Water as a Bridge

Collaborative Solutions Through Community Conversations.

Water is essential to life: Finite, fragile and fraught with complex and sometimes combative historyThis is the story of passionate people finding common ground in the ongoing struggle to manage one of Colorado’s most precious and increasingly scarce resources – with implications flowing well beyond the state’s borders. 

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Read More: The Story Behind "Water as a Bridge"

Water is a precious resource — essential for agriculture, recreation and so many aspects of daily life.  

Managing this vital resource is a complex challenge, especially in the face of prolonged droughts and a changing climate. In Colorado, water policy has often been controversial, with the potential to divide East versus West, farm versus city, and community versus community.   

Despite these obstacles, people are working hard to bridge the water divide. Through an innovative approach called the Colorado Water Basin Roundtables, diverse groups are coming together to help create locally-driven, collaborative solutions to water management challenges. 

A new episode of Colorado State University’s Community Voices series highlights this effort and shows that, although there were skeptics at first, the roundtables have been successful in building trust, establishing common ground, and delivering results – such as helping to shape the Colorado’s landmark Water Plan. 


“Turning an Arid State into a Garden”

Water has long been essential to Colorado’s prosperity, with its availability a central factor in the development of communities and industry across the state. 

I have often said that there should have been a sign when Colorado was first settled at the eastern border of the territory that said, just add water,” Eric Wilkinson, retired general manager of Northern Water and a representative on the Colorado Water Congress, said. “You can see the difference in those areas that are irrigated and where water resources have been adequately managed and developed, as opposed to the drier arid climate that we live in. We’ve turned an arid state into a garden. And that’s one of the things that makes Colorado so attractive. It’s the diversity of the environments. You’ve got the greenery, the lushness, the amenities of irrigated agriculture and then you have also the contrast of what comes with an arid climate of less than 14 inches of water a year, the dry land, the grasslands.” 

Even beyond the state’s borders, Colorado water plays an essential role in environmental and community well-being. 

“It’s not just Colorado that depends on this water, but the entire Southwest of the United States depends on our water,” notes Stephan Weiler, professor of economics at Colorado State University and Co-Director of the university’s Regional Economic Development Institute. “Rural communities and towns along the Colorado River are dependent on allowing water to move downstream.” 

Balancing these many, potentially conflicting needs lies at the heart of Colorado’s water management challenge, notes Melinda Kassen, former environmental representative to the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC). “The most important thing is, we have to balance the needs of people for water, for cities, and growing food and industry,” she said, “with the need for water in nature, both itself, and also because Colorado has got a huge recreation economy.” 


“The 80/20 Rule”

One of the biggest challenges in water management in Colorado is the physical divide that literally separates most of the state’s water resources from its fastest-growing population areas. Jennifer Gimbel, former interim director and senior water policy scholar of the Colorado Water Center, describes it as the 80/20 rule.  

The thing about Colorado is, we have 80 percent of the water that originates in Colorado is on the West Slope, west of the Continental Divide, but over 80 percent of the population is on the East Slope,” she explained. “We started seeing population just explode in Colorado. It’s a beautiful state, of course people are going to come here. But water supplies are limited. They’re finite. Our water supply started being stretched, and we had to start figuring out how to deal with that.” 

One solution to the “East Slope/West Slope” challenge was the development of major trans-basin water projects designed to divert West Slope water resources to more arid communities and agricultural regions east of the continental divide.  

“Once the East Slope started getting more populated, they knew that the water supplies that we had on the east of the Continental Divide were not going to be enough,” Gimbel explains. “So, you saw what we call trans-basin diversion projects come online.”  

These trans-basin projects typically involved major pipelines, reservoirs, treatment plants and a host of other engineering and construction feats – underpinned by a complex framework of negotiations, agreements and court decisions. 

“There was always, as there is, the heritage of Colorado, the relationship between East Slope and West Slope,” Wilkinson explained. “At a point in time, about a half a million-acre feet had been developed on the West Slope to be transported into the East Slope to help supplement the drier side of the state.”  


“Not One More Drop”

Managing Colorado’s water resources is daunting under the best of circumstances, but that challenge grew dramatically early during this century, with the onset of prolonged drought and increasing influences of climate change. 

“A serious drought hit,” Gimbel said. “So, municipalities are thinking, what are we going to do? We have all these people coming in. The West Slope is like, ‘we need to have a thriving community, and we like the way it is, and you can’t take any more of our water, East Slope.’  

Gimbel said a so-called ‘not one more drop’ attitude developed. “It was a continuing conversation, and it just got more and more contentious.” 


“There Was a Visionary”

Into this unsettled landscape stepped Colorado’s Executive Director of Natural Resources, Russell George. Long a fixture in Colorado, George knew the challenges well. With roots in rural Colorado, yet experience working with urban communities, he also understood the motivations and concerns shared by people on various sides of the issue. 

“There was a visionary out there, and his name was Russell George,” Gimbel said, “Folks trusted Russ, and they knew he understood water issues. Russ was also from the West Slope, he understood both sides of the equation. He determined there had to be a better way to talk about these difficult issues. So, he established this process of what we call Basin Roundtables.”  

With George as a driving force, the state legislature in 2005 enacted the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, landmark legislation providing a framework for equitable inter-basin water negotiations. A key part of the Act is the establishment of roundtables in each of the state’s river basins as well as the Denver metropolitan area. These nine roundtables, each with a diverse membership of water managers and stakeholders, were designed to facilitate discussions on water management issues and encourage locally-driven collaborative solutions. 


“Building Respect and Understanding”

As could be expected with such a high-stakes and emotionally charged subject, there were skeptics as the roundtables took shape. John McClow, general counsel at the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, described some of the early roundtable meetings. 

“When we began the process, there was a lot of suspicion,” McClow recalls. “There were a lot of questions. But over time, the roundtables really helped calm that fear. There was more of a trust that nothing was going to be imposed.” 

“Some people were skeptical about this working,” Gimbel said.  “Some feared that it would even further divide the conversation. But if you bring people together once a month for two or three hours, and you get to know people, relationships start to develop. That was the key to Russ’s plan.” 

McClow says that bonding ultimately has been a key to the roundtables’ success.  “Trust and empathy are important. And I think we’ve accomplished that through the process,” he said. ”We learn to listen to each other and learn to appreciate the other person’s point of view and their interests. And we have found, over the years, that our interests really are almost all the same. And I think that has created the trust that’s necessary for a functioning body.” 


Learn Together: Access Water Resources

Inspire Action: Find Ways to Get Involved

  • Water Literate Leaders. A program that engages community leaders in water conversations and solutions, learning from experts to be empowered to meet the everchanging water needs of our communities.
  • Attend a local roundtable meeting. 
  • Arrange a visit to CSU Spur and learn more about the water programming and resources planned at Hydro, including the Western Water Policy Institute. 

Build Bridges: Connect with your Community

  • CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation aims to improve the way our community is able to talk through complex issues so that we can arrive at better decisions. Learn more about their events and community projects.