Bob Crifasi’s new book dives deep into Colorado water history
Think of Robert R. “Bob” Crifasi as a kind of Zelig or Forrest Gump when it comes to water in Boulder, Denver and northern Colorado — he spent a quarter century getting his hands wet, both literally and figuratively, in countless ways.
He was hired as an environmental planner for Denver Water, the 800-pound trout of Front Range water agencies, to explore alternatives to the controversial proposed 615-foot-high Two Forks Dam on the South Platte River, which was vetoed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1991 under pressure from anglers and environmentalists.
Crifasi, who earned bachelor’s degrees in geology and chemistry and master’s degrees in geology and environmental science from the University of Colorado Boulder in the 1980s and ‘90s, has served on the boards of—and often, pitchforked weeds, trash and the occasional dead skunk for—11 Boulder County ditch companies, including the historic Anderson Ditch, which runs through the CU-Boulder campus.
And he spent 16 years as the “water wizard” — aka water resources administrator — for the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department, managing all of the city’s water-distribution ditches.
Every drop of that experience watered what he calls his “labor of love,” the highly accessible, deeply researched new book, A Land Made From Water: Appropriation and the Evolution of Colorado’s Landscape, Ditches, and Water Institutions (University Press of Colorado). The book focuses on Boulder but explores much larger questions about the past, and future, of water resources in the West.
“Personally, I find histories that only deal with the very local are missing something,” says Crifasi. “With this book, I wanted to really situate what was going on in Denver, on the South Platte, and how these things were nested.”
Personally, I find histories that only deal with the very local are missing something,” says Crifasi. “With this book, I wanted to really situate what was going on in Denver, on the South Platte, and how these things were nested.”
The book (whose title echoes a line by Colorado poet Thomas Ferril Hornsby: “Here is a land where life is written in water.”) begins with a concise history of water development in the West, noting that the Ancestral Pueblo people, who inhabited the area around Mesa Verde National Park in the Four Corners region, were building ditches and reservoirs for irrigation as early as 900 BCE.
The Spanish took some of those ideas and blended them with a cultural and political system of “acequias,” a word adapted from the Arabic “al saqiya,” meaning “water conduit.”
Crifasi then explores the development of Boulder County’s earliest ditches. The area was dry indeed before pioneers began digging the first ditches 1859, using shovels and horse-drawn “Fresno scraper” plows.
“I think we can safely state that east of the foothills, from approximately Coal Creek on the south to St. Vrain on the north, there were virtually no lakes present prior to active settlement,” Crifasi writes.
He tackles the famous Colorado Supreme Court decision, Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Company, which ensconced the idea of “first in time, first in right” as the most basic principle in Western water management. The case established that owning land did not automatically convey rights to water passing through.
“Today, Colorado’s Prior Appropriation system has become a symbol for the preference of private property over common property, the privatization of public resources, and the rule of markets to distribute natural resources,” Crifasi writes.
Ironically, he notes, prior appropriation was widely understood at the time as a blow against control of water by the wealthy who could afford to buy land — and the establishment of the Left Hand Ditch Company in 1863 grew out of the kind of cooperative that many would revile as “socialist” today.
Crifasi also relates the history of large-scale public water projects on the Front Range, from the Moffat Tunnel pipeline to Gross Dam and Reservoir and the Colorado-Big Thompson Project.
He ranged far afield chasing down sometimes-tiny details to enrich the text and delves into subjects that would not, at first glance, necessarily appear relevant to the topic. He went to a tiny town in New Mexico, for example, to learn more about Marcellus St. Vrain, who managed Fort St. Vrain on the South Platte.
Crifasi also plunged into one of Colorado’s most shameful historical incidents, the brutal massacre of between 150 and 500 Arapaho Indian women, children and elderly at Sand Creek in 1864. The military units that carried out the slaughter included many prominent Boulder County water pioneers—Jonas Anderson Jr. and Porter M. Hinman, who helped start Left Hand, Morse Coffin, and Capt. David H. Nichols, the co-founder of North Boulder Farmers Ditch, who helped lead the massacre.
The incident, described by witnesses in gory detail before a congressional committee, was driven by railroad politics and led to a “land grab.”
And “(b)ecause the Americans had won, the settlers could impose their legal systems governing water, land, minerals, and other resources in Colorado,” Crifasi writes.
“Those Congressional reports make for devastating reading,” he says. “I’ve brought CU groups on tours of the Anderson Ditch, and it struck me, there I was giving this presentation to all these kids, and there was all this intense history. It’s affected me in a more than an academic way.”
The book is a history, but not entirely backward-looking. Crifasi explores conflicts between farmers and land managers. He once ran into a young biologist who had found leopard frogs, a federal species of concern, in a local ditch and ordered that it the area not be disturbed.
“I wholeheartedly shared his desire to protect the species. But the problem was that these frogs migrated into and now occupy habitat that was created by people,” Crifasi writes.
“Never mind that if someone like me didn’t get the laterals cleaned, there would be no point for the rancher to turn water into the laterals so he might irrigate his hay meadow. The laterals would simply dry out and cease providing tadpole habitat or a source of water for the hay meadow. … It felt like to me that he wanted … some kind of frog Valhalla. Our conversation made me feel like a callous frog killer for even suggesting it might be necessary to occasionally disturb the habitat … so that we might perpetuate it.”
But don’t think Crifasi is the sort of guy who might spend a weekend taking potshots at feds alongside the likes of the anti-government group that recently occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon; he has absolutely no truck with ranchers who refuse to see the value of preservation.
“Those guys just want to take down the sign that says ‘welcome to your public lands’ and put up a ‘no trespassing’ sign, for free,” he says. “People who support them are forgetting that these lands once were private, first taken from the Indians, next privatized, then overgrazed until the owners were bailed out by the federal government.”
Clay Evans is a free-lance writer in Boulder.