The Black Canyon and the Two Chambers of the Western Heart

George Sibley

“Beneficial use and preservation—the two chambers of the western heart….”

- Justice Greg Hobbs, Colorado Supreme Court

            The Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, a couple hours south and west of Crested Butte, is worth the trip for the natural spectacle alone. From the dry side of the Uncompahgre Valley east of Montrose, the road to the Black Canyon climbs steeply up past some nestled farmland mixed with rugged rock outcrops, into a scrubby forest of mixed pinon, cedar and Gambrel’s oak—then suddenly the earth opens off to the right of the road and you are looking across and into a wound, a gash in the earth half a mile deep.

“Beautiful” is not the first thought that comes to mind—not mine, anyway. This is more “shock and awe” scenery—from the dark brown-black tones of the rock in the opposite wall, closer than the other side of a canyon that deep should be, to the twisted tortured history evident in that fire-forged rock, to the tiny silver thread of the river so far below, there is a rawness here that gets gentled over with the loose debris of erosion and plant life most places, even in the West, but the Black Canyon still confronts one with how rough nature can play.

The story of the Black Canyon and its origins offers little support to the idea of intelligent design in nature. The Gunnison River initially formed as most rivers do: water picking its paths of least resistance to create a network of liquid cutters and conveyors for tearing down and carrying mountains off to the sea. It’s what water does. But what the evolving river couldn’t know, as it ate down through layers of fused volcanic ash and mud laid down west of where Gunnison is today, was the presence beneath those layers of a big intrusive blurp of hard metamorphic granite. And a million years ago the river ate its way down onto that hard dark rock and had no choice but to continue eating down into that, trapping itself in a deepening canyon rather than developing an expansive floodplain valley like it does above and below its canyons.

            But that story of natural confusions and ironies, working themselves out over a million years, is almost trumped by a story of cultural confusions and ironies focused around the Black Canyon that have piled up over a mere century. And a trip down the Gunnison’s valley from Crested Butte to the Black Canyon is enhanced by an awareness of the story one travels through—a story that ties the beautiful green “open space” fields from Crested Butte on west of Gunnison, then the long body of Blue Mesa Reservoir, into the story of the canyon in a way that puts Justice Hobbs’ “western heart” in conflict with itself over the river that runs through it all.

            The “beneficial use” chamber of the western heart began beating here soon after the Civil War, with people moving into the Gunnison Basin—first into the mountains around the Basin in search of gold and silver, an “urban frontier” of boom towns, with farmers and ranchers gradually filling in the valleys below the towns, first to feed the miners something besides what came out of cans, then taking advantage of the railroads that followed the mines to ship cattle and produce to the cities.

            The choice parts of the valley were “appropriated from the commons” through homesteading, by those who “added their labor to the land”; much of the river’s water was appropriated in the same way, at the same time, since without the water applied through irrigation, the land produced nothing to take to market—and a “beneficial use” of either land or water had to involve some economic benefit to some human.

                        Land stays more or less in place, so it’s easy to prove a property title on it, but water keeps moving through, and not always in the same quantities from year to year. So all that could be “owned” there was a right to use the water, and that right had to be attached to a time rather than a place: those who started using the water first had the first right to use it from then on; seniority is all in western water use, and in bad water years, junior users have to surrender their right to use it to the senior right holders.

            The ranchers in the Upper Gunnison Basin, south of Crested Butte and around Gunnison, discovered that the alluvial floodplain they were raising hay on soaked up prodigious amounts of water—“the sponge,” they call it. Many of the ranch families still in the valley today have very senior water rights that go back into the 1880s—but not for enough water to keep “the sponge” filled up to root levels. So they all applied for an additional three cubic feet per second of water—enough to cover three acres a foot deep in a 12-hour day—and that right to use was granted in 1941. Remember that date.

            To those utilitarian and industrious early settlers—my own great-grandparents among them, over on the North Fork of the Gunnison—the Black Canyon was literally “useless,” and mostly in the way. The first person to half-hike, half-swim through the canyon was a railroad engineer who barely survived the experience, and the railroad did not try to go there. But as Americans became wealthier in the early 20th century, and took to the automobile, it became evident that catering to tourists was another beneficial use that could be milked from the land. And spectacular advanced erosion being a phenomenon of great fascination for civilized peoples, the people of the Uncompahgre Valley, adjacent to the canyons of the Gunnison River, began to lobby for preservation of the Black Canyon as a National Monument.

            This finally came to pass in 1933—remember that date. It was the depths of the Great Depression and a lousy time for tourism, but the people figured their time would come, and over the decades that followed, the Black Canyon drew growing attention; in 1999 was upgraded to National Park status.

            Thus did the people of the valley venture into that second chamber of the western heart—although maybe not knowingly. Something that the people of the Gunnison Basin did not really think about much, except for a handful of water lawyers, was a kind of a time bomb that this federal designation set and armed. The Supreme Court had already established that, when the federal government “reserved” a piece of the public domain for any specific purpose—Indian reservation, National Park, National Forest—it also reserved enough water to carry out that purpose. And the specific purpose of the Black Canyon National Monument was to “preserve and protect the natural and cultural resources” of the canyon for future generations as those “resources” were in 1933.

