Reclamation to Preservation

As temperatures rise, the man-made gardens of plenty in the West are under threat

Western Colorado’s Uncompahgre Valley is a garden artificially created. Corn and alfalfa grow plentifully around Montrose and other towns in this valley, about five hours southwest of Denver, as do apples, pears and cherries. A complicated web of dams, canals and river-depleting diversion projects created this produce bin of the agrarian West.

A key piece of this infrastructure is a tunnel that imports water from a different basin, financed and built exactly 100 years ago by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. But even as Montrose readied floats and local officials wrote speeches to commemorate the centennial of the tunnel this past September, the federal agency announced a major study that speaks to a very different challenge for Colorado, as well as for other states in the American West.

The key challenge a century ago was to move rivers around to make the land bloom. Now, the Bureau of Reclamation is looking to see how well these water transfers will hold up in the face of what it calls “changing water realities.” The primary reality is a climate expected to become much, much hotter with compressed winters and uncertain precipitation. At the same time, population is growing in the West.

The centuries are different, and so are the challenges. Looking back to when the water first began gushing into the Uncompaghre Valley from the 5.8-mile Gunnison Tunnel, it is amazing to think that only humans and horses were available to scrape those canals out from the hillsides. In a way, the achievement is only slightly less impressive than the building of the pyramids in Egypt.

In 1909, President William Howard Taft blessed the opening of the Gunnison Tunnel with his voluminous presence. The new water he caused to flow expanded the irrigated acreage of the valley by 160 percent, enabling the community’s population to double in 10 years. This was among the first projects launched by the Bureau of Reclamation. The agency went on to build Hoover Dam — producing both electricity and a reliable water supply for burgeoning Los Angeles — as well as Grand Coulee on the Columbia River and then, in the 1960s, that sprawling reservoir on the Colorado River called “Lake” Powell.

In all, BuRec built 180 projects in the 17 Western states. Water delivered by all of that plumbing grows 60 percent of the nation’s vegetables and 25 percent of its fruits and nuts.

The challenges of our new era seem Biblical in nature. At issue is whether this massive hydraulic system to deliver water to semi-arid lands will continue to work.

But then, the dam building sputtered to a halt.

President Jimmy Carter in 1977 issued what critics called a Hit List of projects he contended were financially ridiculous. Indignant Westerners brayed that Carter, hailing from Georgia, couldn’t possibly understand the West’s problems. Yet Ronald Reagan, a Californian, did nothing to overturn Carter’s action. By then, the Age of Dams had come to an end.

The challenges of our new era seem Biblical in nature. At issue is whether this massive hydraulic system to deliver water to semi-arid lands will continue to work. Evidence from a millennia ago describes droughts far more prolonged than anything we’ve experienced in the last century. Global climate models concur that increasing greenhouse gas emissions will cause sharply rising temperatures in the American Southwest in particular.

We may still lack a national consensus about global warming, but lately, state governments and federal agencies have begun girding themselves aggressively for change. Colorado, for example, is spending $1 million to get a better handle on whether global warming will diminish the water it believes it still has available from the Colorado River for shipment to its still-growing cities.

The Bureau of Reclamation recently commissioned a $2 million study to more broadly calculate the potential impacts of climate change to the Colorado River Basin. Part of this work is to see if dams and irrigation systems can be operated more efficiently, given the scarcity of water. But the study also proposes to examine the prospects of augmenting water supplies through desalinization, cloud seeding and possibly even importing water from the Mississippi River Basin.

The future looks dire: One recent study by a university researcher predicted a 50-50 chance that the giant reservoirs of the Colorado will go dry by mid-century.

Seen in this light, the Bureau of Reclamation is now badly named. It no longer does what it did in the West starting 100 years ago — reclaiming the desert soil and converting it into a garden. The federal agency seems to face an even more daunting task just trying to preserve what it has achieved.

Allen Best writes about environmental and energy issues in Denver. This commentary first appeared in High Country News (

  • or

About The Author