To commemorate its 75th anniversary in 2012, the Colorado River District commissioned author George Sibley of Gunnison to write a book about its history. The result is “Water Wranglers. The 75-Year History of the Colorado River District: A Story About the Embattled Colorado River and the Growth of the West.”
Born of conflict. That is how the Colorado River District came into the world. The year was 1937, and following the bruising battle over the Colorado-Big Thompson Project (C-BT), Colorado’s first big transmountain diversion, the Colorado Legislature agreed with the idea that a watchdog outfit should be created in Western Colorado to protect the region’s rivers and streams. It also agreed there should be centralized state entity to engage in water issues: the Colorado Water Conservation Board; and that there should be an organization in Northern Colorado to receive the benefits and manage use of the C-BT: the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
Before there was a Colorado River District, there was the Western Colorado Protective Association. It formed in 1933 to contest and negotiate the C-BT, but it was done on an ad hoc basis, a shoe-string budget begged from county commissions and on the backs of West Slope men who sacrificed their time, energy and surely their own funds to protect the long-term water interests of Western Colorado. There had to be a better way to develop the Colorado River — but not at the expense of decimating the future of the West Slope. Their passion and vigor was matched by water leaders in Northern Colorado. It was telling for the time, when Colorado was still feeling its way forward and leaders on both sides of the Continental Divide knew water was a limiting factor.
As Sibley establishes, the story of the Colorado River District is really the story of the embattled Colorado River and the growth of the West. As he also establishes, the issues of 1937 are still the issues of today. An arid climate and an imbalanced population, where most people in Colorado live on the drier side of the state, continue to drive the work of the Colorado River District. The Colorado River continues to be a target for water development.
Sibley’s read is far more than the history of the Colorado River District, because it had to be. You cannot write about the Colorado River District without offering good perspective on the likes of Northern Water, Denver Water, the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project – and for that matter – the history of Colorado. The Colorado River District engaged Sibley to write about the District’s history to fill a big gap in its archives and to help people in Western Colorado understand our work. What it got is a wonderful contribution to the contentious history of water in the West.
“Water Wranglers” is a gorgeous book at 466 pages and well illustrated with many photographs and maps. It can be ordered from Wolverine Publishing or from Amazon for $24.96. E-book version can be purchased for $4.99 from Barnes and Noble.