Since the 1890s, the Water Supply and Storage Company (WSSC) has become a large and imposing water delivery company in the Cache la Poudre River Valley. Its vast system of canals and reservoirs, acquired and built over the last century to irrigate fields, shape the landscape in and around Fort Collins. Yet the WSSC has not been immune to the changeability of the environment of which it was a part—the droughts and floods, the agricultural depressions and booms, the postwar urbanization. Today, WSSC is a prominent example of the effects of Fort Collins’ growing population and agricultural-to-urban water transfer in the Cache la Poudre River Basin.

On February 25, 1881 the Larimer County Ditch Company (LCDC) incorporated for the purpose of constructing a canal linking the Cache la Poudre River to Boxelder Creek in order to bring irrigation waters to northeastern Fort Collins. After ten years, the LCDC had extended this ditch, called the Larimer County Ditch, three times and also managed the Chambers Lake Reservoir. LCDC constructed the first transbasin water diversion when it brought water from Lost Lake in the Laramie River basin into Chambers Lake in 1882 [correct date?]. LCDC also operated the Cameron Pass Ditch. In 1891 the Chambers Lake dam broke, flooding farms and property downstream. Affected property owners sued the LCDC, and in the aftermath, the company dissolved, reforming as the Water Supply and Storage Company on July 23, 1891. The WSSC functioned under three guiding principles: it would attempt to obtain water from the Grand, Michigan, and Laramie rivers; it would find ways to bring irrigation water over the Continental Divide, and it would obtain natural basins suitable for water storage. The company thus operated with an assertive, future-oriented mindset from the beginning.[1. James E. Hansen II, “The Water Supply and Storage Company: A Century of Colorado Reclamation,” undated, in Water Supply and Storage Company Collection, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University (hereafter, WRA), Box 1, Folder: 1, 3-4; Rose Laflin, “Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River,” Special Report Number 15 (Fort Collins: Colorado Water Resources Research Institute, Colorado State University, 2006), 27-28.]

A seven-member board oversaw the WSSC, and founding board members included Frank Avery and A. A. Edwards, both prominent Fort Collins businessmen. Although real estate and other business interests were represented in the WSSC, the majority of shareholders were farmers and ranchers. Unlike other ditch companies such as the short-lived North Poudre Land, Canal, and Reservoir Company, which were primarily speculative interests hoping to increase land prices by bringing in water, the WSSC was operated by water-users living in the area who planned on staying in Fort Collins. WSSC shareholders had a vested interest in obtaining irrigation water. They recognized that northeastern Colorado did not have enough native water to support their farms and so set about obtaining water from neighboring watersheds.[2. Hansen, “The WSSC,” 6; Laflin, “Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River,” 24.]

The first major project undertaken by the WSSC, which had begun in the summer of 1891 under the auspices of the LCDC, was the construction of the Skyline Ditch. The ditch took water from the Laramie River and funneled it into Chambers Lake. Work proceeded slowly under extreme conditions—high altitude, cold weather, and snowstorms that halted work for months. In 1893 a financial panic swept the country, and the WSSC struggled to proceed with its work during the subsequent depression. The ditch was finally completed in 1895, and after the first delivery of water, the company’s financial situation began to stabilize as shares increased in value.[3. Hansen, “The WSSC,” 7-8; Laflin, “Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River,” 27-29.]

The WSSC undertook another extensive ditch project in its first years–the continuing construction of the Grand Ditch, originally called the Bennett Ditch, which had been started by the defunct Larimer Water Supply Company in 1890. The Grand Ditch was the first significant diversion of water from the Grand (Colorado) River, but construction had halted during the depression of the 1890s. In 1895 the WSSC took over the ditch and resumed work. It would take until 1910 for water from the Grand Ditch to finally reach Larimer County farmers. When it did, WSSC stock prices soared to $3,700 per share. Various components of the Grand Ditch were completed over the course of thirty years. In 1914 it was closed for repairs, and World War I halted construction. The ditch was completed in 1934. The project required massive amounts of hand labor. At least sixty Japanese laborers worked on the ditch at one point according to Harvey Johnson, a later president of the WSSC.[4. Hansen, “The WSSC,” 7-8; Laflin, “Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River,” 27-29; Harvey Johnson, interview by David McComb, Fort Collins, CO, October 25, 1973, transcript, WRA, Box 1, Folder 7; Nona Thayer, “The Greening of Larimer County,” in Link, August 1983, no. 8, WRA, Box 1, Folder 2. Johnson stated that many thought the workers were Chinese, but that he felt they were Japanese based on their names. It is not clear if he was correct or not—presumably he saw the names in old WSSC records.  Johnson also recounted how the Japanese preferred to haul in hundreds of pounds of rice by burro as opposed to eating company rations.]

