“A Ditch in Time” (Denver Water)

Patricia Nelson Limerick‘s 2012 book on Denver water supply holds fascination, even for the Florida experience. A Ditch in Time goes deeply into Denver water issues (like the precedent-setting demise of the proposed Two Forks dam) but also provides many general lessons.

The book disputes some dominant generalizations about Western water management, whose influence reaches into Florida water discussions. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, for example, is a great book but the notion of a centralized “hydraulic empire” was overstated in the book when published in 1987 and is even less true today (due in part to Reisner’s influence!). Another example: Modern scholarship provides an alternative to the traditional stories of corrupt Western water deals portrayed in the movie Chinatown.

Perhaps of most Florida interest is the final chapter, “Turning Hindsight into Foresight: Denver Water as a Parable.” Five “Mistaken Assumptions” and “Better Assumptions” are offered for consideration. Each of them is explained carefully and could stir thinking for analogous Florida circumstances. Two excerpts:

Mistaken Assumption Number 1: The supply of water and the rate of population growth and residential development are inherently and inevitably intertwined. To increase population growth and residential land development, add water. To limit population growth and residential land development, stop adding water. Thus, agencies like Denver Water could control growth if their leaders would face up to their responsibilities.

Better Assumption Number 1: Water is only one factor in population growth and not always the most important one. Controlling water does not necessarily translate into authority over growth.

Mistaken Assumption Number 3: In opinions on and judgments of competing demands for water, use for farms and ranches carries a greater ethical integrity and is more justifiable than the use of water for environmentally parasitic cities and suburbs.

Better Assumption Number 3: There are many good reasons to reject old appraisals of the distribution of virtue and the corresponding allocation of water between rural and urban areas and to search instead for the ties that link the well-being of both domains.

Worth thinking about. After all, there is a Florida River in Colorado.


“A Ditch in Time” (Denver Water) — 2 Comments

  1. It”s been 25 years since I read Reisner’s book, but I keep it handy for reference (it’s just 2 feet away from me in my office now). I’ve lived and worked in water supply in California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona over the last 35 years. There are overlapping similarities in their institutional approaches to water supply regulation. I agree that water supply is only one factor influencing population growth, and it is rarely the most influential factor. I’m completely with you on “Better Assumption Number 3.”

  2. You might want to find the 1993 “edition” of Cadillac Desert with a new Afterword. To me, it seems a bit more hopeful than the original edition. Not dreamy hopeful but maybe pointing more to a better possible future.