One of Colorado’s newer protected areas-turned-national park, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, was created with water rights as a foremost justification for the change from national monument to national park. Originally designated as a national monument in 1932, with the help of then United States Congressman Scott McInnis, Great Sand Dunes was re-named a national park in 2004. Located in a remote region 35 miles northeast of Alamosa, Great Sand Dunes sits atop an aquifer long coveted by the Front Range and targeted by proposals to export waters to thirsty communities to the east. In December of 2004, following its redesignation to a park in September of the same year, the National Park Service, represented by the U.S. Department of Justice, filed an application for all rights to the water within the aquifer and seasonal runoff that feeds into it. As a result:
*Following a short trial, during which the court heard testimony from experts in hydrogeology, herpetology, and wetlands ecology, the judge signed the decree entitling the National Park Service to an absolute water right to appropriate in-place all unappropriated groundwater in the unconfined aquifer beneath the park.
The water rights story of Great Sand Dunes National Park remains uncontroversial, despite the fact that little has changed, including visitation and tourist dollars, since its redesignation in 2004. There are however, a number of observations in its history that should lend caution to proponents of national park status who claim that “water rights will not be at issue” regarding the Colorado National Monument. Those observations include:
- Great Sand Dunes is 35 miles from the nearest town and has no agricultural operations within its immediate vicinity.
- The National Park Service applied for water rights AFTER it became a national park. This fact invalidates proponents’ arguments that legislation redesignating CNM as a national park fixes all the protective provisions upon which its acceptance is predicated.
- The National Park Service was given “an absolute water right” within the new park.
Colorado National Monument has no permanent bodies of water within its boundaries, but it is crossed by season washes and streams that travel downhill toward the Grand Valley. But–and it is a significant but–the CNM is immediately adjacent to the highly-developed towns of Grand Junction and Fruita, as well as the agricultural town of Glade Park rising above its canyons to the southwest. Glade Park and the plateau where it is located has several large bodies of water, such as the 3 Thompson Reservoirs, and numerous reservoirs near Pinion Mesa. Given that the NPS applied for water rights in Great Sand Dunes AFTER its redesignation it is not outside the realm of possibility that at some point, given the right circumstances, they could also attempt to exert power over the reservoirs and creeks immediately outside the new national park.
The Secretary of the Interior and Department of the Interior–which oversees the National Park Service–for the past several years has attempted to lay claim over several western waterways OUTSIDE of national parks, designating them as National Blueways. The House Resources Committee penned a letter to Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel, demanding clarity about the “National Blueways” initiative since it appeared that water rights to the entire 18 million acre White River Watershed had been assumed by the DOI, which unilaterally designated it a National Blueway.
Unlike any other national park in the West, the CNM is literally surrounded by human development. Glade Park is an agricultural town with farms, cattle ranches, livestock, and horse operations. Its water resources serve the residents of Glade Park and Fruita, and provide recreational opportunities during the warm months of the year. History tells us that the National Park Service can, and has, applied for water rights after the creation of a national park. Current events tell us that the Department of the Interior is laying claim to American waterways outside national parks, without the consent of the people of the states. The promise that “water rights won’t be an issue” with national park status, is just as empty as the potholes on top of the Colorado National Monument during the heat of summer.