Colorado State Historian, Patty Limerick to speak at GCHA annual dinner |

Colorado State Historian, Patty Limerick to speak at GCHA annual dinner

Patricia Nelson Limerick

Patty Limerick is the Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, she is also a Professor of History.

This year she was chosen as the Colorado State Historian.

Limerick was born and raised in Banning, California, and graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1972.

She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University in 1980, and from 1980 to 1984 she was an Assistant Professor of History at Harvard.

She joined the History Department of the University of Colorado in 1984 and as of 1991 is a Full Professor.


Desert Passages, 1985

The Legacy of Conquest, 1987

Something in the Soil 2000

A Ditch in Time: The City, the West, and Water, 2012

MacArthur Fellowship (1995 to 2000)

Hazel Barnes Prize 2001

Guest columnist for The New York Times 2005

Op-ed writer of local and national newspapers

In 1986, Limerick and CU Law Professor Charles Wilkinson founded the Center of the American West.

Books published at the Center:

Atlas of the New West (1997),

What Every Westerner Should Know About Energy (2003)

Cleaning Up Abandoned Hardrock Mines in the West (2006)

What Every Westerner Should Know About Energy Efficiency and Conservation (2007)

A film, The Lover’s Guide to the West (2010)

If you want to learn (without falling asleep) about how Denver gets their water from our rivers in Grand County, I recommend reading A Ditch in Time: The City, the West, and Water. Celebrated historian and writer, Patty Limerick will be at C Lazy U at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 5 for the Grand County Historical Society’s annual dinner to speak about western water and Colorado history.

I read A Ditch in Time in three days. Since it doesn’t read like a manual or legal document, it reads like a mystery novel that you can’t wait to get to the end; I didn’t want to put it down. Limerick’s history of dams and diversions is completely engaging especially since we all know what happens. To learn about the history of Denver Water and diversions on the Western Slope with her writing style was the most pleasurable historical reading experience.

The seven chapters chart the history of Denver Water and diversions with names such as “Go Take It from the Mountain” and “A Horrifying Jigsaw Puzzle; The Uncertain Course of the Rivers of Empire”. My favorite section of the book was the final section: Conclusion. Turning Hindsight in to Foresight – Denver Water as a Parable. She concludes her book with several “Mistaken Assumptions” about the connection between water and growth. The one most interesting (to me) being “Mistaken Assumption Number 3: In opinions on and judgments of competing demands for water, use for farms and ranches carries a greater ethical integrity and is more justifiable than the use of water for environmentally parasitic cities and suburbs. …. Better Assumption Number 3: There are many good reasons to reject old appraisals of the distribution of virtue and the corresponding allocation of water between rural and urban areas and to search instead for the ties that link the well-being of both domains.” (265-270)

But the best part, after reading A Ditch in Time, I can now read stories and news articles from all the players (Denver Water, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy, etc.) and understand the historical context. I remember the history of creating new reservoirs and the controversies of expanding them, without just thinking, “they are stealing our water”.

Sandra Dallas of the Denver Post said this about A Ditch in Time:

“Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick has done the impossible. She’s made a history of the Denver Water Department interesting.”

Limerick has written several books, essays, and articles for Denver area newspapers. She writes in a style that is conversation-like. If you have read her books or watched the videos available on YouTube and Vimeo about her Western American history philosophy which applies historical perspective to contemporary dilemmas and conflicts, you will see a woman who is passionate about telling the tales of history in the west in a way that will make you want to keep reading, learning, and laughing.

Limerick is not a fall-asleep-in-class type of academic.

While Limerick will talk about her thoughts on eastern and western Colorado and how diversions play a factor, she also is aware that Grand County folks know more about the Fraser than she does.

“Many years ago, I thought that there would be some understood right of the basic origin,” she said in a phone interview on Tuesday, Nov. 1.

“Rain falls, people would have claim. It’s not true, maybe it should be true.”

While researching water systems for writing the book she would say to her students the eastern part of the US is so different from the western part.

“It’s mostly true but then during the project I discovered the water supply for New York City is very western. You pile up people in a locale and exceed flows. There are few creeks so you have to go out of basin.” The same goes for Boston.

“The systems are different but the urban water supply out of basin can look similar.”

She is happy that people are still reading A Ditch in Time because water management needs to be taken it seriously.

“Denver Water is important, and the Bureau of Reclamation is a powerful entity, but there are other players in urban development,” she said.

Donald Worster wrote Rivers of Empire and in the book he has the idea that Western water is in centralized control.

“When I started writing A Ditch in Time I wasn’t seeing one empire. There were so many rival groups for opportunity and power over natural resources. It couldn’t be one well-oiled empire it was many empires,” she said.

Next Book

Limerick is currently working on her next project about the role of the Department of Interior in the West. In the 2000s, former Interior Secretaries came to her college to be interviewed.

“We interviewed them in Boulder including former Interior chairs, land managers, and geological survey people.”

The idea percolated for a book about the Department of Interior with reflections on how the department shaped the west. She estimates publication in a year-and-a-half.


With a busy speaking schedule, teaching and running Center of the American West, I wanted to know about her writing process.

“I’m not an example to the world,” she said.

She had a system of using her speeches as field-testing for a book or article ideas.

“I would deliver the idea in a spoken manner and listen and watch the audience. Maybe one part worked or something wasn’t clear.”

Her speeches would possibly turn into written text for publication.

After the publication of her most popular book The Legacy of Conquest in 1987 people told her speaking engagements would peter out. She actually looked forward to it so she could get back to writing more books.

“But the invitations haven’t petered out,” she said.

As a popular lecturer and speaker Grand County is lucky to have her here to speak about the Fraser River and water diversion.

“People are generous and ask me to speak about things where my knowledge is not deep. I race around and take in new information.”

Limerick hopes to listen more than talk during the Grand County Historical dinner on Saturday night.

“I want to talk to the people who are experts about the Fraser River, the ones who live here,” she said.

“This is why I like a trip like this. I am put in company with people that know first hand. I’m delighted with the prospect of being in their company.”

Related reading: Her article on becoming Colorado’s State Historian,

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