By the turn of the century, the WSSC controlled some of the major irrigation works in northern Colorado, but its shareholders’ appetite for water increased. Eyeing its fellow cooperative irrigation companies for signs of weakness, the board pounced on the most tempting morsel. In 1900, the WSSC purchased enough shares in the Jackson Ditch Company to gain majority control. The Jackson Ditch irrigated approximately four thousand acres from Laporte to east of Fort Collins and, most importantly, the company held senior water rights. The Jackson Ditch bolstered the WSSC’s already impressive irrigation system.[5. Hansen, “The WSSC,”11; Ward Fischer, interview by James E. Hansen II, Fort Collins, CO, August 8, 1991, transcript, WRA, Box 1, Folder 6.]

This 1986 handrawn map highlights the Water Supply and Storage Company's water delivery system. Courtesy of the Water Supply and Storage Company Collection, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University
This 1986 handrawn map highlights the Water Supply and Storage Company’s water delivery system. Courtesy of the Water Supply and Storage Company Collection, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University

As the WSSC obtained more water, it faced the problem of inadequate storage reservoirs. It acquired a number of properties, including Lindenmeier Lake, Long Pond, Curtis Lake, Richards Lake, and Black Hollow, slowly stitching together a system that allowed the company to deliver water to its users when and where those users desired. The Black Hollow reservoir was completed during the agricultural depression after World War I and was a critical component, as it stored water at the southern end of the WSSC system, allowing for controlled water release to farmers in that area. At the same time, the Chambers Lake dam was reconstructed and the Skyline Ditch was enlarged. A. C. “Gus” Kluver headed the WSSC during these years, serving as president from 1910-1914 and again from 1919-1936. He had been a board member before becoming president, and in 1904, when flooding in the mountains caused problems downstream and “about broke the [WSSC],” Kluver mortgaged many of the farms he owned to keep the company afloat. Indeed, the WSSC’s finances often rested on shaky ground during its early years. To fund projects, it assessed shareholders or took out bank loans and bond issues. The Skyline Ditch, for example, had cost the company $90,000 by 1901, and $60,000 came from bonds. Yet the company’s stock value kept increasing—by the mid-1920s, shares sold for $7,000 each.[6. Hansen, “The WSSC,” 9-13; Johnson, interview by McComb; Laflin, “Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River,” 29.]

In its first thirty years of existence, the WSSC’s irrigation network expanded rapidly as the company gobbled up lakes and canals, constructing ditches and reservoirs when none existed. The WSSC continued their quest to build a drought-proof, growth-proof system—a castle of water—during the 1920s, finagling solutions to any obstacles in their way. In 1922 the WSSC, anxious for increased storage capacity, surveyed additional reservoir locations. Their preferred site was Long Draw Creek, but they discovered that building a dam across the creek would back water into the borders of Rocky Mountain National Park, created in 1915. The WSSC had first encountered the imposition of a federal agency within their castle walls when the Medicine Bow Forest Reserve was created in 1905, surrounding much of the Grand Ditch. Although the Forest Service had not challenged WSSC supremacy, the National Park Service stood by the regulation “prohibiting any changes in the natural condition of the park.” Undeterred, the WSSC convinced congressman Charles Timberlake to sponsor a bill transferring the land in question to the Forest Service. The bill passed, and upon receipt of the land, the Forest Service turned it over to the triumphant WSSC. Construction of the Long Draw Reservoir began in the late 1920s.[7. Hansen, “The WSSC,” 12-13; Laflin, “Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River,” 28-29.]

