Denver — The other day a candidate for governor here, John D. Fuhr, warned that California's recent defeat of a major water project means that Colorado had better start building water projects of its own. Otherwise, he said, southern California might take permanent possession of water that is rightfully Colorado's.
His comments are evidence of the political shock waves rippling throughout the Southwest since California's controversial Peripheral Canal project went down to defeat at the polls June 8.
How does the vote on a canal in the Sacramento delta region of northern California affect the state of Colorado, whose boundaries are nearly 1,000 miles away?The answer involves water - or, more precisely, the arid West's long preoccupation with that precious commodity. Those who have it guard their rights jealously. Those who don't fight to possess it. In frontier days, water was at the bottom of more than one range war.
Today's water battles are more civilized - conducted in courts, state legislatures, and Congress - but no less serious. As a result, the body of law that has grown up over the appropriation, allocation, condemnation, possession, and sale of water is elaborate. It requires special lawyers, even special courts.
The water link between California's proposed Peripheral Canal and the state of Colorado is the Colorado River, the most heavily litigated body of water in the United States. The river originates high in the Colorado Rockies, cuts across the southeastern corner of Utah and the northwestern corner of Arizona, turns directly south at the Nevada border, and serves as the boundary between California and Arizona before entering Mexico. Southern California interests were among the first to dam the Colorado in order to get the water needed to make their arid region blossom with irrigated agriculture, industry, people, and wealth.
Early in the century, other states on the Colorado became alarmed at California's growing thirst and its frequently ruthless ways of quenching it. They worried that California would establish claims to Colorado River water under the West's traditional first-come, first-served doctrine. The political resolution of these concerns was the Colorado River Compact, signed in 1922, which allocated the flow of the river among the seven states in the basin according to a complicated formula, but this historic concern linger.
Since then southern California has continued to divert a lion's share of Colorado River water, because the other states have not been using up their allotments. In 1985, however, the massive Central Arizona Project is scheduled to begin siphoning off much of this surplus to slake the thirst of the booming desert metropolises, Phoenix and Tucson.
The Peripheral Canal plan is part of a multibillion-dollar California plan to ship water from the northern part of the state to the south in anticipation of the reduction in available Colorado River water. As a result, some officials and water users, particularly in Wyoming and Colorado, see the canal's ballot defeat as a possible prelude to a political water grab by Los Angeles.
''There is a definite possibility that the defeat has serious implications for the Colorado River water system,'' says Warren White, adviser on water matters to Wyoming Gov. Ed Herschler. ''If southern California doesn't get the water to support its growth binge from northern California, it'll have to get water from someplace else: desalination of sea water, robbing and stealing from other places, or more conservation.''
''The Peripheral Canal vote is very bad news for Colorado,'' according to Roland C. Fischer, secretary-engineer of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in western Colorado. There is little doubt that the thirst of California, Arizona, and, to a lesser extent, Nevada, for Colorado River water will continue to grow in the future, he points out. And one of the first places they will look, Mr. Fischer figures, is the unused portion of Colorado's and Wyoming's share of the river's water. He suspects the other states might try to claim this water on another traditional principle of Western water law: Use it or loose it.
Not everyone shares this concern. Utah's director of water resources, Don Lawrence, says: ''We consider the Peripheral Canal a purely internal California matter. As far as we know, California has no plans but to support and meet its obligations under the Colorado River Compact.''
On the other hand, Mr. White comments that Wyoming's ambitious $600 million plan to capture its share of Colorado water has moved from priority No. 1 to 1 -A.
Southern California water officials aren't taking kindly to these suspicions. ''This kind of talk really irritates me,'' asserts Myron Holburt, director of the Colorado River Board of California. ''These charges are a lot of nonsense. It's a smoke screen, just something to stir people up,'' he maintains. Whether or not they use their allotment, there is no way that California can lay claim to the other states' water rights, he says, because they are protected by the 1922 compact.
In the 1930s Arizona and California were bitter water rivals. Arizona's governor even called out the militia to stop the construction of Parker Dam, which was backed by southern California water barons. The two states' counterclaims over the Colorado were finally settled in the US Supreme Court. But, since the California delegation supported federal funding for the Central Arizona Project (CAP), they have been working closely together on water issues.
''The Peripheral Canal vote was a big setback for water development in the West,'' says Wes Steiner, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, ''but I am not concerned about California reneging on the compact. There are too many fish left to fry. My suspicion is that they will keep going after the canal until they get it.''
The pressure on California to secure other sources of water depends on a number of factors: the rapidity with which CAP begins taking water; the amount of water in the Colorado; what happens with the large, outstanding Indian water claims; who is elected as California's next governor.
In the often Machiavellian world of Western water politics, however, California's assurances of the purity of their intentions are not taken at face value. ''All the major disputes on the river have been solved politically, not legally,'' says Mr. Fischer. As a result, he isn't impressed with talk about legal safeguards of water rights.
''The compact is 60 years old, but it's never been litigated,'' the Colorado water official points out. ''There are a number of sections where the agreement can be interpreted differently. I can imagine several ways you might 'creatively interpret' the compact which would have the effect of reducing Colorado and Wyoming's allocations,'' he continues.