This decade marks the 50th anniversary of the construction of what we know as the Wayne N. Aspinall Unit of the Colorado River Storage Project; between 1961 and 1976, that set of three dams was built in the Gunnison River canyons west of here. This is the story of how they came to be – of the regional “big picture” they are part of, and how that big picture was ultimately modified by a group of dedicated citizens of the Upper Gunnison River Basin over some very local concerns.
These dams were built in an era in American history when many public projects were undertaken on the federal level under the maxim, “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.” But what happens when “the greatest good” on a regional or national level effectively made “national sacrifice areas” of places where people had lived and worked, creating economic and social communities on a small local level? Often the communities were simply condemned and bought out in the name of the greater good (although it was never really simple). But sometimes the local communities succeeded in drawing a line and defending it creatively enough so that progress was brought up short; the greater good was amended or moderated, very occasionally even abandoned.
The story of the Aspinall Unit dams was such a story. I’m not going to say much about the actual construction of the dams themselves, which is not nearly so interesting a story as all the legal, political and socio-economic infrastructure that had to be put in place before construction could begin, and the ways in which the people of the Upper Gunnison worked in the contexts of that infrastructure, not to stop the project but to make it one they could live with.
The dams we know as the Aspinall Unit were part of another America – or maybe more accurately, part of another American era. They were part of a massive western conservation project. If that sounds strange, it is because the meaning of “conservation” underwent a major shift about half or two-thirds of the way through the 20th century. Today, we take “conservation” to mean basically using less of something, saving it, leaving it for the future. But a century ago, it most basically meant using something well – resources, land, whatever: using the resources, the water, the land without waste, using them for maximal benefit to as many humans as possible, and with some concern for those who would need the resources in the future. “Conservation” at the beginning of this century means “protecting our land and resources from use, especially overuse and abuse, by we the people; at the beginning of the last century, it meant “making our land and resources accessible for use by and for all of the people.”
Background and Context America’s first real push for any serious public conservation at all came when Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency, following the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, and that conservation push took the form of a war on waste. At that time, the nation had experienced a century of rapid industrial growth and expansion, supported by the federal government providing easy and cheap access to the public domain and its resources – everything from individual homesteads, to massive railroad grants, to virtually free industrial access to the forests and mineral wealth of the nation. Forests had been leveled with no replanting responsibility, causing massive erosion and river corruption as well as land damage; grass had been essentially mined with no limits on livestock numbers; minerals had been exploited and the mines abandoned to leak metals into the streams and rivers. Huge private fortunes had been amassed, leaving the mess for the public to clean up.
Into that situation rode Teddy Roosevelt, with Gifford Pinchot riding shotgun; they declared open warfare on the massive waste promulgated by that great industrial surge, under the battle cry of “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.” They set aside huge acreages of forest land in “forest preserves,” and hired rangers to control access to those preserves. Our own Gunnison National Forest was created in 1905, and the adventures of the first Forest Ranger, William Kreutzer, in these valleys were “wild west” stories of the first order. But despite their good intentions, they could not really institute controls over the mining industry and the General Land Office which saw its mission as getting as much of the public domain into private hands as possible, as soon as possible, with as much money under the table as possible.
There was, however, one other area of massive waste that they could tackle head-on, and that was “nature’s waste” which, as they saw it, was most obviously manifested in two problems: one was forest fires, eating up good usable timber; Pinchot’s rangers were charged with fighting fires that had, theretofore, been allowed to just burn themselves out (or get snowed out).
And the other natural waste they could do something about was the waste of the precious fresh water that fell on the mountains as snow – then melted and roared through the land in uncontrolled spring floods that quickly disappeared into the ocean. This pattern made the rivers barely usable for a very short season; it was like trying to drink out of a fire hose. The solution there was obvious: store as much of the water as possible in reservoirs, and put as much of it as possible back on the land through irrigation of crops, thereby reclaiming for use both the arid land and the profligate water. And since the rivers, unlike the industrialists, didn’t hire lawyers to persuade congressmen that conservation would kill the economy, reclamation became a major element in Roosevelt’s conservation program.
