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Water's Top Cop: Policing scarcity from the State Engineer's Office

By Allen Best

If water were eternally abundant in Colorado, no dams would be needed for storage, their structural safety in annual need of inspection. Anyone could drill a well because, well, why not? Monitoring the allocation of streams, rivers and ditches would be unnecessary. Interstate water compacts—what are those?

Instead, scarcity is the enduring reality, even in periods of relative plenty, which is why Colorado adopted the doctrine of prior appropriation at statehood in 1876, establishing an orderly process for who gets how much water, from where, and when.

Having a process, however, is one thing. Adhering to it is another. Hence the need for water commissioners, water division engineers and, atop the pyramid in the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the State Engineer.

‘Water wars. Chaos,’ replies former State Engineer Hal Simpson quickly, when asked to imagine having no agency to administer the 173,000 water rights filed in the state. ‘We provide stability and certainty on the river. If we didn't have water commissioners, if there was nobody to enforce water rights, people would steal water.’

Blood has, in fact, been spilled in Colorado because of water. Whether the violence has been frequent enough to justify the large legend may be another matter. The prevailing story has been of quiet order and an attentive devotion to the efficient governance of every creek, ditch, and river—and, since the 1960s, every well.

Yes, controversies have erupted. Opinions have differed in interpretation of the law, with court decisions later rendering revisions to procedures with far-reaching consequences. In recent decades, urban growth and the emergence of new environmental values have impacted water distribution. Sustained drought in the early 21st century sobered users, administrators and policy-makers alike. Yet through these changes there has been coherence and clarity. The system has worked.

At the bottom of this pyramid, but crucial in every way, are the water commissioners. Until 1969, they were deputized sheriffs, authorized to carry weapons as they carried out their duties of fairly allocating water. When Simpson joined the agency in 1972, about half were former farmers and ranchers. Now they come from varied walks of life, although many have college educations, particularly in resource administration. More important than the degree is the skill set, says Simpson: technically competent but also peacemakers by nature, long on courage, and able to listen well and express themselves.

The agency has seven water division offices, corresponding to each major river basin, with each division administered by a division engineer. As an agency, it is dominated by people with engineering degrees. This prevails, too, at the top. Simpson has master's and bachelor's degrees in civil engineering. His predecessor, Jeris Danielson, who served from 1979 to 1992, has the same plus a doctorate. Current State Engineer Dick Wolfe has bachelor's and master's degrees in agricultural engineering. All of their degrees are from Colorado State University.

The three living state engineers have other commonalities. All rose through the ranks, toiling at DWR before appointment to the top job. Moreover, all three men have lived on or near farms of the South Platte Valley—Danielson near Brush, Simpson at Severance, and Wolfe near Platteville.

It's fair to say that all three see themselves as public servants. In that respect, they have company with another State Engineer, M.E. Hinderlider, who worked out of a basement office in the Capitol from 1923 to 1954. ‘He was utterly, utterly devoted to Colorado,’ says his granddaughter, Maureen Elliot. Today, carrying the torch as Colorado's 21st State Engineer, Wolfe says he couldn't have done the job when his children were small. Most evenings he is still working from home, catching up on emails and other piled-up tasks, and he says the work is his hobby as well as his career.

The State Engineer's duties require orderly processing of voluminous paperwork and crunching staggering numbers. Division personnel process permits for 5,000 new wells each year and another 1,200 new water right filings. Just one augmentation decree can run 100 pages.

But the core work lies in the field, where the division records 30,000 diversion and storage measurements annually. In 1879, when the Legislature appointed the first water commissioners, measurements were retrieved by horseback. That has changed, of course. Colorado continues to push the technological envelope to make real-time water readings available to all. More than 480 stream, ditch and reservoir gauges are monitored by satellite in a program operated in cooperation with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. ‘We can do our jobs as well as we can do because we have been given assets that I don't think any other state has,’ says Simpson. Questions now involve whether such technologies as Facebook and Twitter have a role in water administration.

Yet at the end of the day—some very long days, perhaps, during irrigation season — the responsibility of water administration literally involves wet feet. The 300 full- and part-time employees of the division drive 2.4 million miles per year checking stream gauges and diversion structures, inspecting wells and evaluating the safety of dams. The State Engineer communicates weekly with his division chiefs, but occasionally gets his feet muddy himself.
In some respects, laws tightly define the duties of the State Engineer, though Danielson, looking back to the 1980s, remembers a great deal of latitude in interpreting laws. Simpson believes two court decisions in the last 15 years constricted the authority of the State Engineer to create solutions to depletions caused by wells. Yet the job demands more than numbers and calculation. ‘I have found my job tends to be 80 percent sociology and psychology and 20 percent engineering because so much of what we do now requires us to work with a lot of stakeholders,’ says Wolfe. He regularly speaks to groups such as real estate agents, as he perceives educating the public about water as one of his primary responsibilities. Legislators, who increasingly hail from cities instead of farms, also need education in water administration-related issues.

