The Man Who Thought He Owned Water: On the Brink with American Farms, Cities, and Food

The Man Who Thought He Owned Water: On the Brink with American Farms, Cities, and Food

by Tershia d'Elgin


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The Man Who Thought He Owned Water is author Tershia d’Elgin’s fresh take on the gravest challenge of our time—how to support urbanization without killing ourselves in the process. The gritty story of her family’s experience with water rights on its Colorado farm provides essential background about American farms, food, and water administration in the West in the context of growing cities and climate change. Enchanting and informative, The Man Who Thought He Owned Water is an appeal for urban-rural cooperation over water and resiliency.
When her father bought his farm—Big Bend Station—he also bought the ample water rights associated with the land and the South Platte River, confident that he had secured the necessary resources for a successful endeavor. Yet water immediately proved fickle, hard to defend, and sometimes dangerous. Eventually those rights were curtailed without compensation. Through her family’s story, d’Elgin dramatically frames the personal-scale implications of water competition, revealing how water deals, infrastructure, transport, and management create economic growth but also sever human connections to Earth’s most vital resource. She shows how water flows to cities at the expense of American-grown food, as rural land turns to desert, wildlife starves, the environment degrades, and climate change intensifies.
Depicting deep love, obsession, and breathtaking landscape, The Man Who Thought He Owned Water is an impassioned call to rebalance our relationship with water. It will be of great interest to anyone seeking to understand the complex forces affecting water resources, food supply, food security, and biodiversity in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607324959
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 08/15/2016
Edition description: 1
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 588,464
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Tershia d’Elgin is a social activist with deep Colorado roots and a special interest in water policy, water conservation, and the tension between agricultural and metropolitan claims on water. A San Diego-based writer and water resources consultant, she also oversees a working farm on the South Platte River in Colorado with her family.

Read an Excerpt

The Man Who Thought He Owned Water

On the Brink with American Farms, Cities, and Food

By Tershia d'Elgin

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2016 Tershia d'Elgin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-496-6


Thirst for the Known

Where to act is to be free and to be free is to act.

— Guy-Ernest Debord, Society of the Spectacle

Meet William Eaton Phelps. It's 1941. All limbs, the tall thirteen-year-old has prowled his way into a rough Denver neighborhood, west of the then-dreaded Wazee Street with its filth and its panhandlers. Look for a kid below the boulevard where the wide South Platte River swallows its tributary, Cherry Creek. Not the cultivated urban wetland that it is today, it's a dark, sunken no-man's land, a place for loneliness and pranks, a teenage boy's refuge. Take a deep breath, and then run with him up the creek.

Near water and even in water as he jumps from shore to rock and back again, you race with this nimble human against the flow. It feels good. Weightless. The long strides outdistance his childhood. Does he want solace without admitting it? Do you? Want revenge but uncertain why? He, and you too, settle for throwing every muscle at whatever happens next, near water.

In no time, you've run over two miles. Access to the creek abruptly becomes impossible. High fencing swallows the waterway into the manicured grounds of the Denver Country Club. Some might drool over this vista. Many acres of impeccable golf course and woods unfurl along Cherry Creek. On the south are mansions built by Denver's early mining and cattle barons. On the north is an exclusive neighborhood planned in the early twentieth century by nationally renowned landscape architects, the Olmsted brothers. This teenager doesn't live in a mansion or even a house, though. He resides right at the Denver Country Clubhouse, upstairs with the old gentlemen lodgers. His mother has only just deposited him there, this young man called Bill, on the privileged side of the fencing.

* * *

Bill's parents took off without him when the United States entered World War II. His mother, preparing to follow his father to Washington, DC, where he was stationed in the adjutant general's office, said goodbye at the clubhouse. She didn't give Bill the bike or pistol he wanted. Her long fingers opened in his palm, dropping a heavy reminder of his heritage — a gold ring engraved with her family crest. On it, a beady-eyed griffin held a fluttering standard in its talons. The standard bore the words Veritas Alles Vincit.

Learning that this meant "Truth Conquers All," Bill knew better than to register disappointment.

Truth and conquest — isn't that what teenagers do? Throughout the war, Bill communed primarily with other country-club lodgers: widowers and divorced gentlemen many times his age who drank a lot. The club chef made sack lunches for Bill, who rarely went to school. With no one to stop him, he improvised, playing snooker, caddying on the club golf course for pocket money, and hanging around the club ice rink, where he was reputed to have dazzled girls with dance maneuvers on used hockey skates. Growing up unsupervised at an exclusive country club, the only thing Bill lacked was anyone who cared.