The Bureau of Reclamation was created in 1902 to begin the process of conserving otherwise wasted water to reclaim the wastelands of the West. Reclamation captured the national imagination and became a national priority even among easterners whose humid lands were already developed and well watered, in the same way that wilderness protection became a national priority in our own age, even though most of the remaining wilderness land was in the West.
Up to this point, the people of the Upper Gunnison River Basin were fully on board with this approach of conservation through reclamation. They were a little less enthused when the new Bureau of Reclamation took on and actually completed the twice-failed project to take a large amount of water from the Gunnison River canyons through a five-mile tunnel to the Uncompahgre Valley, thus creating a huge senior water right downstream for about a fourth of the Gunnison’s annual flow.
But the Upper Gunnison people could also assume that their day would come, and they too would get some Bureau help in the battle against the waste of water leaving too fast to put to use. The Bureau’s job, as initially defined, was to help farmers and ranchers at the local watershed level develop efficient and affordable irrigation and domestic water systems – and that help was to be loaned, not given, thus serving both progressive and conservative ideologies: the Bureau loaned the local users expertise in the form of an engineer experienced in irrigation work, and then gave them low-interest loans to do the work that would be repaid over a specific period of time. A government that helped the people but no free lunches. The only real catch was that the irrigation projects had to stand up to a cost-benefit analysis, and that became problematic in the high mountain valleys where the numbers of landowners and irrigable acres were often small compared to the costs involved in effectively irrigating them. Problems also developed over the repayment of the loans; a ten-year repayment period was eventually stretched to forty years, but even farmers in areas that had met the cost-benefit standard in the beginning had a hard time paying off the loans in the fluctuating markets for farm production.
Meanwhile, however, at about the same time, something else was beginning to happen in the West. Rather than settlement in small agrarian communities, the way much of the East had been settled a century earlier, people were beginning to accumulate in large cities. There were a number of reasons for this: the failure of two out of every three western homesteads sent the would-behomesteaders to the urban-industrial environment they had wanted to escape; the increasing industrialization of American commerce and jobs, centralized in the cities, was undermining a lot of local artisan work (blacksmithing, barrelmaking, et cetera); improving farm technology was enabling fewer farmers to feed more people. But the main reason was probably the relentlessly expanding population: the old Jeffersonian idea of a decentralized democracy made up of agrarian communities of self-sufficient farmers declined as the supply of unsettled arable land declined; the need for denser and more efficient systems for organizing human society grew as the agrarian opportunity diminished.
But urbanization brought new sets of problems – among them, the problem of cities like Denver, Los Angeles, San Franciso outgrowing their local supplies of water, energy and raw resources for industry, and needing to reach farther out into their environs for those resources – especially water and energy. Thus this massive urbanization, bearing the banner of “the greatest good for the greatest number,” grew ominous for the non-urban West. At the same time that the Bureau was working on the Gunnison Tunnel Project for Uncompahgre farmers, the Los Angeles Water and Power Department decided to do a 230-mile run for a new water supply, all the way over into the Owens Valley in the southern Sierras. At the same time, the Owens Valley farmers were working with the Bureau to develop an irrigation project. But due to some serious skullduggery on the part of at least one Bureau agent, who was also working for the City of Los Angeles, the city ended up acquiring most of the valley’s water rights. An uproar ensued, but in the end, while he deplored the methods used, Roosevelt himself came down on the side of “the greater good for the greater number,” and the farmers lost the water. The city’s 233-mile aqueduct was built – the first but far from last big reach into existing or potential farmland for metropolitan water.
This trend came to Colorado in the 1930s, when Denver’s Water Board leased the pilot bore for the Moffat Railroad Tunnel and put in a collection system for taking water to Denver from the Fraser and Williams Fork Rivers on the West Slope. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation was working on the biggest regional water development ever, down at the other end of the Colorado River: the Boulder Canyon Project, whose keystone structure, Hoover Dam, had captured the American imagination for sheer size and audacity – the biggest dam ever attempted, intended to force one of the world’s wildest rivers to stand in and push rather than cut and run. But the regional development also included a huge irrigation project for converting the old Salton Sink into the Imperial Valley, and Los Angeles and San Diego had tagged on with a 250-mile aqueduct to carry a billion gallons a day from the river to the West Coast. Including the huge power plants at Hoover, this was organizing energy, water and food on an unprecedented scale – infrastructure for the whole urbanizing and industrializing Southern California economy. Even though this massive regional project was started under the Hoover administration, it was a perfect fit for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, pumping federal dollars into a Great Depression recovery program building essential infrastructure for America.
