An interview with Water Wranglers author George Sibley

George Sibley tackles politics and policy of Colorado water in new book on 75th anniversary of important water agency

Long-time Gunnison and Crested Butte resident George Sibley has a new book out, his third, and it’s perhaps the broadest history yet about water in Colorado.

The book is called Water Wranglers, although the subtext is a mouthful: The 75-Year History of the Colorado River District: A Story About the Embattled Colorado River and the Growth of the West.

The River District, as it is known simply among Colorado water wonks, was created in 1937 by the Colorado Legislature as a compromise in the giant transmountain diversion project from the Colorado River headwaters to farmers in northeastern Colorado. It works in the Colorado River drainage upstream from the Utah-Colorado border (which excludes southwest Colorado).

Sibley moved to Crested Butte in 1966 to work on the ski patrol, quickly moved to the newspaper there and then worked his way through various mountain-type jobs before settling into a teaching career at Western State College for 19 years. (As has become the trend of late, the school has put on a suit and tie and now calls itself Western State Colorado University).

George Sibley

While at the college, he taught journalism and some interdisciplinary courses, and also took charge of various special projects, including the annual Water Workshop.

His other books are Dragons in Paradise (2004) and Part of a Winter (1978). Both are collections of essays, most of which were previously published in magazines and journals and concern post-urban life in the mountain valleys of Colorado.

The interview was first published in Mountain Town News. For a free sample issue of Mountain Town News, please send a request to me at

Why did you write this book, and what is the scope?

I have long been interested in the Colorado River and the human culture that has so aggressively developed it. I’d long had in mind a book about the development of Colorado’s share of the Colorado River, and the tensions between the urban-industrial society growing on “both sides” of the River’s headwaters region—the metropolis growing up around Denver and seeking headwaters water, and the Compact obligations to the urban-industrial society downstream in the River’s Lower Basin, and the West Slope’s own visions for both agrarian and industrial development. That is basically the scope of Water Wranglers; when the River District announced that it wanted someone to write that book, I had to submit a bid.


After arriving in Crested Butte in the 1960s, you took a keen interest in water politics. What fascinated you then, and does it still hold your interest in the same way?

Actually I didn’t get interested in water issues until the drought year of 1977. I got an opportunity to write about the Lower Colorado River Basin as a place where that one-year drought was not a disaster due to the high level of control and management imposed on what had been one of the nation’s wildest rivers – but also a place rendered increasingly vulnerable by the belief that technological advances would always be able to overcome the limits of nature…. While I did not dedicate my life to telling that story at that time, fascination with it led me to keep somewhat posted on what was happening in the entire Colorado River Basin, and “technological extensions”, and I wrote articles and essays about it occasionally.

Since retiring from the college, active participation in the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and the Gunnison Basin Roundtable revived that fascination in ways both broader and deeper, and I was pretty ripe for the book idea.

In researching this book, did you come across anything that caused you to see water in Colorado, or more broadly in the West, in a fundamentally different way?

I put together (for myself, I hope for others) the importance of the concept of “conservation” in the history of the development of the Colorado River, especially in its headwaters region – and the importance of understanding how “conservation” underwent a huge change in meaning between the 1930s and the 1960s.

The Colorado River flows through Debeque Canyon during spring runoff in 2008. Photo/Allen Best

“Conservation,” as both the Roosevelts understood and implemented it, meant to conserve from the “wasting” of resources. A forest fire was waste; so was a river running all of its water down to the ocean in a two-month flood; “conservation” was to stop that wasting so the resources could be put to beneficial use. “Reclamation”—containing the two-month flood of arid-land rivers—was conservation.

By the mid-1960s, in a thoroughly urbanized and industrialized nation, “conservation” came to mean laying off of the use of what remained of our resources, using less or even using them not at all—regarding them as something to preserve and protect for the future, something to look at and admire but not to touch.

The two definitions are almost opposites in their meaning, but by both definitions, “conservation” was undertaken as an exercise in virtue; thus, efforts in the “Environmental Revolution” circa 1970 to punish the developers of resources through restrictive and somewhat punitive legislation were countered with an aggressive counterrevolution.

It is hard to make people who believe they have been doing God’s work feel guilty, just because the cultural definition of God’s work has shifted. But at the same time, a failure to acknowledge that the definition of God’s work has shifted (as the River District did in the 1970s and ‘80s) cuts one out of the cultural discourse.

I also became more aware that every physical water development—dam, ditch, what have you—had a huge infrastructure of legal, political, economic and even cultural activity. Working out that infrastructure for, say, something like the Colorado River Storage Project, was a huge, multi-year process involving many compromises among cultural beliefs, legal interpretations, political factions and of course economic costs, with every belief system and political faction coming to a different “bottom line.”

Following a master of negotiation like Wayne Aspinall through something like the CRSP Act was absolutely fascinating – much more so than the actual physical construction of the projects.

An irrigation lateral between Longmont and Loveland, which probably carries some water from the headwaters of the Colorado River. Photo/Allen Best

In one of his books about Colorado, David Lavender, who grew up in Telluride, described the Colorado-Big Thompson (CBT) project as a “massive violation of geography.” Was that massive diversion of water from the Colorado River headwaters inevitable?

In the 1930s, it was inevitable. It was permissible under the law; the federal government was there to solve the substantial economic challenge; 90 percent of the state’s population wanted it to happen—and some other big federally funded transmountain diversions too.

The only thing that proved difficult to work out was a moral issue: did one part of a state have any inherent right to build its future by undermining the future of another part of the state? And if not, how should be moral dilemma be resolved.

Congressman Edward Taylor was in a position of power in Congress so he could both raise the moral question, and propose a possible solution (compensatory storage). Even he did not really oppose the diversion, just the idea that the East Slope could do it with no compensation to the West Slope.

