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Grand Lake gives ‘Where’s Our Water’ presentation

Lake Granby feeds the Colorado River, which provides drinking water to nearly 40 million people.
Ian MacDonald / Sky-Hi News

With Colorado River Basin water issues top of mind in Grand County these days, the Grand Lake Area Historical Society gave a presentation June 8 that asked the question “Where’s Our Water?”

Society president Jim Cervenka focused on the history and current condition of the Colorado River and Grand Lake. The Colorado River Compact, which settled interstate Colorado River water rights disputes, turns 100 years old this year and inspired Cervenka’s presentation.

“Grand Lake being at the beginning of the Colorado River, seems like we should know at least as much as anybody else about how water is used,” Cervenka said.



He emphasized that nearly 40 million people rely on the Colorado River for their water and that the river has not reached the Pacific Ocean in years, except for a few weeks in 2014.

Because the river supplies seven states with water, the federal government stepped in 100 years ago to negotiate the Colorado River Compact. Cervenka said the creators of the compact made a mistake when estimating the river’s output, expecting 16.4 million acre-feet per year when the flow was actually closer to 13.5 million acre-feet per year.



Demand for the Colorado River’s water has only grown since 1922, and Cervenka said the supply has diminished. He referenced the Aug. 2021 federal declaration of a water shortage in the Colorado River, the first of its kind.

Cervenka listed some solutions he sees as somewhat practical, like using underground pipes, promoting low-water xeriscaping and replacing some high-water-consuming crops like hay and alfalfa with cotton and wheat. He also included more energy-intensive ideas, like making the 500-mile Green River into a canal, desalination and piping Missouri River water to the west.

Irrigation uses 70% of the Colorado River’s water, Cervenka said. He thinks decreasing irrigation’s share of the water could help the situation.

“Yes, we need to irrigate, we need to grow the food,” Cervenka said. “A lot of us like to have a steak every once in a while, we need the grassland. But is there a better way to get the water on the crops so that those crops can thrive as well?”

Throughout the presentation, Cervenka identified climate change as one cause of water shortages along the Colorado River. He said the river gets its water from snowpacks, which do not grow as large and melt too quickly as the climate changes and winters get shorter. 

Cervenka said he meets people from the east who complain about having too much water and tells them climate change causes that issue as well.

“At some point, people are going to realize that it’s not a hoax,” Cervenka said. “It’s not a political thing. It is science. It is proven. It is happening.”

Besides climate change, Cervenka identified the nine-fold population increase in the Colorado River basin over the last 100 years as a cause of strain on the river. He highlighted Las Vegas’ expansion from around 2,000 residents in 1920 to over 2 million in its metropolitan area today.

Cervenka closed the presentation by focusing on water in Grand County. He highlighted the 1947 completion of the Alva B. Adams Tunnel, which carries water from Grand Lake under Rocky Mountain National Park to the Front Range. 

Other projects, like the Windy Gap Project, combined with the Adams Tunnel to expand the Big Thompson Project and deliver water to more than 1 million people on the other side of the Continental Divide. Taking water out of Grand Lake and Lake Granby, though, takes water away from the Colorado River.

“I remember 2002, 2003, when they could not pump any more water out of Lake Granby,” Cervenka said. “It was at the bottom.”

After the presentation, the audience asked questions and discussed how to improve the situation. In response to a question about solutions, Jim said we need to put heat on congressmen to take action, particularly on climate change. 

“We can live without oil, we can live without natural gas,” Cervenka said. “We cannot live without water.”


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