During that time, the Bureau of Reclamation was pretty clearly seduced into the glamour and excitement of big regional developments like the Boulder Canyon Project consistent with the urbanization and industrialization of the West, but it didn’t forget its humbler roots working with local communities of farmers and ranchers. Whereas the Denver Water Board exercised its prior appropriation prerogatives and just went in and took the West Slope water it wanted with no thought for what it was doing to the basin that was losing its water, the Bureau tried to only do big regional projects where the water users taking water from one area to another compensated the area of origin for its present and future loss – usually in the form of compensatory storage, which sometimes left the area of origin in better shape since a compensatory reservoir allowed flood waters that would have disappeared downriver without the storage to be stored for late season use.
The Bureau worked out that kind of infrastructure for two big Colorado transmountain diversions from the West Slope: the Colorado-Big Thompson Project into the South Platte Basin, with the compensatory Green Mountain dam, powerplant and reservoir; and the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, with Reudi Reservoir for West Slope use.
The Boulder Canyon Project was completed in time to help Southern California turn into a World War II industrial powerhouse; and after the war the Upper Colorado River Basin states – Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico – felt like it was their turn, and the Bureau was glad to oblige. In 1946 the Bureau issued a book-sized report titled, “The Colorado River: A Natural Menace becomes a National Resource”; in that report they sketched out 88 projects that could be built to develop the waters of the Upper Basin tributaries – adding the caveat that there wasn’t enough water to do all of them, so there would have to be some choosing.
Bringing it Home to the Gunnison Basin The report included 13 possible Gunnison Basin storage and irrigation projects, some of which had been sitting in drawers in the Bureau’s regional offices for decades. Five of these were for the Upper Gunnison: irrigation projects for Tomichi Creek, Cochetopa Creek and Ohio Creek, and hydropower projects for Sapinero and the Lake Fork.
But in addition to those local projects, the Bureau’s 1946 vision also included “potential export diversions” to the Arkansas River Basin – something that had been hanging over the Upper Gunnison since the mid-1930s, when Arkansas Basin water interests began to agitate for a project like the Colorado-Big Thompson Project for the South Platte Basin. A Pueblo newspaper editor had made it almost a sacred mission to undertake “the redistribution of some of the resources which nature distributed unequally.”
Led by Gunnison News-Champion publisher Henry Lake Jr., and aided by Congressman Edward Taylor whose seniority in Congress gave him control over Bureau pursestrings, the people of the entire Gunnison Basin raised a great noise and fended off even a study of future in-basin needs and water availability. But they only succeeded until the death – still in office – of Congressman Taylor; after his passing, the Bureau was free to go ahead with a study for transmountain diversion from the Gunnison River.
Upper Gunnison residents were horrified to see that the 1946 report indicated a Bureau belief that as much as 840,000 af was available for transmountain diversion from their streams and rivers – around 85 percent of the average annual natural flow in the Upper Gunnison. Two years later, in 1948, the Bureau released its plan for a Gunnison-Arkansas Project. The only good news was that they only wanted to divert five or six hundred thousand af out of the basin rather than 800,000.
The plan itself had aspects of a Rube Goldberg design. It was to be constructed in two stages. The first part did not even involve the Gunnison Basin; it was a 60,000 af diversion into the Arkansas River from the Fryingpan River, a tributary of the Roaring Fork – essentially an expansion of the Twin Lakes project funded in the 1930s by Arkansas Basin sugar interests. But the second part hit the Gunnison Basin heavily – a complex system for collecting and diverting through the Divide some 600,000 af. It featured at least three reservoirs in the Upper Gunnison Basin: one of which would immerse Almont, collecting water from tunnels to Upper Anthracite Creek in the North Fork valley watershed and to the Crystal River in the Roaring Fork, as well as from the Upper Gunnison tributaries. From that reservoir the water would be pumped 20-plus miles up to another reservoir probably in Union Park (above Taylor Park) for transfer to the Arkansas Basin via a tunnel. The third reservoir was a big Curecanti dam west of Gunnnison, at the site of Blue Mesa Dam today – but with a 2.5 maf reservoir that would be more than twice the size of the current Blue Mesa Reservoir, and that would back water up almost to the Twin Bridges.
