The Water Traders

100-Year-Old Exchanges Along the Cache la Poudre

In dry years like the West has experienced recently, it's not hard to understand why water has always been a source of power and struggle among the haves and have-nots. When Colorado was still wild, many water disputes were settled with gunfights and fist fights; today, water is as precious a commodity as ever, and its management is sometimes still a source of contention.

About 100 years ago, residents and water managers along the Cache la Poudre River began the practice of trading water as a peaceful way to manage the river so the needs of all residents were met equitably and with mutual benefit. For example, when an upstream owner needed more water in the spring than the fall while a downstream owner needed more water in the fall than the spring, the two groups traded water. Today, the practice of water exchanges continues, but water management and water resources to serve ever more diverse needs and people who may not understand and value the old system are becoming strained.

In a recent study, John Wilkins-Wells, a senior research scientist in the Department of Sociology, and several colleagues found that not only does the long-trusted system of water exchanges still work and work fairly well, but the system also continues to illustrate how managers can cooperate inexpensively to share scarce resources.

"Water exchanges play an important role in the Poudre River Basin because they accommodate different needs in the upper and lower basin, different junior and senior water right holders, and differences in water availability," says Wilkins-Wells. "Water exchanges are a socially important strategy in meeting demands and reducing conflict over water because they require communities to work cooperatively in managing their water resources. Water exchanges are inexpensive and don't require a lot of infrastructure; in fact, they often decrease the need for new storage facilities because they allow water to be moved around the basin to address specific needs in a flexible system."

In recent years, the use of water exchanges has caused conflict as water is reallocated to fill urban needs. Water exchanges can be viewed as a nuisance by municipalities and recreational interests. With increased pressure from urban use, water exchanges also are frequently harder to perform because there is less water that isn't being used.

Many water users in the Poudre Valley feel that if the water exchanges are discontinued because of new demands, agricultural production in the valley will decrease. Agriculture is important to the area economically and aesthetically by providing wildlife habitat and open space. Water exchanges allow landowners to water crops and pastures later in the season than normal stream flow would allow, meeting the modest but important differences in the upper-and lower-basin growing seasons.

"The big downside is the potential disruption to important water exchanges that meet crop production needs and maintain a balance in canal flows. These exchanges often are forgone because a cooperating exchange partner no longer can be found due to changing philosophies," says Wilkins-Wells. "Irrigated lands in the Rocky Mountain region are unique, producing crops that represent an important, irreplaceable sector of national food production. For instance, the removal of production through urbanization tends to directly affect farmers who raise specialty crops, vegetables, fruits, berries, sugar beets, beans, potatoes, and barley that consumers enjoy as fresh, local produce and important feed crops for the red meat and dairy industry."

Wilkins-Wells points out that new management options - such as water markets, water rentals, interruptible water supplies, water banks, expanded water reuse capabilities, and pressurized secondary supply systems - are in part expansions of water exchanges.

"Water exchanges play a role in all of these new approaches to water management. They are the lubricant for other practices," says Wilkins-Wells. "If water exchanges are lost or disrupted due to a misunderstanding about their function or importance, then the entire river basin management program begins to unravel. Whether or not they are central to river basin management today may be questioned, but they are certainly an essential component of this management."