The Difference Between Whiskey and Water

As a former Front Range Coloradoan and newly converted Western Sloper, I’ve attempted in the past to use this column a medium for explaining the differences that exist on each side of the Continental Divide.

But there is probably one topic that drives the biggest wedge between both sides. If I had to pick one issue—and one issue only—that makes me genuinely anxious about the future, that issue would be water. More specifically, Western Coloradoans are apprehensive about our water being diverted to fulfill the needs of the Front Range.

Seriously. It’s a thought that keeps many up at night out here.

The old saying goes: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.” Undoubtedly, the history of Colorado water rights and law is chalk full of conflict. Many fought and died to secure access to water in the arid American West. And if the Front Range keeps growing at the same rate as it is now, it is very likely that another fight looms on the horizon.

Think of Colorado as the blank rectangle. Draw a line down the middle of it. About 80 percent of the state’s water flows to the left of that line. Meanwhile, about 80 percent of the state’s population lives on the right side. The state’s population is expected to double by 2050—most of it, again, on the right side of the state. By many estimates there is simply not enough water to sustain that growth. Considering where all of the political clout is concentrated, the math is not in favor of those living on the left side.

It may sound like tin-foil hat conspiracy theory, but it is a genuine concern that the system that currently codifies senior water rights—though an antiquated, obscure, and confusing system at times—will be put up for a statewide vote. Such a scenario would be the equivalent of two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Or, if popular elections aren’t really your thing, the Colorado General Assembly can easily placate 80 percent of its parched constituents by just legislating it away.

I’ll admit that water laws are in need of reform. Many of the laws’ main tenets have remained untouched since they were first enacted during the Gold Rush days. Up until last year, collecting rain water was still a criminal act.

But those reforms should not be approached with the premise that the majority is in the right. Those on the Front Range are probably saying, “Well, why shouldn’t we have more water? We have more people, so we have more need.”

Perhaps, but your water needs are different than our water needs. Between agriculture and tourism, our water is the foundation of our economy. With mineral extraction up against the ropes, we don’t have much else going for us when it comes to industries that import revenue into our region. Besides, where do you think all of your fresh produce and meat comes from anyway?

If you start diverting water, say goodbye to weekend getaways of whitewater rafting, fishing, or any form of water-based recreation. Again, tourism supports Western Colorado businesses along our river ways. Lake Powell has patiently waited for the final alterations to its death shroud; this would pretty much seal the deal.

I try to avoid being Chicken Little. There is such thing as crying wolf too much. But I’ll be perfectly blunt: If you ever wanted to inspire a secession movement, start messing with our water rights. I’m considering creating a Gadsden Flag with a coiled up irrigation tube on it: “Don’t tread on my watershed”. Or something like that. Hopefully, I won’t have to come up with something catchier before the torches and pitchforks make an appearance.

All jokes about armed insurrections aside, maybe it’s time that some of you Front Range folks consider xeriscape to wet your whistle.

About the author

Jay Stooksberry

Jay Stooksberry

Born and raised on the Front Range of Colorado, Jay Stooksberry is a freelance writer living in Delta, Colorado with his wife and son. He has been published in Newsweek, Reason Magazine, 5280, Foundation for Economic Education, and many more prominent publications. Follow his journey at