The Gunn-Ark Project was vigorously and vehemently opposed by everyone in the Gunnison Basin all the way down to Grand Junction, but there was the awareness that, in such situations, perceptions of the greater good often trumped the smaller number.
It’s worth noting that, also in 1948, western Coloradans elected Palisades lawyer and general political figure Wayne Aspinall to the House of Representatives, where he would be returned again and again, for a quarter century like his role model Edward Taylor, eventually becoming “Mr. Chairman” of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs – giving him serious power in what might be called the final apotheosis of the Rooseveltian conception of conservation. But most of that is another story – or set of stories.
What happened to the Gunn-Ark transmountain diversion project? Within a little more than a year, the Gunnison Basin part of that grandiose plan simply disappeared, although construction eventually began for stage one, the Fryingpan River diversion, and the project became known as the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project. What happened: the Gunn-Ark Project had been dreamed up in the offices of the Bureau’s Great Plains Region, at the behest of Arkansas Basin farmers and the growing industrial city of Pueblo, but the Bureau’s Upper Colorado River region engineers had other, bigger plans for the Gunnison River and its water – plans that from an Upper Gunnison perspective, were even more ominous.
Those plans appeared in a 1950 draft for a huge vision called the Colorado River Storage Project – “CRSP” in short. The Colorado River Storage Project pulled some focus on the over-the-top shopping list in the ‘Natural Menace” report, but it was not much less grand in its scope. It was a plan that attempted to tie together in one big funding package the development of practically every notable tributary in the Upper Colorado River Basin – the source waters for all future development in the Lower Basin as well as the Upper. But it wanted to do this in a way that carried forward its original mission of helping small farm communities develop good irrigation systems – those drawers full of small-project feasibility studies that were unable to meet Congressional cost-benefit standards.
So the CRSP draft presented in 1950 was based on the construction of nine big “holdover” reservoirs – a set of reservoirs large enough to accumulate in above average water years three times the average annual flow of the entire Colorado River, a total of around 48 maf. The keystone of the holdovers would be Glen Canyon Dam, designed to alone hold almost twice the river’s average flow. This huge storage was down in the unsettled, even unknown canyons of the Colorado Plateau and was not for direct Upper Basin use; it was a bank account against the Upper Basin’s Colorado River Compact obligation to let an annual average of 8.25 maf flow to the Lower Basin and Mexico, come wet years or dry.
But each of these holdover reservoirs would have big hydropower capacity, capable of generating revenues sufficient (in Bureau theology) to not only pay for the holdover dams, but also to make up the cost-benefit deficiencies on what they called “participating projects” – those small agricultural irrigation projects to couldn’t make the cost-benefit numbers on their own. And the Bureau wanted to execute the whole program out of a common funding pot – with the repayment spread over fifty years rather than the forty years for existing Bureau projects. They wanted to submit an annual funding request for work to be accomplished in the given year on both the big regional holdover projects and the small local participating projects.
In the Upper Gunnison, people were torn. On the one hand, it was a plan that might eventually obtain for them the high storage for late season irrigation that they had long wanted – and as it was for all western Americans, belief in water storage ran a close second to belief in God – and probably came in first on utiity. But on the other hand, it also included, as one of the big holdover storage features, the Curecanti Dam and its 2.5 maf reservoir from the abandoned Gunn-Ark Project – more than twice the flow of Upper Gunnison tributaries, and roughly equal to the average annual flow of the entire Gunnison River. “Be careful what you wish for,” was the summary message; it’s one thing to believe in water storage as a general policy, another to contemplate immersion by it.
There was more than just garden-variety NIMBYism in their concern about the Curecanti Reservoir. Two small towns, Sapinero and Iola, would be immersed, along with a lot of small fishing resorts lining the river and several thousand acres of good ranch meadow. The city of Gunnison had a more subtle threat: the upper end of that reservoir would have been relatively shallow, and mud flats would have been quickly exposed as the reservoir was drawn down through power production; the blown dust in town would have been terrible. For a town increasingly committed to automobile tourism and small resorts, both growing rapidly after World War II, it would have been disastrous, aesthetically and economically.
