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Water Education Colorado

Hero, Justice, Gentle Man—Felix Sparks

By Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr.

They buried Felix Sparks with full military honors Oct. 2, 2007. The military chaplain said much about Sparks' service in the U.S. Army and the Colorado National Guard. Not much was said about his service as a Colorado Supreme Court justice and Colorado Water Conservation Board director.

 

The funeral service hit its highest note when his granddaughter stood up to talk about how his home became a haven for nursing wounded animals back to health. He liked to build little habitats containing tarantulas, lizards, snakes and doves. His grandson said, ‘The nice thing about having your grandfather as your hero is your hero loves you back.’

 

He was more than a grandkids' hero. During World War II, in the teeth of Nazi guns on exposed open ground, Sparks rescued a wounded fellow soldier. The Germans were so astounded they did not fire on him.

Liberators of Dachau, he and his men were eye witnesses to a string of 39 railway cars containing 2,000 bodies. To anybody who questioned the existence of Nazi death camps, he would say I was there, I saw the coal-fired crematorium, the gas chamber, and rooms piled high with naked and emaciated human corpses.

Felix Sparks was interested in justice. After the war, he graduated from the University of Colorado Law School and started his own practice in Delta. He practiced water law and served as the elected district attorney for four years. A Democrat, he came into office in the Truman election year of 1948 and was defeated in the 1952, when Eisenhower was elected.

Gov. Ed Johnson appointed him to the Colorado Supreme Court in June 1956 after Justice John Clark died in office. He served for only six months. At the annual lunch the current justices hold for former justices, Justice Sparks would repeatedly tell us he didn't like the job at all.

He joined the court in the days when judges ran for office on partisan political tickets. Soon after taking office, he was assigned to the law license admissions committee. One of the senior justices asked him to approve the admission of two applicants who had failed the bar exam three times, despite a court rule requiring they go back to law school for a semester.

Justice Sparks objected and was told they were political party captains he would need for the next election. He refused to sign the papers. The applicants were not admitted, causing hard feelings with at least one of his colleagues. He ran for the office of justice in the 1956 election and was defeated by the Republican, Frank Hall, who replaced him. When the 1966 judicial merit selection constitutional amendment came before Colorado voters, Sparks was a big supporter of the successful major reform that removed Colorado judges from politics.
Colorado gained much when Justice Sparks lost his supreme court seat. Gov. Steve McNichols persuaded the Colorado Water Conservation Board to appoint him board counsel over Ray Moses, then a board member who was also interested in the job. Not long afterwards, McNichols appointed Sparks CWCB director. His tenure lasted 21 years, from 1958-1979, bridging the administrations of governors Steve McNichols, John Love, John Vanderhoof and Richard Lamm.

Sparks always spoke in a big way. He said he had become a lawyer because he couldn't play a musical instrument, but was good with words, good at writing, and good at thinking fast on his feet. His favorite instrument to listen to was the violin.

He entered the CWCB directorship in the midst of a West-Slope/East Slope donnybrook over the proposed trans-mountain Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. He also faced Lower Colorado River Basin opposition to continued funding of the Colorado River Storage Project Act, problems associated with unrestricted groundwater pumping, the need for water supply studies throughout Colorado, and, most importantly, the challenge of alerting citizens to Colorado's water problems.

The mid 1950s drought was the call to action, and Sparks went to it like a soldier. Colorado was fortunate to have Wayne Aspinall as chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Interior Committee, who turned to Sparks for review and drafting of western water legislation.

As a result of Sparks' tenure as CWCB director, laws authorizing major water storage projects vital to Colorado came into being, and funding was obtained. These included the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project Act appropriations for the Aspinall Unit in the Gunnison Basin and Lake Powell, so important to operation of the 1922 and 1948 Colorado River compacts. Then came the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project for southeastern Colorado, with offsetting storage to the Western Slope. That was followed by the 1968 Colorado River Basin Act which created Western Slope storage projects including Dallas Creek, Dolores, and Animas-La Plata—now under construction to settle South Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribal water right claims, so many years after Sparks and Aspinall assured its place in the 1968 Act that authorized the Central Arizona Project.

Sparks drafted for Aspinall a key provision of the 1968 Act, section 602 (a), which governs the operation of Lake Powell. This provision assures that the Upper Basin states will have the benefit of storage in Powell without impairment of their annual consumptive uses pursuant to the Colorado River Compact.

When the environmental era emerged in the 1970s, Sparks insistently reminded Coloradans of the necessity to protect all of Colorado's interstate water compact entitlements, and build reservoirs. At the same time, working with Colorado Senate President Fred Anderson, he nurtured the West's first instream flow legislation in 1973, passed by the Colorado General Assembly.

Sparks became interested in preserving instream flows during the controversy over the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. Said Sparks: ‘I didn't want the streams dried up…I told them (the project proponents) the only way to get the (expletive deleted) project was to leave a minimum flow in all the streams they were diverting from.’ When the Colorado Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of the instream flow law in 1979, Sparks was afraid ‘they'd throw it out.’ The court upheld the law in a decision emphasizing the General Assembly's assignment of the program to the CWCB.

But, Sparks' efforts to build the Fruitland Mesa, Savery-Pothook and Narrows reservoirs were frustrated by President Jimmy Carter's 1978 ‘hit list’ of water projects. Together, Sparks and Gov. Richard Lamm decried the administration's ‘arrogance’ and ‘ignorance’ of the need for western water storage. Opinionated and direct, Sparks said, ‘The vocal opponents of the Reclamation program resemble a flock of parrots trained to endlessly and mindlessly repeat the words 'pork barrel.'’

Sparks was a soldier, after all. But, I especially like what his grandchildren had to say the day they buried him. To his family, he was a ‘sweet gentle man.’ To his state and nation, he was a hero.

Sparks
They give you a soldier's funeral,
riderless horse, helicoptors, gun salute
hero of Anzio, liberator of Dachau,
Colorado Supreme Court Justice,
Water Conservation Board Director,

No-nonsense boom and salty orator
your sum on old-soldiering, ‘Hell,
old soldiers just don't fade away,
they die like everyone else,’

The Military chaplain salutes your ribbons,
ticks them off by name, all the campaigns,
names the ribbon still in the works for rescuing
your wounded man in the mouth of Nazi guns,
so astounded they would not cut you down,

Your Granddaughter stands to tell how you'd stock
tarantulas, lizards, snakes and doves in the house
especially the wounded, nurse them back to health,
and how you liked to say ‘Noble instrument, the violin.’

By Justice Greg Hobbs in celebration of Felix Sparks.


Sources
Carol Edmonds, ‘Wayne Aspinall: Mr. Chairman,’ Crown Point, Inc., Publisher 1980.
Colorado Water Conservation Board, videotaped interview of Felix Sparks, June 2007.
Richard D. Lamm and Michael McCarthy, ‘The Angry West, A Vulnerable Land and Its Future,’ Houghton Mifflin Company 1982.
William McClearn, ‘An Oral History: Felix L. Sparks,’ Vol. 27, ‘The Colorado Lawyer,’ No. 10, at 51-56, October 1998.
Felix L. Sparks, ‘Practitioner's Perspective (An Interview of Felix Sparks),’ 3 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 105-113, 2000.
Felix L. Sparks, ‘Synopsis of Major Documents and Events Relating to the Colorado River,’ 3 U. Denv. Water L. Rev. 342-56, 2000.
Daniel Tyler, ‘The Last Water Hole in the West,’ University Press of Colorado 1992.
Steven C. Schulte, ‘Wayne Aspinall and the Shaping of the American West,’ University Press of Colorado 2002.

 

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