The feature documentary, Watering the West: A Water Western STARRING The Cache la Poudre River, is the story of water in the American West from the perspective of the Cache La Poudre River, where Benjamin Eaton, whose portrait in stained glass hangs on the walls of Denver’s capitol with the caption, “Honest Plodder,” dug canals all along the river, defying the word “uninhabitable;” a word penned by Major John Long in 1820 when he declared the area “unfit for cultivation.” The only federally designated Wild and Scenic River in Colorado originates high on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, trickles down backcountry hillsides, swells at Joe Wright Reservoir on Cameron Pass, and carves the Poudre Canyon, pulsing through the Front Range Colorado city of Fort Collins and finally meandering onto the Eastern Plains where Greeley and other agricultural cities use water for farming, feedlots, and growing populations. This river is at the center of the western water wars and its work life is about to change again. The City of Thornton in metropolitan Denver seeks clearances and right-of-ways for a 70-mile pipeline to carry the pure waters of the “Poudre” to its residents who have been paying for the water since the 1980s when Thornton quietly slipped a broker $50 million for a water buy from desperate Weld County farmers.
Watering the West is the story of a little river with big demands on its flows: whitewater runners prize the Poudre for terrain from beginner to advanced; ecologists want to save and restore the river; city planners, water moguls, realtor groups, and natural gas companies want to use it. Since beer is 90% water, Budweiser, New Belgium and dozens of microbreweries trust the quality of their beer to the pure waters of this river. All buy water from farms in a time of looming trade wars and increased emphasis on local food systems. This is one trend that alarms BOTH environmentalists and supporters of the working river. Lifting water from farms spells doom for this traditionally agricultural state. Once farm water is transferred to municipal use in water court, it can never be used again for farming. The Poudre, like better-known Colorado rivers, is over appropriated. This is what keeps water Commissioner, Mark Simpson, up at night. “When Thornton takes its water…” says Simpson in the film, trailing off and shaking his head slowly when speaking of this over allocation.
Watering the West is a story told through the recreators, farmers, water brokers and managers, city planners, beer brewers, policy makers, and citizens of Colorado, all of whom depend on this water to live in the “Great American Desert” that we call home. The film follows backpackers as they navigate the backcountry reaches of the Poudre, to celebrate a 50th birthday with lifelong friends, and wonder, “Can we safely cross the raging river with a footbridge out or will the trip end there?” A third generation farmer experiments with no till cultivation to save water and converts farm ground to drip irrigation, betting that his efforts will attract organic growers and greater revenues so that he can keep farming and resist selling his water rights. An animated history maps the 1874 fight between early Greeley irrigators and the upstream Fort Collins Agricultural Colony that spurred the Colorado Constitution’s 1876 Prior Appropriation Doctrine of water allocation still in use by nine western states. Actors reenact the story of Ken and Nels Nelson as they recount the day when broker Duane Rennels came to call and would not take “no” for an answer, following them to a local restaurant so he could secure his commission bonus in the big secret Thornton water buy of 1986. In the film viewers learn what happened to the tiny farm town of Ault after the Denver city became the largest landowner in Weld County, Colorado. And through it all, MaryLou Smith, Colorado Water Institute Policy and Collaboration Specialist, brings together water business and environmental interests—traditional enemies on the Poudre River—not to fight, but to fellowship and spawn cooperative projects like fish passageways on ditch structures, making Colorado the world leader in cooperative efforts around water innovation, conservation, and use. The weave of these stories maps the adopted water history and law of the American West that originated in Colorado as Watering the West asks and attempts to answer the question, “Who owns the water in Colorado?”