To Easterners, it is something that falls abundantly from the sky and flows generously through rivers and streams. But here in the arid West, water is a resource as precious as gold: When applied for irrigation, it is alone capable of transforming a tract of sagebrush desert into verdant farmland or a blooming orchard of fruit trees.
For the better part of a century, eastern and western Coloradans have been bitterly divided over their respective claims to this critical resource.
Taking the water wars to a new level, two controversial initiatives on the statewide ballot in November aim to clear the way for taking more water from agricultural regions and sharing it with cities.
The outcome will have implications throughout the West, where urban population growth is fast outpacing water supplies.
Metropolitan areas around Denver, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins have relied on their economic and political power to obtain water, while rural citizens to the west have defended their own interests fiercely - if often unsuccessfully.
Both initiatives target water supplies in the San Luis Valley, an agriculture-rich region that lies 100 miles west of the Front Range. One proposal requires water-flow meters be placed on farmers' irrigation wells, to monitor and limit their consumption of ground water. The other requires the valley's water conservation district to pay some $6 million in retroactive fees for use of ground water since the mid-1980s, and also imposes annual payments of more than $1 million.
An effort to force sharing
Leading the charge behind the two proposals is Gary Boyce - who is also president of Stockman's Water Co., a speculative venture that proposes exporting ground water from the San Luis Valley via pipeline.
Mr. Boyce - who purchased the valley's 100,000-acre Baca Grant Ranch for the project - wants to market as much as 150,000 acre feet, or 48 billion gallons a year, to the thirsty population centers near Denver. The rights to this precious resource could fetch as much as $1 billion. Yet to date, his efforts have been thwarted by San Luis Valley residents, who have enlisted powerful lawyers and politicians to assist them.
"They begrudge the metro area the water to keep the economic engine of the state running," alleges Jim Brandon, Boyce's Denver lobbyist and spokesman. "We share our money with western Colorado - why won't they share their water? That is a very selfish local attitude."
Now, says Mr. Brandon, Boyce is turning to the voters of the state to establish equity.
But valley residents counter that Boyce's plan - along with his initiatives - will dry up farmland and grazing areas, damage wildlife habitat, and cripple the local economy. "It just transfers the economic value from our part of the state to another," says Ralph Curtis, who manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa. "If you take the water off the land here, it's worth nothing."
At nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, the valley receives a scant seven inches of annual rainfall, and in its natural state is largely desert. But thanks to a plentiful underground water supply, local farmers and ranchers are able to irrigate 175,000 acres of cropland, mostly using center-pivot sprinklers.
In fact, modern irrigation has turned the valley into the state's chief producer of potatoes, along with prolific crops of barley, alfalfa, lettuce, onions, and carrots. Even so, the region remains the poorest in the state.
And as the state grows, so does demand for water historically used for agriculture. Since 1990, the population of Colorado's Front Range has boomed from 2.7 million to 3.2 million. It is projected to hit 5 million in the next 20 years, and experts predict water demands here and throughout the West will exceed supply.
"Today, the common approach is to take water from agriculture, dry up farmland, and divert the water for municipal use," says James Corbridge, a University of Colorado law professor who teaches water resources and management.
Considering that agriculture consumes about 85 percent of the water in the West, it's no wonder the trend exists.
Yet rural areas will continue to fight diversions of their water, he says, especially as environmental and political allies join in the battle to maintain farm and range lands. "It's a pitched battle. It's caused a lot of controversy and hard feelings. And now there isn't that much water left on the western slope."
As a matter of law, San Luis Valley residents are entitled to water they now use, says Bill Paddock, a Denver water lawyer representing them. "They're being asked to pay for water that they already own."
Furthermore, the ground water underneath the state land trust was decreed to the water conservation district in 1984, he notes.
Mr. Paddock also maintains that Boyce's plan to pump billions of gallons of water from the valley's aquifer will damage farmers' irrigation wells. "That's just a matter of physics," he says. "It's like a bathtub. If you suck water out, it's going to affect the water level."
But Brandon claims that valley farmers have been taking more than their fair share of water, without paying "one red cent" for it. "They've gotten a tremendous gravy train, and now the good ol' days are over."
Valley residents, meanwhile, worry that with a statewide vote deciding their future, the livelihood of the 40,000 inhabitants here may be in jeopardy.
"The thing that scares a lot of rural Coloradans is the voting power of the six metropolitan counties [around Denver]," says Karla Shriver, who farms potatoes with her family near Monte Vista, Colo., and heads Citizens for Colorado Water.
Urban voters, she adds, can't begin to comprehend what rural farmers face.
"The people deciding this don't know anything about farming," Ms. Shriver says.
"They don't understand what it takes out there to get a crop off the ground. You don't really understand it unless you're out there getting dirt on your clothes and getting your feet wet in the field."