But in their opposition to a Curecanti Dam as part of the Colorado River Storage Project, the people of Gunnison County found themselves alone. The rest of the Gunnison Basin had joined them in opposing storing that much water for a transmountain diversion, but no right-minded westerner at that time objected to the idea of water stored upstream. Nevertheless, the people of the Upper Gunnison valley made their concerns very public, and in April of 1951 the water leaders of the whole region gathered in Gunnison to see what could be worked out.
Gunnison News-Champion editor Wally Foster observed on the atmosphere surrounding this meeting: “To many, the lobby and smoke filled rooms of the Cattlemen’s Inn seemed like ‘old home week at the fraternity house’ as perennial students of the water problem greeted each other with hearty handshakes. The veterans of several wordy disputes of the past seemed to be drawn more closely together by the gravity of today’s proposal – Curecanti Dam.”
But in an editorial in the same paper, Foster was a little less mellow, and stated the larger underlying issue pretty directly: “If we blindly follow the doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number, then California should be able to wrangle enough political and financial power to make all of Western Colorado one big storage reservoir.”
The Colorado Water Conservation Board had convened that meeting in Gunnison, but was unable to persuade the 200 Gunnison people who showed up to commit themselves to “the greater good,” so they returned two weeks later to try again. In the interim, the Gunnisonites held a meeting and formed a “Gunnison Watershed Conservation Committee,” led by attorney Ed Dutcher and rancher/businessman Craig Goodwin, but encompassing every socioeconomic category and strata in the valley, from fishermen to the president of Western State College. The second meeting got no further than the first one had.
The rest of Gunnison Basin, and the West Slope for that matter, abandoned Gunnison County, and fully supported the Curecanti Dam and reservoir, so in June the entire Gunnison Watershed Conservation Committee went to Denver to make another appeal for delaying the project at least until the Bureau had made a study of all West Slope future water needs and the water supply.
They had another high card to play at that meeting. The Governor of Colorado at that time was Dan Thornton, an Upper Gunnison rancher probably elected as much for his prize Herefords as for his Texas politics. The Governor showed up at that meeting, and according to the Gunnison News-Champion, he “made it clear … that he could take no sides in this controversy as governor, but that, if it were not for his state office, ‘I would be sitting right down there among my neighbors to help on this matter in any way that I could.’” The non-position position.
This impasse finally began to move toward resolution on the Curecanti front in 1952, when the Bureau decided it could live with a considerably smaller reservoir – the 940,000 af reservoir we have today, with the reservoir level capped at a 7,520-foot elevation, a good 200 feet below Gunnison’s elevation. Exactly why the Bureau decided to not push harder and further is not part of the written record, at least not so far as I’ve been able to find. And Dick Bratton, who knows more about the unwritten record than anyone else I know, doesn’t have any inside info either.
My hypothesis is two-fold: first, the Bureau guys – and they were all guys then – in the Upper Colorado region were not unsympathetic to the people of the Upper Gunnison; they were mostly westerners before they were bureaucrats, and knew that even the smaller reservoir would immerse two small towns, and a flourishing fishing resort economy along a stretch of world-class fishing, not to mention thousands of acres of good southern-aspect ranchland.
But a second, less romantic but probably more accurate hypothesis would be that the Bureau was becoming aware that “the times they were a-changin’.” The whole conservation-through-reclamation project was getting serious and increasingly organized opposition from what they had always regarded – and usually been able to dismiss – as the elitist preservationist movement. The Sierra Club with David Brower, the Wilderness Society with Howard Zahniser, and some wild-card writers like Bernard DeVoto at Harper’s Magazine and novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner were suddenly getting popular support for a new concept of conservation – conserving our remaining resources from human uses rather than for human uses. The Curecanti issue was just a small potato in the pot coming to a boil around the Colorado River Storage Project – including a major confrontation over the Echo Park holdover reservoir, expert testimony that found flaws in Bureau mathematics, and all of that in a changing national perception of the public lands as playgrounds as well as working lands.
