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The drought continues. And all over the state, people are facing dilemmas that they never imagined, and dealing with problems that they never foresaw.

Let's take a look at the broad mountain valley that begins at Schofield Pass, a dozen miles north of the Colorado mountain town of Crested Butte, and finally terminates at Gunnison, 50 miles to the south.

It's one of the most beautiful places in this state, if not in all of North America. The upper valley is ringed with snowcapped peaks, verdant and carpeted with wildflowers in the summer, blanketed with snow in the winter.

One of Colorado's premier ski areas, Crested Butte, is located in the upper valley, as is the old coal mining town of the same name, along with a dozen high-end developments, complete with million-dollar vacation homes.

But there's one subdivision, Crested Butte South, that looks a lot like Colorado Springs' Rockrimmon neighborhood, and, like Rockrimmon, is proudly middle class. Crested Butte South is where the settled citizens of the upper valley live year 'round.

Driving down the valley toward Gunnison, the land opens up after Crested Butte South. The valley's wide, flat floor looks much as it did 100 years ago. Cattle graze placidly in lush, irrigated meadows.

Much of the land belongs to the Spann family, who have been ranching continuously in the valley for more than 120 years. For all of those years, the Spanns have been careful and responsible stewards of their land and exemplary citizens of their community.

And now, with the drought, the Spann ranches and Crested Butte South both need access to a suddenly scarce resource: water.

Historically, the upper valley is one of the wettest places in our arid state. So when C.B. South was developed, it seemed safe to rely upon well water, even if the water rights were junior to other users. As long as the East River flowed past their homes, their wells would never go dry.

But because of the drought, the East River is flowing at a rate that can't support the irrigation needs of the downstream users, i.e., the Spann Ranches. The Spanns have the senior rights on the river, and are entitled to issue a "call" to enforce their rights. That would mean that all junior users would have to stop all diversions. For C.B. South, that'd mean turning off the wells that serve scores, even hundreds, of homes.

Ken Spann is trying to avoid issuing a call. As he said last week, "My family has been on both sides of a call. We understand the ramifications for the community."

This particular story may have a happy ending. It appears that Mount Crested Butte, the ski resort, will agree to release enough water from upstream storage to allow the Spanns and other senior users to do their fall irrigation. But if the drought continues, this is just a temporary solution.

Suppose that the Spanns issue a call? You could certainly argue that people ought to come before cattle, and that the state should amend its water laws. Instead of the historic doctrine of "first in use, first in right," there ought to be a defined hierarchy of users, with people at the top of the list.

On the other hand, there are values that the Spanns represent, and that most of us treasure. I'd hate to see those irrigated meadows dried up and replaced with sagebrush and dusty alkali flats. And let's face it: The Spanns have played by the rules for over a century. Unless they want to sell out to the next rich developer who comes down the pike, they can go right ahead and claim the water that is historically theirs.

Whether the drought continues, or ends tomorrow, our increasing population will guarantee many such clashes in the future. Water is a resource, not a commodity. Like police and fire protection, access to water ought not to be based on one's ability to pay.

That's why the allocation and use of water is subject to a vast structure of law, precedent, regulation and custom. It's a structure that's increasingly strained and rickety, and one that tends to pit users against each other.

Not everyone in our state has the tolerant wisdom of the folks who live around Crested Butte; that's why we need thoughtful examination of water issues on a statewide basis.

And who's going to do that? Let's see -- I guess that's why we elect legislatures, governors, senators and Congress people. And what are they doing?

Why, they're running for re-election, because they've been such effective leaders ...

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com

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