Four years later, the war ended. His parents returned to Colorado to find that Bill was already a man. He had learned what some people never learn — to be wary, opportunistic, and to shoulder his own future.

In autumn 1947, this long, lean renegade invited a girl he had met on the club ice rink, a girl who cared, to overnight at a farm settled by his grandparents on his mother's side, the Eatons. They drove north into Colorado prairie farmland on the rural highway that had once been the South Platte Trail. Bill's mother chaperoned, lodged between the young pair in the front seat. Even so, the day glistened with possibilities. Cottonwood foliage cast fluttering gold over the South Platte River banks, where it sparkled for miles in the mirror of the winding river. And beyond the gleam, the Front Range rose as purple and majestic as any mountain view in America. The nineteen-year-old watched the road and sometimes looked past his mother at his pretty sweetheart, Dorothy Ann.

Gogo, as she was known, was only seventeen years old. With a single occupation, Bill, she could hardly contain her excitement. Though stealing glances at Bill's hands, Bill's fingers, Bill's fingernails on the wheel, she appeared to meditate on the white veil of snow on Long's Peak to the west. City scenery rolled away behind them into a backdrop of pastures, silos, and haystacks. She noticed an enormous forked cottonwood next to the road at the little farm town of Brighton.

"I'd like to be like that with Bill," Gogo fantasized, "a tree with two trunks."

They passed Fort Lupton and Fort Vasquez, towns that had grown around old trapper trading posts on the South Platte, and progressed from there through Greeley, then only a few thousand in population. They drove slowly through the town of Eaton, named after Bill's great-grandfather, author of truth conquers all. A few miles west at Woods Lake was the Eatons' farm. As their car rolled under the lofty porte-cochère east of the house, Bill's girl was giddy, agape. Under a green copper roof, the brick house was massive — three stories high. His mother got out and ran ahead. Bill had Gogo by the elbow as he flung open the beveled-glass door.

The grounds were a gentleman farmer's compendium — glass-paned hothouses, seasonal garden, barn, coops, paddocks, the impressive lake that tied the holdings to water, and a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course, all rimmed with recently mown fields. Before that autumn day was finished, she saw all this, and more. After a formal dinner with candelabra and finger bowls, with serving staff in black uniforms and starched white aprons, Bill pulled Gogo into the living room. Halfway across the fifty-foot expanse was a mantle. Flames chased up the flue. The overstuffed furniture seemed built for Titans. It held down a Persian rug with colors as saturated as scarab gems. The lanky man, then the age my son is now, bent over to wind up the Victrola.

Is not spontaneous motion, intuitively taken, similar to lovemaking? From watching animals, and people who move with grace — whose appendages press as inquisitively against air, water, and ground as against flesh — I believe it is true. Bill there, in remote Weld County, Colorado, would have scoffed at theories about navigating through space as one would move over a woman's body. Scoff or not, he did it that night; he followed his instincts. Grabbing his trim sweetheart by the waist, he twirled Gogo across the parquet that edged the carpet. The song was "Cheek to Cheek."

After they'd circled the enormous room twice, it was time to rewind the Victrola handle. Their twirls eddying around the enormous room, they rewound Irving Berlin over and over again, until their sides ached, until laughter buckled them. Breathless, spent, they drifted to separate bedrooms, sinking into monogrammed linens so smooth and cool that they seemed refrigerated. Night passed, chasing dreams of lust and ambition over the horizon.

In the predawn darkness, Bill knocked on her bedroom door.

This was the signal.

Gogo dressed quickly and hurried to meet him on the east porch, where he had positioned a ladder. The sun's first semaphores shown to the east. He following her, they climbed onto the roof, moving quietly so as not to awaken his mother and uncle. Then they lay down on their bellies at the crest, facing west so they could peer over Woods Lake, still in profound blackness.

"I don't see anything," she whispered, leaning into his shoulder to keep warm.


Content to be together, she was quiet.

