The Colorado River Water Conservation District, generally known as “The River District,” is a public agency dedicated to protecting and developing Colorado’s share of the Colorado River.
Origins and Establishment
The River District’s origins lay in the depths of the Great Depression, with much of Colorado and the southern Rockies experiencing a serious drought. The drought hit hardest east of the Continental Divide, with both the South Platte and Arkansas River basins experiencing Dust Bowl conditions in the early 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt’s public works projects raised hopes that eastern Colorado would benefit from large water diversions from the watersheds on the Western Slope of the Rockies.
There was, of course, opposition to this from Western Slope communities, who quickly organized the Western Colorado Protective Association, a forerunner to the River District. But politically astute leaders west of the divide, like longtime congressman Edward Taylor, knew there was ultimately no legal way to keep transmountain diversions from happening; their challenge was to make sure that such diversions reserved water for the Western Slope’s future development.
Even though it had a much smaller population, the Western Slope had considerable political strength in the ensuing negotiations, for two reasons. First, federal money was only available for projects that had statewide support, and second, after twenty-five years in office, Congressman Taylor had advanced to the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that controlled Department of Interior funds.
Despite farsighted and patient leadership on both sides of the Continental Divide, it took three years of negotiation to develop the Colorado–Big Thompson Project (C-BT). Presented to Congress in the spring of 1937 and passed that summer, the C-BT provided for a 310,000-acre-foot diversion from Grand Lake on the Western Slope through the Adams Tunnel to the South Platte Basin north of Denver. And for the Western Slope, the project included the Green Mountain Dam and its 150,000-acre-foot reservoir on the lower Blue River as compensatory storage. The dam and reservoir had to be completed before any water could be diverted to the Eastern Slope.
That same spring, the Colorado General Assembly passed three bills to formally structure the negotiating processes for diversion projects: one created the Colorado Water Conservation Board to bring together parties to resolve other statewide water challenges, another created “water conservancy” taxing districts to work with the Bureau of Reclamation and assure repayment on water projects, and a third created the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
The assembly gave the River District a complex, potentially conflicting mission: it was to protect Colorado’s interstate interests in the Colorado River among the seven basins that share the river, and it was also to protect western Colorado’s interests within the state. Based in Glenwood Springs, the River District now serves all direct Colorado River tributaries in the state, with the exceptions of tributaries to the San Juan and Dolores Rivers.
Role in Water Diversion Projects
The River District began from the presumption that there would be other transmountain diversion proposals that could be dealt with in the same way as the C-BT, with compensatory Western Slope storage. The Colorado State Planning Association had in fact proposed two more big projects: one from the Blue River to the Denver area, and the other from the Gunnison River to the Arkansas River Basin. Rather than opposing these ideas, the River District leadership believed that collaboration across the divide was the only way for the thinly populated Western Slope to retain water for future growth.
Early efforts to work with the Bureau of Reclamation and Colorado Water Conservation Board in advancing those projects met with strong opposition. The Denver Water Board saw no legal, practical, or moral imperative to pay for Western Slope storage in exchange for water diverted to the city, and residents of the Gunnison River basin strenuously objected to any diversion and were uninterested in compensatory storage.
The idea of a transmountain diversion from the Gunnison basin was eventually dropped, due to a lack of unappropriated water in the Upper Gunnison tributaries. But the Denver Water Board went ahead with two major transmountain diversion projects: one from the Fraser River through the pilot bore of the Moffat Tunnel in the 1930s, and the other from the Blue River near Dillon through the Roberts Tunnel in the 1960s. Denver Water not only refused to compensate the Western Slope’s water loss, but it also tried for decades to co-opt the Green Mountain Reservoir, built as compensation for the Western Slope’s water loss through the C-BT.
Congressional authorization of the Colorado River Storage Project in 1956 brought federal money to the development of seven storage and power dams within the River District, but it also exacerbated the River District’s problems with the urban Eastern Slope, as it began a “filing war” on conditional water rights for any remaining unappropriated Western Slope water. This expensive courtroom struggle continued until the late 1980s, when cooler heads on both sides of the Divide began looking for collaborative projects such as the Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling that helped all parties statewide.
From the late 1960s through the 1980s, the River District underwent a difficult “Old West to New West” transition, from its early decades serving mining, logging, farming and grazing, to a new era of environmental concerns such as the protection of endangered fish species and wilderness areas and the rapid development of a river-based recreational economy. Water quality became as important to protect as water quantity, and water came to be valued as much for in-stream needs as for out-of-stream diversion.
A Cooperative Future
The River District adapted, and the 1990s and early twenty-first century have been marked by a creative and cooperative approach in dealing constructively with former “enemies” across the Divide. Cooperative agreements with both Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District have enabled those entities to take additional water in above-average water years for existing diversions, in exchange for considerable financial assistance in addressing Western Slope quantity and quality problems. In most important respects, this fulfills the statewide cooperative vision that led to the creation of the River District in the 1930s.