The State Engineer is also tasked with administering the nine interstate water compacts as well as two federal apportionment decrees to which Colorado is a party. In most cases, compact requirements are treated just like another senior water right. For Wolfe, it also means communicating with corresponding officials from the relevant states. In the case of the two Colorado River compacts, the State Engineer assists the CWCB in ensuring compliance.
The landscape of water use has shifted in many important ways since Danielson joined DWR in 1969. At that time, significant development of transmountain diversions from the West Slope's headwaters remained underway. Dillon Reservoir was still relatively new. The Homestake diversions had just begun. Work continued on the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. Reservoirs filled rapidly, as it was a time of deep snows and cold winters. Cities planned for drought, but their worst-case scenarios assumed nothing more severe than the multi-year drought of the 1950s.
Much has changed, affecting administration of water and hence the complexity of the State Engineer's job. Most pronounced has been population growth, with the 2.2 million residents of 1970 now dwarfed by today's 5 million-plus Coloradans. The most explosive growth has been in Douglas County, focusing attention on the south metro region's unsustainable reliance on diminishing aquifers. Front Range urban growth has also accelerated ag-to-municipal conversions, posing large questions about economic and social tipping points in farm-dependent communities.
Ascendance of environmental values further constrained the options for development of raw water resources. Instream flow rights, also called minimum streamflows, first authorized in the early 1970s, became salient in water administration in 2002 and successive drought years. Endangered Species Act requirements for flows to sustain endangered fish in the Colorado River and waterfowl on the Platte have also limited development options. Applications for decreed rights for recreational in-channel diversions, something likely unimaginable in the 19th century, have flooded water courts in recent years. Simpson and his deputies testified in several cases that applications exceeded the amount of water needed by whitewater boaters. The broader concept, however, has been upheld, adding complexity to water administration.

Pivotal to the work of Simpson, and now Wolfe, was the drought of 2002. Alone, it dwarfed 1976-77 and every other drought in recorded history, but then was shadowed by five successive years of mostly below-average precipitation. Urban districts, realizing greater vulnerabilities than they previously assumed, hastened to buy agricultural water rights. Farmers needing to buy rights for well augmentation couldn't compete with rising prices. In total, Simpson and Wolfe have ordered 2,000 wells in the South Platte and 1,000 wells in the Arkansas Valley to cease pumping. ‘Everything tightened up because of that extended drought,’ says Simpson.

As reservoirs ebbed, threatening to dry altogether, water managers were forced to reconsider the razor's edge between supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin. Revised calculations took into account the potential for the kind of extended droughts that visited the Colorado River Basin 1,000 years ago. Overlaying that possibility is the likelihood that accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will yield earlier runoffs, more intense summer heat and perhaps less precipitation.

The conclusion drawn from both of these potential futures is an upright-in-bed-at-4-a.m. realization: It's entirely possible at some point in the future that lower basin states could issue a call on the Colorado River. With many transmountain diversions still relatively junior in priority, the effect would be like a bug hitting a spider's web, with ripples in the tension out to the Kansas and Nebraska borders.

Coming to grips with these and other possibilities is how Wolfe defines an important part of his job moving forward. Water users without good planning in 2002 reacted, he says. Better is to produce a ‘very thoughtful, systematic response’ to future water shortages. Within the limits of the laws prescribed by legislators, rulings by the Colorado Supreme Court, and the vagaries of weather and climate, he sees his job as delivering the maximum achievable certainty to farmers, cities and other water users.

In this very fundamental way, the job of the State Engineer has changed very little since the Legislature created the post in 1881. It is all about avoiding chaos.

Compacts Resources

Guide to Interstate Compacts explore how our water-sharing compact agreements were first created, how they succeed and fail, and how they have fostered enduring relationships among bordering states. Read or purchase the Citizen's Guide to Colorado's Interstate Compacts.

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Water History Resources

Guide to Colorado's Water Heritage Explore how water shaped Colorado history, culture and identity. Read the water heritage guide.

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Guide to Colorado's Environmental Era Continue the journey through time to explore more recent years and see how the environmental movement has shaped Colorado's culture, communities and landscapes. Read, download, or purchase the environmental era guide.

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