Denver was of course already doing it, with the Moffat Project while that was being hammered out by the rest of the state, at the insistence of the federal government.

When I lived in headwater mountain towns of the Western Slope, I had a bumper sticker on my car that said “Dam the Denver Water Board.” Do you think Denver got a bum rap from people like me in the 1970s and 1980s?

No—at least not in the 1970s, or the 1940s through the 1970s. The DWB – mostly through its mouthpiece, Glenn Saunders—totally denied any obligation to the West Slope for the water it took from the headwaters of the Colorado, and further, it did everything within its power to undermine the compensatory concept as embodied in the Green Mountain Reservoir (compensation for C-BT diversions). They wasted millions of dollars trying to eliminate Green Mountain and its senior rights, when in fact it only interfered with Dillon operations in the most desperately dry years.

Their desperation for more water in the mid-1950s was largely a function of their arrogant behavior in the 1940s and early 1950s. I think Saunders probably misled the DWB a lot of the time. When he got sick in the mid-1950s, and Harold Roberts took over the Blue River negotiations, progress was made almost immediately; the Blue River Consent Decree was worked out so that Dillon could proceed with that diversion, at no real loss to Green Mountain.)

As dry as it was in 2002, Dillon Reservoir probably saved Denver's goose. Photo/Allen Best


Patty Limerick, the historian from the University of Colorado-Boulder, wrote a book about Denver Water, called A Ditch in Time. Do you concur with her assessment of Denver Water?

I haven’t finished Patty’s book yet, but she did once publicly refer to Saunders as “Darth Vader.” I could concur with that assessment.  I’ll have a better answer here when I read further.

From the 1980s on, Denver Water did begin to start reaching out somewhat to the West Slope, acknowledging the moral issue —a process that accelerated under Chips Barry, with Saunders long gone. The DWB also began working “cooperatively rather than co-optively” with the rest of the growing metro region on the East Slope—the attempt to use Two Forks as a unifying measure for the Front Range metropolis, after the “Poundstone pounding,” is, to my way of thinking, an under-emphasized aspect of that.

I’ll look forward to seeing how Limerick treats that. Great intentions, bad project.

The Colorado River shares space with I-70 in Glenwood Canyon. Photo/Allen Best

Although your book was commissioned by the River District, you had editorial independence. Has the River District always capably represented Western Slope interests in water matters?

No. For most of the 1970s and 1980s, the River District ignored what was going on in the headwaters counties, focusing only on the traditional users (ag and industry) below the 8,000-foot contour. It gambled on oil shale development while recreation was growing into the real West Slope economy.

The River District board’s response to the environmental revolution was to join the industrial counterrevolution despite the growing presence and political power of the recreational-environmental post-urbanites on the West Slope. They were not alone in that counterrevolution on the West Slope, of course; they may not even have been leading it (Club 20? The ranching and ag interests?).

To some extent, the struggle for the soul of the West Slope in the 1980s came down to the River District versus the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

But in the 1990s, as Eric Kuhn took over more of the front-lines actions of the RD, the RD and the headwaters counties began to work together again; by the turn of the century,  the RD had taken on some positive leadership for a more unified West Slope. although still beset with stress fractures among factions.

Recently, I heard somebody from the ski industry explain that one of the greatest prides of his 40-year career was building of headwater reservoir, to better ensure flows for snowmaking, trout, and domestic supplies. How do you see headwater reservoirs?

During the 1930s and into the ‘50s, there was a big, if somewhat muffled, debate between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Soil Conservation Service about how to develop western water resources. The Bureau wanted the big mainstem power dams, to finance other projects; the Soil Conservation Service wanted lots of small tributary dams high in the watersheds, to better regulate the flow of streams for agricultural and other human uses.

Ansel Adam’s photograph of Hoover Dam, via Wikipedia and the National Archives.

Hoover Dam was such a success—spiritually for the nation as well as economically for the region downstream—that the big-dam advocates carried the day, through the 1960s. Since then (partly because there are no more good big-dam sites that are politically available), small upstream dams have been done in many places, ranging in size from a few dozen acre-feet to the size of Wolford Mountain Reservoir, 66,000 acre-feet. It’s near Kremmling.

I like the small high reservoir concept myself—so long as they are conceived for multiple purposes, like the ones the guy you mention built. With a multiple purpose reservoir, controlled by those who use it, no one gets everything they want, but everyone gets enough water when they need it to get by. I am not such a “naturalist” that I see anything particularly great about rivers that flood for two months, then tail off to very modest flows. Controlling those streams (which has to include an occasional cleansing high flow), at an elevation and with reservoir sizes that don’t so drastically change stream ecology below them, strikes me as intelligent environmental behavior….

For people in ski towns, what do they need to know about Colorado water that perhaps many don’t already know?

One thing they need to know is that the things they don’t like that have been done to the rivers—many of which were mistakes—were not done by evil people but were done by people operating under a different sense of what is good and positive in the relationship between humans and their environment.

They also need to be thoroughly aware of the extent to which our lives today depend on systems and structures put in place yesterday that we don’t always particularly care to see or hear of. And they need to know the stories of situations where we’ve made pretty good lemonade from lemons—Taylor Park Reservoir, in the upper Gunnison River Basin, for example.


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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One Response to An interview with Water Wranglers author George Sibley

  1. Tim Watkins says:

    Thanks for un – muddying some of these water issues around the state. There is a lot more to it than I was aware of. It has made me a touch more aware of how the waters of Colorado are used or mis used and fought over. Most of all thanks for tapping into George Sibley ,who has been so diligent and hard working on the water issues over the decades. Cannot help but put him in the category of literary hero as well as very invested in water rights, as well as anyone. The efforts efforts to keep water flowing and used by us all.

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