Even with Wayne Aspinall doing his wily best in Congress – and occasionally his worst – it took six years from the initial draft plan, and a lot of compromising and casting-off of project ideas, to finally get a Storage Project bill through Congress in 1956. The final CRSP Act only included four of the original nine holdover projects: Glen Canyon Dam on the mainstem, Flaming Gorge on the Green River in Utah and Wyoming, Navajo Reservoir on the San Juan River, and the Curecanti Unit on the Gunnison – and the Curecanti Unit was in the process of redesign, to come up with a new rationale since it would not be big enough to be a true multi-year holdover reservoir.
The final bill also included a commitment to fund eleven participating projects (none of which were in the Upper Gunnison) and additional funding to study another 24 possible participating projects, including Tomichi and Ohio Creeks, and the East River.
The Curecanti Unit was finally redesigned in a way that made it through the cost-benefit analysis by making it the integrated unit we have today, of three dams whose main purpose, along with around a million af of storage, was to be hydropower revenues – a cash-register project to help pay off the overall project costs. Because the people of the Upper Gunnison were still disappointed and not a little angry at what the valley was sacrificing to the greater good, the Bureau made some promises and concessions. They would replace the lost world-class fishing with purchased public access to streams elsewhere in the Upper Gunnison – a promise partly delivered on with their purchase of public access to Tomichi Creek through the “Gunnison Rising” development. But they still owe 8 or10 more miles. They also agreed to subordinate their senior right to up to 60,000 af of storable water above the reservoirs to future development in – and only in – the Gunnison Basin above the three dams.
And in the late 1950s they began drafting up plans for an Upper Gunnison River Project, a CRSP participating project to develop storage and additional irrigation structures in the Tomichi, Ohio and East River watersheds. In 1959, again led by Ed Dutcher, the people of the Upper Gunnison voted to tax themselves to create a Water Conservancy District to help the Bureau make that project happen.
But the project did not happen, not because the Bureau welshed on its promise but because the times they were indeed a-changing. An urbanized, industrialized America – itself something of a product of the big regional reclamation projects – simply lost its interest in building dams. The public increasingly saw the remaining public lands and rivers as a source of recreation and relief from their daily urban lives, and didn’t want them cluttered and messed up by resource development.
The three-dam Curecanti Unit – renamed for Congressman Aspinall in 1980 – was one of the last big reclamation projects to be built. The Bureau opened offices in Gunnison and Montrose in 1961, and began all the preliminary work for the project – acquiring the land from reluctant landowners being an early, large and somewhat unpleasant task. Rikki Santarelli, who grew up in Sapinero, said that the possibility of the Curecanti project hanging over their heads for years had effectively destroyed much of the property value. One rancher forced the Bureau to do condemnation proceedings – and he fared so badly in those proceedings that everyone else simply settled for the Bureau’s terms.
The Bureau also began to let contracts for preparatory work to be done – relocating US 50 to its present site, building the big bridges, clearing timber in the reservoir site, and beginning the diversion tunnel to get the river out of the way for construction on Blue Mesa Dam. Then the contracts for the big work, the dam and powerplant – and they quickly began the same work for Morrow Point downstream. For the rest of that decade and on into the next, construction of the three big dams continued. In 1976, the third dam, Crystal, was finally finished. But all of that was mostly just moving massive amounts of dirt, rocks and concrete around; the harder work had been done before anyone picked up a shovel.
It would be inaccurate to say that everyone, or maybe anyone, was entirely happy with the way the Curecanti challenge was resolved, but everyone also knew that it could have been a lot worse. And Blue Mesa Reservoir and the Curecanti National Recreation Area are a beautiful place that brings more people and dollars to the valley than the little fishing resorts ever did – but it is a very different beauty and, in the eyes of many, a different quality of experience. To most of the people in the valley today, myself included, the reservoirs are easy to think of as lakes that have always been there, at least so far as we know or can imagine.
And it is probably also good for us to remember this story, when the Rooseveltian greater good did not, in its service to the greater number, absolutely steamroll the smaller number – not out of any noblesse oblige, but because the people of the Upper Gunnison refused to lie down and be steamrolled, and got creatively aggressive in their own defense. Who knows when Gunnison Basin people might again find themselves up against a that kind of challenge.