When Denver was founded on the banks of the South Platte River in 1858, the future of the South Platte watershed was written. Park County’s water resources began being exported to the Front Range in 1905, when Cheeseman Reservoir was completed. Antero Reservoir followed in the 1920s, and as the cities grew they demanded even more water. At that time, most of the water rights in Park County were owned by ranchers and were for sale for the right price. Nobody can blame these folks for selling their water – in many cases, it was the only way these hardworking families could fund their retirements. By the 1980s, over 80% of the water rights in Park County were owned by Front Range utilities, severely reducing the agricultural productivity of the valley. These waters still flow through our valleys today.
But in the 1990’s, one city took this water grab too far, proposing a project to pump groundwater to send downstream. This project was unacceptable to the people of Park County – it was believed it would dry up wells and cause severe impacts. So, the people of Park County fought back. In 1997 residents voted to tax themselves to engage in the costly water court battle. A 1% sales tax was established to create the Land & Water Trust Fund, with the purpose to “protect, preserve, acquire, improve and maintain water resources and lands associated with water rights and resources in the county”. Citizens also approved a new mill levy to support the new Center of Colorado Water Conservancy District. The Land & Water Trust Fund paid for the county’s legal expenses of the court battle – which ended up costing the county over $1.5 million.
It was worth it. Park County and its allies won and were reimbursed for most of their legal expenses. The water stayed in the ground, and a precedent was set: Water grabs are a thing of the past. The Land & Water Trust Fund is a deterrent to future water grabs, a source of power in a legal system where you have to pay to play. Rural areas without a war chest like the Land & Water Trust Fund are targets for additional agricultural dry-up or taking groundwater for use elsewhere.