Dawn is soundless, until it's not. A rooster crowed out there, or a rabbit screamed in a coyote's fast jaws, or a door creaked. And at once the obsidian surface of the lake stirred. A flying carpet stitched of a thousand silent mallards lifted into the autumn morning, up and up, each wing paired with another wing, gaining purchase on the approaching daybreak. The birds flapped in unison. The flapping was so close to the two young people that their hair moved, splatters of water dampened their clothing, their cheeks pinkened, their clothing pressed closer to their skin and they, naturally, pressed closer to each other. The whirling air was an invitation, that they might join the drakes and their hens as they whooshed from the water up over the house and into the newly mown cornfield, the young people who would soon be my parents.

* * *

Bill and Gogo took the mallards' invitation. Two years later, Bill's own stint in the army was over. The twenty-one-year old then set his uncommon trajectory. His grandfather's affluence was spread too thinly among too many children to yield much, but still wearing the signet ring, Bill committed to his "truth." His object was not to lodge in close quarters at the country club or even the grander prospects of staying in a manor along its edges. He didn't aspire to white collars, ties, jackets, and wingtips; nor to a mahogany desk in a high rise. What he wanted was to buy and build his own version of his maternal forbearer's gentlemanly farmer life on the water. And this — minus many acres, live-in help, golf course, limousine, and any peace of mind — Bill would eventually do.

His goal was autonomy. It was an American dream, not of a picket fence, but of a "spread." This freedom demanded owning land, not leasing it or buying it over time. And the land needed to be healthy, with good soil, diverse opportunities, and wildlife as rich as those flocks of mallards that lent dawn such awe at his grandfather's farm. There wasn't any question that habitation, farming, and nature could be compatible. Without all three, there'd be no surviving. Owning land with mineral rights was desirable. Owning land with water rights was critical. These ambitions had ties to an old West of count-your-fence-posts and brook-no-transgressions. In 1950 Bill married Gogo and bought his own Victrola.

They didn't know it, but their life together began at the same time as in faraway France, a provocateur named Guy Debord shouted for do-it-yourself trajectories such as theirs. Sure, there were clear differences between Guy and Bill — Debord was a Marxist rabble-rouser and my father was an aspiring property owner — but both disdained the "normal" lifestyles imposed on them by civilization. Neither wished to lose their innermost ability to connect wholeheartedly with whatever they did. Debord's message was "Don't forfeit your sensuality, your free will, your rights!" Bill and Gogo didn't. Move as your nature dictates instead. And they did.

By the time I was out of the bassinet and ambulatory, Debord (whose work would provide a basis for contemporary urban planning) had coined the term psychogeography, a concept important to our story. Psychogeography, in Debord's terms, is the innate ability to navigate over the ground on which we live. Each of us has, buried in our consciousness, a sort of compass — passed along with our genes from generation to generation — that "knows" Earth's forms and can intuitively navigate them, just as water does.

Debord claimed that the most important psychogeographic strategy is the dérive, pronounced "day-reeve." A dérive is a way of acting. In a dérive, persons — persons who are more like wild animals, and perhaps like you for that matter — stop moving through life as automatons. In a dérive, people let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. A dérive demands following one's instincts. My parents were naturals. And I, like most two-year-olds, had already mastered acts of psychogeography if not its lexicon. I demonstrated by clambering willy-nilly between newborn siblings, food, and water.

A dérive is worth thinking about, but it's even more worth doing. Bill's dérive began from scratch, with little education, no inheritance, and hard work. He, my mother, my sister, brother, and I lived in Denver for the twenty years it took Bill to hit his mark. My father began humbly, working as a milkman from midnight until dawn. To economize, he set the milk-truck brakes lightly on the descending streets, such that the milk truck could roll downhill while he wasn't in it. The beanpole named Bill ran zigzags back and forth between the houses and the slow-rolling vehicle, carrying fresh milk, cottage cheese, and butter from local dairies to houses throughout the Cherry Creek neighborhood. In the afternoons, he progressed to real estate sales and from there to professional ranch and resort management. With three young children and few options, he was what you'd call a "go-getter."

