If 1962 was a big year for skiing, with the opening of Vail, in Colorado it was also notable for benchmarks in diversion of water. One project was completed and another was started, the two of them substantially enlarging the unnatural flow of water from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range of Colorado.
Colorado is an unbalanced state. Nearly 80 per cent of precipitation in the state falls west of the Continental Divide, where nearly all of Colorado’s ski areas are located, mostly in the form of snow. But 80 per cent of its population and an even higher percentage of its farms and ranches live on the eastern side.
Diversions across the Continental Divide began in 1911 and accelerated in 1936 when dewatering of creeks around Winter Park began. But 1962 was a huge year for this export of water. That year, Denver finished a new tunnel that is three metres in diameter and 37.5 kilometres long. The tunnel diverts water from Dillon Reservoir into the South Platte River, upstream from Denver.
Also in 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech kicking off construction of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. The project diverts water from the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork Rivers, both located in the Aspen area, to cantaloupe and other farms in the Arkansas River Valley. Some of that water has now found its way to metropolitan Denver.
Now, Colorado faces a new issue. Instead of figuring out how to develop its water, the key question is how much water it has left to develop — if any. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 apportions water among the seven states from Wyoming to California. It also requires Colorado and other upper-basin states to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the lower-basin states on a rolling 10-year average.
During the last 30 years, Colorado and other upper-basin states have delivered an average of 10.8 million acre-feet. But that average has been exceeded only three times out of the last 12, reports John McClow of Gunnison, writing in the Grand Junction Free Press. 2012 was particularly bad: just a little over 2 million acre-feet of water flowed into Lake Powell from April through July, the prime runoff months, reports Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.