Ruminating on rivers and water in the West

CU prof Limerick documents water's winding path to our faucets

Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly

Patty Limerick is sitting, incorrigible as ever, in her cluttered office, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “It’s a greater thing to be a good citizen than a good Republican or a good Democrat.”

It’s not just a lesson for the upcoming election. It’s also a glimpse into the mindset of a CU-Boulder professor who refuses to take the easy way out and point fingers when it comes to controversial issues. From the vilification of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to the criticism that the Denver Water Board has taken in recent decades for the ways it has secured H2O for the Front Range, Limerick seems to be willing to ignore popular opinion and take an objective, scientific look at what the real story is behind the hyperbole.

Regarding the former topic, which has made headlines in recent years thanks to questions about fracking’s possible health impacts, the director of CU’s Center of the American West may be on the verge of becoming one of its experts, historically speaking. Limerick is a co-investigator in CU’s fracking-related research proposal for a project that may be first in line for a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Funding for that multi-institution project, titled “Routes to Sustainability: Natural Gas Development and Air and Water Resources in the Rocky Mountain Region,” is expected to be announced within the next couple of weeks, and CU officials say the university could be named the lead university in the multi-disciplinary effort to examine the effects of hydraulic fracturing and related extraction processes.

For her part, Limerick points out that the term “fracking” refers only to a specific portion of the modern oil and gas extraction process, leaving out things like drilling, casing, transportation and disposal.

“Fracking has become the word for putting anything into the ground,” Limerick says with a wry smile, suggesting a possible conversation among local activists:

“Why are you fracking the garden?”

“I’m just planting a tomato.”

“No, you’re fracking.”

She takes the same approach to Western hydrology issues, of which fracking is not disassociated, thanks to its much-publicized use of millions of gallons of water.

When presented with the dilemma of siding with Denver Water for her new book (it helped fund the project) or joining with the chorus of environmental activists who have condemned the damming and redistribution of water on the Western Slope to feed the thirsty urban and suburban sprawl of the Front Range, she takes a rational approach, acknowledging both sides.

Apparently, it’s the timing of their arrival on the scene that is problematic.

Limerick’s A Ditch in Time: The City, the West, and Water, which she coauthored with Jason Hanson, presents a national case study — in this instance, Denver — for why there is so much tension now between past and current priorities when it comes to what has been called the new gold rush of the West.

And it involves a mirror.

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The writing project started about seven years ago, she explains, but was a piecemeal effort with multiple contributors that she didn’t reclaim and see through until two and a half years ago, when she began remodeling the manuscript — as workers were remodeling her house.

One of the central tenets of the book, released this month, is that Denver Water, originally charged with securing the water resources necessary to support a burgeoning population, in recent years has been told to be more respectful of the origins and other uses of that water.

“While I am not an apologist for Denver Water, working on this book has left me reluctant to offer a complacent condemnation of the organization and its leadership,” Limerick writes in the introduction. “Why? Because those of us who live in the American West today are dependent on, complicit with, and indebted to the organizations and institutions that disrupted the ecosystems and disturbed the landscapes that, a little late in the game, we came to treasure. This is a paradox that is not going to go away, and it is a source of much mischief if denied and evaded. Handled with honesty, the paradox provides the best footing we have for moving toward a more honest and productive relationship to natural resources and the managers to whom, for so long, we delegated the responsibility to acquire those resources and to supply them on demand.”

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Indeed, it is lawn waterers and unmindful tap-turners with whom Limerick seems to have the most issue.

As for the notion that we must have green lawns — in case we occasionally walk on them barefoot or the neighbors gaze upon them — she says it is only right that such hydration should be the first to go when we have watering restrictions. After all, more than half of Denver Water use goes toward outdoor irrigation.

“No one is going to fall over dead on a dry lawn,” Limerick says, laughing. “It is a standard of beauty brought from different locations and their rainfall and river size.”

Even if a good portion of the water that we use to make our grass green ends up back in the hydrological cycle, she asks, was it worth it to take it from the Western Slope?

And perhaps the most irritating people for Limerick are most of us: those who simply turn on the faucet and take it for granted, without being aware of what was involved in getting it into our house in the first place.

