Resistance Is Not Futile, but the Colorado River Lawsuit Settlement Reflects Ecological and Political Bankruptcy

Over the last two months, I negotiated and signed a settlement agreement that included the river-protection groups I represent dropping a lawsuit for a proposed new dam and diversion on the Colorado River. Signing the agreement signaled what I’ve long known about environmental laws and water politics in Colorado – they are both ecologically and politically bankrupt.

In this particular case, I agreed to drop our lawsuit in the federal court of appeals against the Windy Gap Firming Project (”Project”). We’d lost the permitting battle with the Army Corps of Engineers, and we’d lost the first lawsuit in federal district court, and then we appealed. The particular facts and law in this case, as well as the opposition against us, indicated that settling the case was the best good option.

(Photo: scum and sediment polluting Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Grand County, CO)

The Project will drain and divert a new 30,000 acre feet of water (~10 billion gallons) per year out of the Colorado River in Grand County, and then pipe that water over to the northern Front Range’s metastasizing metropolis. The Project is being built by “Northern Water”, will cost around $400 million, and will be paid for by northern Colorado Front Range cities that will get the water including Longmont, Loveland, Greeley, and others.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s – at almost zero cost – Northern Water filed for a “water right”, which the state water court system granted, to drain this water out of the Colorado River and pipe it to the Front Range. It cost Northern Water almost nothing to file that water right – no cost was paid to Grand County or to the Colorado River because the state’s laws don’t require it. Conversely, at today’s prices – which is about $85,000/acre-foot on the Front Range – the water is worth about $2.5 billion. That’s right – BILLION.

These cities that will get the water now come out smelling like a rose – they get about $2.5 billion worth of water for a fraction of the actual cost. All they have to pay for is the pumps, pipes, and dams to bring the water to town.

Our paltry agreement to settle the lawsuit – which I pushed to the brink multiple times during the negotiations – forces the towns and cities to give just $15 million to river restoration projects in Grand County that will try to offset some of the massive negative impacts of the Project. Of course, $15 million to offset the draining of $2.5 billion of water out of the river is the proverbial ‘drop in the bucket’, but that’s all the tenuous negotiations could achieve.

Not only are our local, state, and federal environmental laws weak – and believe me, because we tried to enforce them all – but this project was aided by a vast collusion of large, mainstream environmental groups that actually supported, or simply stayed silent, about the Project. Behind that collusion is the groups’ main funder – the Walton Family (Walmart heirs, which is the richest family in the world) – that pays tens-of-millions of dollars every year to these groups to achieve the Walton Family’s goals.

I know this because, in fact, back between 2011 and 2014, one of my groups received a small sum of money per year (~$60,000) from the Walton Family to engage in Colorado River advocacy. My organization split with the Walton Family over this exact Project and another in Boulder County, the proposed Gross Dam expansion. The Waltons’ representatives told me I had to support the new dams or they wouldn’t fund me. Fair enough, I said, and we parted ways.

But trying to force environmental groups to support new dams and diversions is not the end of the corrosive force applied by the Waltons. They also:

·         Push a highly speculative profiteering concept called “water markets” in which they themselves, and their “impact investor” friends, could make money off of the Colorado River’s dwindling water. Also called “philanthro-capitalism”, the effort uses 501c3 donations to non-profit groups to change policy on water management with the ulterior motive that private “impact investors” can later step in and make vast profits.

·         Pay a vast array of scientists, environmental groups, university research and law centers, government agencies, and even media to help achieve their agenda.

·         Herd other foundation and individual donors, creating a philanthropic cartel that owns and controls 95% of all Colorado River research, reporting, and advocacy.

·         Bad-mouth anyone who stands in their way – several of their grantees (groups and media) have publicly and privately bad-mouthed me and my organizations to other funders, scientists, groups, and even blacklisted me on some media platforms.

In Colorado, the Waltons’ philanthropic cartel has made the environmental movement – which is supposed to be the watchdog of the environment and public trust – into neutered lapdogs. These groups are petted and slaked with piles of money and cajoled into a submissive, complacent silence. It’s like a riverine version of Star Trek where the Waltons are “The Borg” assimilating everything and everybody.

A united environmental front could have stood a fighting chance against the Windy Gap Firming Project, especially at this exact moment in history when the “shortages” and cutbacks have now been declared by the federal government across the Colorado River basin due to drought, overuse, and climate change. Further, draining this new ~10 billion gallons of water out of the river every year will escalate the political and ecological chaos by causing shortages to be declared even more frequently, a fact that the federal court and laws completely ignores.

Dams and diversions are “Weapons of Mass Ecological Destruction” on a river system. The Colorado River will be a whisper of its former self after this Project is built. Combined with diversion projects of past decades, nearly 80% of the Colorado River will now be drained and diverted to the Front Range before the river reaches Hot Sulphur Springs in Grand County. This damming and draining wipes out fish species, wetlands, wildlife habitat and turns whole ecosystems into dry landscapes with ditch-like streams where beautiful and powerful wild rivers used to flow – when you drain a river, you destroy life.

Neither me nor my organizations will get one penny of the $15 million lawsuit settlement. Further, the settlement will only cost ratepayers along the northern Front Range a few dollars per year in increased water costs. But, surrounded by compliance, the settlement stands as an act of defiance.

Resist. Do not be assimilated.

Gary Wockner, PhD, is a global environmental activist who fights dams and protects rivers across the planet. Contact: