should be set aside for kayakers, rafters and tubers while the state tries to conserve water for drought and to quench the thirst of a booming population?
It's a fight that pits old Colorado against a new one, where recreation isn't just a hobby but a passion. And it's one that could repeat in tourist-dependent economies throughout the region.
Those worried about the proliferation of water parks think communities are asking for more water than they need. They fear it could hamper development and water-rights deals.
Park backers say they're only exercising traditional legal rights in a nontraditional way, and that shouldn't be trampled in the name of development that may never happen.
Unlike agricultural irrigation, water used for whitewater parks stays in the river and flows to users downstream. But the water committed to recreation trumps any proposal to store it in reservoirs upstream, or for water swaps across Colorado's various river basins.
Jerry Mallett, a Chaffee County commissioner and an Arkansas River guide, said each year recreation on the Arkansas -- rafting and kayaking as well as fishing -- brings in some $80 million to a county where 11 percent of people live below the poverty line.
"Those thirsty people aren't even there yet," he said, referring to concerns over future development. "Why destroy the economy of one region in order to benefit another?"
That sentiment was echoed by Tom Hartman, Golden's public works director. He said there must be a balance between conserving the state's water for development and enjoying it today.
"We don't just live here to work. We live here because it's beautiful and there's things to do outside," he said.
Fighting over scarce water in the West is nothing new. It is so important that a whole field of water law exists in the West, complete with water courts, water lawyers and water judges.
And back in the Old West, the battles sometimes were more than legal. An old western saying goes: "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting."
Still, University of Colorado history professor Patricia Limerick said the current debate would befuddle settlers who saw recreation as idle fun, not something that could shape water allocation.
"I think it's a testament to how leisure consumption has become not just an option but a mandate in these times," said Limerick, chairwoman of the university's Center of the American West.
Water for recreation has been upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court. And the 2001 Legislature passed a law setting up procedures for filing claims. The law says parks should be limited to water that provides a "reasonable recreation experience" -- a definition no one seems to be able to agree on.
Gunnison area water officials want permission to take up to 1,500 cubic feet per second, depending on the time of year. That could affect how much water is available to residents and developers along the heavily populated Front Range.
Gunnison County Manager John DaVore said the river draws tourists in spring and early summer, usually a slower time for businesses. "In our case if we can't give tourists a quality experience, they're not coming back. It means jobs for our community," he said.
This year, state lawmakers considered limiting future whitewater parks to 350 cubic feet of water per second, or about 157,500 gallons of water per minute -- enough water to supply about 1,400 families for a year. The House killed the plan.
But state Sen. Jim Isgar, a farmer near the southwestern Colorado town of Hesperus, said authorities have long looked at the greater good in allocating water. He thinks whitewater parks should have legal claim only on the minimum they need for rafting and kayaking. They can always use more when water is abundant and uncontested, he noted.
"We've never let people file for all they wanted," Isgar said. "Otherwise there wouldn't be any water left."
Source: Associated Press