It is this water journey and its politics, specifically in the case of the metro Denver area, that Limerick focuses on in her new tome, which is a successor to The Legacy of Conquest, the 25-year-old book that helped make her one of CU’s faculty superstars.

Among the near-ridiculous paths that she documents in water’s local journey is the transference of runoff from the Western Slope via the Gumlick Tunnel over to the Front Range, then back to the Western Slope through the Vasquez Tunnel, and finally over the Continental Divide again through the Moffat Tunnel, to quench the demands of Denver-area residents and their landscapes.

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CU professor and author Patty Limerick

Limerick acknowledges on one of the book’s first pages that Denver Water provided funding to support some of the background research for the book, but that funding “carried no strings and placed no constraints on the book’s content, analysis, and interpretation.”

In short, Limerick insists that the contribution did not taint her examination of the organization’s activities and relationships. She says she followed the same path she always follows in an academic inquiry, learning about and representing all sides she can find.

“It’s like musical chairs, where you get to sit in someone else’s chair for a short time and move on,” Limerick says. “And you try to find a pattern in the universe.”

And she makes no apologies for coming to Denver Water’s defense where others have taken that institution to task, describing it as a case of changing priorities.

“Like many other agencies involved in natural-resource management, Denver Water scrupulously and wholeheartedly pursued goals that had been identified as progress,” she writes in the book. “Abruptly, the definition of progress changed directions. In the manner of Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde, projects that had once been perceived as advancing civilization, making the desert bloom, and supporting prosperity through growth were recategorized as intrusions and impositions that disrupted tranquil landscapes and natural harmony. Heroes of American development were recast as arrogant imperialists of human dominance.”

When it comes to an issue that hits home with Boulder-area residents, she says she can appreciate both sides of Denver Water’s controversial attempt to increase the size of Gross Reservoir through increased Western Slope diversions. Limerick explains that she has ties to both Denver Water and neighbors of Gross Reservoir, and while she acknowledges the valid complaints that have been made about the water giant’s effort to siphon even more of our most valuable liquid from the mountains and the already-parched Colorado River basin, she notes that there is “exurban sprawl” around the reservoir. Wells and homes have been built in sensitive environmental areas, and residents there use fossil-fuel vehicles and state-sponsored roads to get there, so no one is completely innocent, Limerick asserts.

“It’s hard to live on this planet without having an impact,” she says. “It’s very easy to live in Boulder and not realize that we are recipients of water diversion from the Western Slope.”

Her book is about “how oblivious I choose to be in the future,” she says. “We’re in better shape when we acknowledge that we’re complicit, too. … Maybe we should start handing out mirrors.”

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Limerick also raises the issue of density. Contrary to the ideals of Edward Abbey, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, she suggests that instead of trampling on more wild lands, it might be better to — gasp — increase building heights in Boulder. After all, she says, high-density development reduces our environmental footprint and reminds us “that we have feet, and can walk, or take the bus.”

Limerick adds that she is particularly intrigued when two opposite sides — like the ranchers and farmers who have historically been at odds with Denver Water over their most important resource — join together when faced with an apparent common enemy like the oil and gas industry, which needs water for fracking.

“That’s interesting to me when everyone is divided into teams, and fighting hard to win, and then they’re shaken up like dice,” she says. “I think that’s the magic moment I dream of, that realization that it’s hard to take these positions of purity.”

Everyone has a vested interest in seeing a well casing completed properly, perhaps the oil and gas industry the most, since it has the most to lose, Limerick says.

“Who has an interest in a contaminated water supply?” she asks. “Who goes home to his wife and says, ‘It was a great day, we contaminated a water supply, and that’s been on my bucket list for ages’? To be in a state of rage against each other and be dependent on each other, it’s not the best we can do.”

When asked how the research for the book changed her personal life and practices, Limerick cites predictable outcomes like adopting xeriscaping and reducing her home water usage.

Then she cites a twist in everyday encounters that we all take for granted.

“I can’t go to a drinking fountain without thinking, ‘This is really nice, having a drinking fountain,’” she says. “Or going to a restaurant and being offered water by the waiter and saying, ‘Why, how nice that is. And yes, I’d like water, but can I also get a half an hour to tell you about the network that brought it here?’”