Dillion Dam, water rights, and
the shouting match of the ’50s
by Allen Best
Recreational activities will be the lion’s share of activities on Sunday when the 50th anniversary of the completion of Dillon Reservoir is marked. That’s proper, in that locals long ago took to calling it “Lake Dillon,” emphasizing its role as a tourism amenity rather than as a vital storage vessel for metropolitan Denver.
But if history were to be properly commemorated, there should be a shouting match as well. As recent books by both George Sibley and Patty Limerick make clear, there was no small amount of arguing about the water to store behind the dam.
Denver representatives began studying Summit County as a future source for water in 1907. Several other loosely-sketched proposals were assembled for tunnels under the Continental Divide to export water. Instead of pursing them, Denver made use of the Moffat Tunnel, which opened for railroad traffic in 1928. After modifying the pioneer bore, Denver in 1936 used it to deliver water from the Fraser Valley and, a few years later, the Williams Fork Valley. The later is located just north of today’s Eisenhower Tunnel. That water gave Denver and its suburbs the ability to sustain rapid growth after World War II.
But the drought of the mid-1950s argued for additional supply. Denver set out to develop its water filings in Summit County.
Summit County after World War II was “receding into the wilderness,” in the words of the late Ed Quillen, who remembered visiting Breckenridge in the 1950s. Arapahoe Basin started skiing operations in 1946, but Breckenridge didn’t come until 1961, and Keystone and Copper Basin much later yet.
The Western Slope, however, remained wary of water heists. That first significant protest came in the 1930s when northern Colorado farmers in the proposed the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. The project, built between 1938 and 1957, was later described by the historian David Lavender as a “massive violation of geography.” In that, he referred to the staggering scope of the diversion of waters naturally headed west but instead steered through a tunnel under Rocky Mountain National Park to the Boulder, Greeley and Fort Collins area.
But in the Congressional horse-trading before federal authorization, , the Western Slope did get a major benefit: construction by the federal government of Green Mountain Reservoir. This impoundment on the Blue River hold water for late-summer use on farms and orchards in the Grand Junction area and, more recently, for ski area snowmaking.
The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District commissioned Sibley to write a history of the district’s 75th anniversary. In researching his 2012 book, called “Water Wranglers,” Sibley arrived at a low opinion what was then called the Denver Water Board. “There was not a sense of rational to what Denver did in those years,” says Sibley, mirroring criticism from the Grand Junction Sentinel and other Western Slope opinion-leaders of the time.
Central to Denver’s efforts was Glenn Saunders, who refused to accept the senior of the Green Mountain water rights of 1935. Denver could do no better at Dillon than a 1948 decree. ‘It pissed off Saunders so much he could not be rational about it,” says Sibley.
Denver’s investment at Dillon was instead salvaged by another of its lawyers, Harold Roberts. The 23.3-mile tunnel that delivers water from Dillon to the North Fork of the South Platte River near Grant, 40 miles southwest of Denver, carries Roberts’ name. As for Saunders, very likely Denver’s most forceful and colorful water figure of the 20th century, his name is absent from maps.
In her book, “A Ditch in Time,” which was commissioned by Denver Water, Limerick devotes a full chapter to Saunders, finding him a “fluent speaker of the language of 19th century westward expansion.” In this language, Denver had a right to carve up available natural resources, and in the context of water, had no need to consult the Western Slope.
Denver Water, under the late Chips Barry and now continued by Jim Lochhead, a long-time resident of the Western Slope, have taken a very different tact, seeking collaboration instead of defiance. This attitude is evident in the city’s willingness for lengthy negotiation outside the courtrooms. Lochhead, speaking at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association conference, advised drilling companies to adopt a similar process of up-front community collaboration.
Will the result be any different? Vulnerabilities of the existing water supply in places like Arvada, where I live, became evidence in the 2002 drought. Denver, as the water provider for 1.3 million in the metropolitan area, is seeking to haul yet more water from the Fraser Valley. But the trout fisherman I know in Fraser and Granby say there’s just not much water left to take, and warmer, longer summers just may make the problem worse.
This was originally published in the Sept. 7, 2013, issue of The Denver Post.