In the 1960s, when I was thirteen myself, Bill made his first farmland purchase north of Denver on the South Platte River, about half hour from his grandfather's house on Woods Lake at Eaton. Through the window of my own adolescent disenfranchisement, his initial 300 acres looked dicey. The slope included a windowless cinderblock structure called the "Hog House" with an interior too awful to contemplate. Almost as cheerless was a long trailer we nonplussed city children referred to as "Early Raunch." Undaunted, Bill kept making land deals and at last accumulated 800 adjacent acres, a forty-five-minute drive from the Rockies' Front Range. The spread encompassed not just Hog House and trailer, but two little farmhouses and barns, and a larger clapboard house. The latter is a former stagecoach stop built in 1864. The property's name, "Big Bend Station," is in tribute to its location where the northbound river takes a wide right turn to the east. Looking at the house today, one needs no great imagination to picture trappers, coaches, horses, mules, wagons, and worn-out vagabonds pulling in under the enormous cottonwoods. The stairs are concave from wear and the bathroom floor is a bit off-plumb, enough so that we must correct for it to keep our seat on the toilet.

Of the hoards that tromped and rolled along the South Platte Trail during the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, many must have availed themselves of Big Bend Station's amenities. Lacking roads, travelers had to follow waterways. The South Platte River is one of two main tributaries of the Platte River, the North Platte being the other. The two merge near North Platte, Nebraska, and flowing east, ultimately meet the Missouri River, which flows to the Mississippi. The Platte River valley is broad, as noted by the French trappers who christened it la Platte, which means "flat" in French. In the Old West, the Platte represented a significant middle chunk of the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail, first for trappers, then for settlers and freighters. As many as a quarter million hopefuls traveled along the river during the Gold Rush. Whereas northbound travelers took the North Platte fork, the South Platte that runs through what is now Bill's farm marked travelers' shortest and best route to and from Denver and Colorado's mountainous gold and silver cache directly west.

Throughout our teen years, Gogo and Bill dragged us from Denver to the farm for weekends. There I imagined myself a hostage: not just a hostage, but also a changeling. To buoy my teen spirits, I'd gaze on the extravagant view to the west — the girder of Rocky Mountain peaks, many over 14,000 feet in height. Their vigorous mass stretches above the aspen, ponderosa, and lodge-pole pine forests. At the time I regarded them as a lovely setting. Now I know that like everything on our watery planet, the peaks are the product of climate change and dynamic geology. It is hard to fathom that these nearly vertical surfaces are residual ocean floor, uplifted by recondite geologic forces such as subduction and volcanic arcing. Over the multimillennia, water and soil froze in crevices of rock that then fissured, split, and eroded away, sculpting the peaks, leaving them in skirts of glaciated granite and alpine tundra.

While we gawk at the remarkable mountains, downhill tumbles an incessant, nearly invisible cascade of tiny mountain fragments. At high altitude near the South Platte's headwaters, the accumulations of crumbling granite are thin. Yet 130 miles downstream on the Plains, the river bottom and banks are thick with permeable deposits of the stuff. A handful of soil from the farm feels gravelly between the fingers. Its sandy components were once mountain, and if it weren't for water and time, still would be.

And where does this water come from? Colorado's precipitous ranges are so close to the heavens that they make lovers of weather systems. Mountains massage the clouds, creating seasonal orgies of snow, hail, and rain. Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and even Mexico all depend in part on this precipitation, as does Colorado itself. Colorado's snowfall is so abundant that mountain snow can remain many feet deep for the entire winter. In the spring, the sun begins chomping away at the snowfields, thawing them into rivulets, gullies, creeks, and rivers, unleashing an approximate average of 16 million acre-feet of water in all directions, millions of acre-feet that reach as many as 50 million people, by the time that runoff meets oceans. However, within the continental United States, Colorado is the one state that uses only its own water; all the water in Colorado — above or below surface — comes either from mountain runoff or the sky.


Excerpted from The Man Who Thought He Owned Water by Tershia d'Elgin. Copyright © 2016 Tershia d'Elgin. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

Prologue ix

1 Thirst for the Known 3

2 The Nuisance of Hindsight 17

3 Growing Up to Be Cowboys 35

4 The Soggy Verge 43

5 Banging a Gavel in Water 55

6 The Inscrutable Hitch of Above and Below 69

7 Hypocrisy, in a Kernel 82

8 Moving against the Grain 99

9 Brokers of the Apocalypse 111

10 Vagaries of Basins 124

11 The Perfect Drought 136

12 Poseidon Revisits the Platte 150

13 At the Not-O.K. Corral 160

14 Let Them Eat Turf 173

15 The Taste of Plunder 186

16 Near-Death Experience 198

17 American Gothic 219

18 Evade the Reaper 228

19 Daughter in the Dell 238

20 Past the End of Our Hoses 247

Notes 261

Glossary 281

Acknowledgments 286

About the Author 287

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