            But the Black Canyon was a natural phenomenon created by water—lots of water, coming in pulsing spring floods as the snow melted in the surrounding mountains. In addition to digging the canyon a little deeper, these floods scoured the canyon of all growing things and the rocks and debris that fell from the walls. Thus, to preserve and protect the canyon as it was in 1933, the Park Service needed at least an occasional flood. This was in the back of everyone’s mind, but the Park Service seemed in no great hurry to quantify its reserved water right, so it was a worry deferred.

            Meanwhile, a couple decades after the National Park Service took over the Black Canyon, the Bureau of Reclamation—another arm of the U.S. Interior Department—finally pushed through the Congress the Colorado River Storage Project, to build some big dams on the upper tributaries of the Colorado River. Back in the early 1900s, the Bureau had already carved a tunnel from just above the Black Canyon over to farmers in the Uncompahgre Valley east of Montrose; in the 1950s and 60s the CRSP built three big dams in a row in the Gunnison River canyons—also above the National Monument. The purpose of these dams was storage, power generation—and flood control.

            Perhaps you can sense a bit of a disconnect in those last two paragraphs—a situation in which the Bureau hand of Interior did not know what the Park Service hand was doing. Or maybe there was awareness that placing three large flood-containing dams upstream from a place that required occasional floods to “preserve and protect its natural resources” was a contradiction that might cause some kind of a problem somewhere in the future—but surely we would be capable of solving that problem then…. A lot of choices in the West got deferred that way—the Choice Deferred might be called the “pattern of settlement” for the West: never make a choice between this and that today if there’s a chance that tomorrow we’ll have come up with the technology to defer the choice again.

            But now, the future seems to be here, and we seem to be low on technological fixes for further deferring the hard choices. The Park Service has become increasingly concerned about the extent to which the bottom of the Black Canyon is getting choked with brush and rock debris, and they finally set off that ticking time bomb: in 1999 the newly designated National Park filed a claim in water court for a substantial flushing flow of water with a possible reserved-right date of 1933—this on a river already pretty much fully appropriated.

            All hell did break loose. Within a matter of days, there were almost 400 oppositions filed against the Park Service claim: the ranchers above the canyons with their 1941 decrees, communities below the dams who liked the flood protection, and everyone else junior to that including the Bureau of Reclamation—everyone in the Basin was upset. The Park Service immediately set about trying to negotiate peace in the valley through accommodation. They claimed no intention to put five-generation ranchers out of business, or to flood downstream towns and cities that had built into the floodplain since the big dams went in; all they wanted was an occasional flush of the canyon.

            The negotiations were actually proceeding well in the early years of the new century, with the Park Service willing to subordinate its 1933 claim to practically every junior right up to 1999, so long as the Bureau could work a flood for them into an Environmental Impact Statement the Bureau was already preparing to meet the needs of four endangered fish species down where the Gunnison met the Colorado near Grand Junction—needs remarkably consistent with what the Park Service wanted for the Black Canyon flush.

            But meanwhile—this is a story with lots of “meanwhiles”—the burgeoning metropolis around Denver across the Continental Divide, having about exhausted the amount of water it can drain from the upper Colorado River valleys, has been nosing around the Upper Gunnison Basin since the late 1980s for potential future water. Two efforts to find water for a big reservoir in Union Park, high in the Taylor River tributary of the Gunnison, had failed in water court, but while their appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court had shut the door on that idea, the Court had opened a big window by helpfully suggesting that, after the agricultural runback from all those big ranch decrees had accumulated in Blue Mesa Reservoir, there might be a “marketable pool” of Bureau of Reclamation water there that Front Range counties could lease and pipe through the Divide.

But that pool would surely disappear if the Black Canyon got a priority right on enough water to flush the canyon periodically—even with a date as late as 1999—so the Front Range “water buffalos” and Secretary of Interior Gale Norton—a Coloradoan who never saw a private-sector development she didn’t like—tried an end run around the unfolding negotiations in Western Colorado, crafting an agreement well outside of public process, in which “the State of Colorado” and the Federal Government agreed that the Park Service’s water right would, in effect, be forever junior to any water rights or Bureau leases in the future.

You don’t need to be a water lawyer to understand that that would be no water right at all, and a host of environmental groups immediately sued the government, charging Interior with abandoning its legal responsibility to “preserve and protect” the National Parks. A federal judge agreed, this past fall, and Interior decided, probably wisely, to drop its bluff. The Front Range water buffalos have not given up; but for the moment, it is all back in the negotiation process on the West Slope, as everyone tries to figure out how to keep everyone in business and still clean out the Black Canyon occasionally.

            And this doesn’t even mention the ominous string of below-average precipitation years and the possible impacts of global climate change on the whole western water supply picture.

            So as you drive to the Black Canyon from Crested Butte—past those beautiful fields, past the reservoir that looks like a lake that might have been there forever (and take the short detour in Cimarron, down to Morrow Point Dam, beautiful even if you don’t like dams), and then up over that lump of intrusive granite that precipitated the whole business, to the raw gash of the Black Canyon itself—think of all this underlying turbulence: it makes the scenery that much more real, in the conflicted way of the western heart.