Colorado and California – Different states, similar fates?

Tom Magstadt

Summer is beautiful in the mountains, but it's also a harbinger of horrors great and small, forest fires being among the worst and most devastating. Mud is no fun either, but without it – in the absence of abundant snow on the upper elevations and a long, slow thaw – we face something far more unforgiving.

For all our sophisticated technology and machines, soaking rains are still the best defense against forest fires. In ways we moderns often fail to recognize, the earth hasn't changed much since the Pleistocene Epoch, when mammoths and mastodons, long-horned bison, saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths roamed the planet.

One big difference, however, is temperature. Global cooling and glaciers characterized the Pleistocene. The big worry in these times is global warming, disappearing glaciers and drought.

Heavy summer rains mean more mud, but every good thing comes with a price. If it doesn't, we're either stealing it or wasting it or both.

Take water, for example. Fresh water, like clean air, is a precious resource, but water, unlike the air we breathe, is not evenly distributed. Throughout the West, private individuals – especially farmers and ranchers – have water rights written in stone going back a century or more. In many cases, these water rights were established at a time when the population of the entire Southwest, including California, was a tiny fraction of what it is today.

Surface water use in the western United States is governed by the doctrine of prior appropriation, which, in effect, disconnects water rights from lands adjacent to water. Instead, it enshrines the principle ‘first in time, first in right’ – senior rights-holders take precedence over later water users.

Regulation of Colorado River water dates back to 1922, when the Colorado River Compact divided the river into two basins (upper and lower) at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona. By 1931, California water interests had contracted for over five million acre-feet, more than two-thirds of the lower basin’s total allocation. California's water grab meant that the other lower basin states had to divide the other 29 percent up three ways.

Today, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California all depend heavily on Colorado water. At present, these five states have a combined population of 53-54 million, 10 times the population of present-day Colorado (5.2 million). The total population of the Four Corners region plus Nevada and California is roughly equivalent to a country the size of Italy and not much smaller than France or the U.K. But unlike Italy, France and the U.K., most of the Southwest is in the midst of a drought.

A dearth of water is normal in desert regions, but the problems facing the Southwest are anything but normal. It's not only climate change and vanishing glaciers that make the prospect of a prolonged drought so ominous, it's also population – settlement patterns and demographic trends past, present and future.

Over two-thirds of the population of the Southwest is located in one state – California. That also happens to be the state facing the most dire consequences from the impending water crisis. No doubt many Californians are guilty of wasteful water consumption at times, but that's not the biggest problem.

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of California's annual water use. In April of this year, Governor Jerry Brown announced the first mandatory water reduction in the state's 165-year history. Unfortunately, that order applied only to households, not agriculture. That's a little like putting a Band-aid on a severed artery.

There's a reason why Gov. Brown went to Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to deliver the bad news for the urban dwellers who constitute 95 percent of California's population. For the first time on record, the ground at Phillips Station (elevation: 6800 ft.) was bare – no snow – in April. Because California, like the other three lower basin states, is sucking its underground water sources (aquifers) dry, it is fast becoming more heavily dependent on rain and snow for its fresh water supplies – streams, rivers and lakes.

The next mass migration into Colorado will likely come from the West, not the East. The migrants will arrive in cars and trucks, not covered wagons. The good news is they will drive up property prices and boost local economies, but that's also the bad news as the cost of living will outpace wage gains. Any rapid influx will bring new challenges for state and local governments charged with balancing the claims of mining, industry and agriculture on the one hand, and the environment on the other – wildlife conservation, water use, traffic congestion and air pollution, too.

If we're not careful, the western slope could go the way of the front range – with all the symptoms of overdevelopment that implies. And what's happened to California could happen to Colorado.

Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams. He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular Visit Tom’s blog at