Water would make or break a farm in Colorado. Here, water access was more significant-- and scanty-- than land. The lives of rural people, therefore, revolved around their ability to manage their streams and rivers.
Early on, Coloradoans adopted the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation-- a system that distributed water based upon the date of a user’s first claim to that water. Sometimes called “First in Time, First in Right,” this system prevailed in western states where there usually wasn’t enough water to go around.
To the first settlers, Colorado’s yucca plants and bleached summer grasses must have hinted at a suspiciously arid landscape. But they discovered that the parched-looking spaces could yield satisfactory crops…if irrigated.
Irrigation flume. Colorado State University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections, Historical Photographs Collection.
Colorado's high mountains attracted winter storms and could trap large quantities of snow. The gradually melting snowpack charged the rivers, eventually flowing through the lower lands during the growing season. The trick was to successfully move the water out of the streams and onto the land. Early individual and cooperative efforts provided some degree of irrigation, but typically not as much as hoped for. It became clear that efficient irrigation called for a much greater degree of capital and technical expertise. Ditch companies and districts developed on a local level, uniting community resources. Not surprisingly, politicians, engineers and lawyers assumed powerful roles in the agrarian landscape of Colorado.
Some water projects demanded more than any local community had to give. The federal government stepped in, initiating massive efforts to move more water to farming areas. The US Bureau of Reclamation built monumental tunnels and dams, often shunting water from one drainage into another. In one of the Bureau’s most dramatic endeavors, the Colorado-Big Thompson Water Diversion Project (completed in the 1950s) brought Colorado River water under the continental divide to users along the Front Range.
Deadman Ditch. Colorado State University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections, Historical Photographs Collection.
Colorado State University's Water Resources Archive consists of collections from individuals and organizations that have been instrumental in the development of water resources in Colorado and the West: https://lib.colostate.edu/archives/water/.