Kluver stepped down as president in 1937, during the midst of the Great Depression. The WSSC weathered the Depression, although the Cache la Poudre basin faced a 540,000 acre-foot water deficit from 1930 to 1937. [10] The same year that Kluver retired, Harvey Johnson, a local farmer, joined the WSSC board. Johnson served on the board for fifty-two years and became president in 1962, finally retiring from the position in 1989. Farmers, ranchers, and businessmen were not the only ones to influence the company’s history, however. The company’s lawyers also played a significant role. Lawrence R. Temple worked as the lawyer of the WSSC for many years, and in 1937 he “masterminded” the WSSC’s bid to gain control of the Laramie-Poudre Tunnel. The tunnel had been completed in 1911 by the Greeley-Poudre Irrigation District, but the state of Wyoming immediately brought suit, protesting that Colorado was illegally stealing their water. In 1922 the United States Supreme Court ruled in Wyoming v. Colorado that both Colorado and Wyoming were entitled to water from the Laramie River, although neither state received as much water as its inhabitants thought it deserved. The Depression and legal battle pushed the Greeley-Poudre Irrigation District out of business. Under Temple’s guidance, the WSSC joined the Windsor Reservoir and Canal Company and together founded the Tunnel Water Company, which purchased parts of the system and also took on the operation of the tunnel. Temple had also worked on the agreement that permitted the construction of Long Draw Reservoir. Albert Fischer followed Temple as the company attorney, and his son, Ward Fischer, took on the position after him.[8. Hansen, “The WSSC,” 14, 17-18; Laflin, “Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River,” 31.]

The WSSC system overseen by Kluver, Johnson, Temple, and others may have been a formidable legal bastion, but on the land, the actual irrigation network required constant care and maintenance. Excessive spring runoff, intrepid beavers, or a tree felled by a storm could all cause havoc in the delicately balanced web of ditches, reservoirs, and headgates. The ditches located in the high country, which became filled with snow and ice during the winter, needed particular attention. Each spring, teams of around seventy men went to clear the ditches so that when the thaw began, water would quickly flow down to the farmers waiting on the plains. The men arrived in April and spent the entire month working, with the first water usually starting in May. The WSSC built log cabin camps to house the workers and at one point operated as many as seven camps. These camps could also be used for recreation—a friend of Harvey Johnson’s recalled staying at one of the camps adjacent to a reservoir while on a fishing trip with his father. The workers may also have enjoyed various recreational pursuits while staying in the high country, such as hunting and hiking. Johnson recalled that during the war, the WSSC hired many Mexican nationals to complete the work. Eventually, the company replaced hand labor with machines and downgraded from seven to two camps. When the spring thaw did begin, water levels needed to be carefully monitored. Johnson remembered a spring when the Skyline Ditch was filled to capacity and in danger of flooding. One night, a crew of men had to be called out, and they patrolled the bank with coal-oil lanterns, pushing boards into the ditch to divert water to spillways.[9. Johnson, interview by McComb; Harvey Johnson, interview by Don McMillen, Fort Collins, CO, September 6, 1974, transcript, WRA, Box 1, Folder 8; Hansen, “The WSSC,” 15.]

On the plains, the ditches required just as much oversight.  Men called ditch riders, employed by the WSSC, were in charge of monitoring the ditches and delivering water to individual farmers. Although by the mid-twentieth century, trucks and other vehicles had been substituted for horses, the name persisted. The ditch riders kept weir cards to record all water deliveries. On Monday morning, when a water run was scheduled, the ditch rider went to the headgates and released water into the farmers’ ditches. Each headgate possessed a recording flume with a staff gauge, and the ditch riders monitored the gauge every morning while the water was running to make sure the appropriate amount was channeled to the farmers. Ditch riders also patrolled the ditches looking for obstructions to water flow, such as downed trees.[10. James McFall, interview by Tony Rowland, Fort Collins, CO, August 16, 1991, transcript, WRA, Box 1, Folder 11.]

The WSSC supplied its shareholders with native and foreign water. “Foreign” water signified water transported in from other basins. Although the WSSC had been involved in a variety of court cases over the years, the company did not endure heavy regulation on water use. When a variety of interests in northern Colorado joined to form the Northern Colorado Water Users Association (NCWUA) in 1933 with the goal of securing federal funding for a project to bring more water from the Colorado River, the WSSC board viewed the project with skepticism. Federal funding meant federal regulation and detailed oversight of the imported water. Ralph W. McMurry, WSSC board member from 1938-1959 and WSSC president from 1946-1959, did serve on the governing board of the NCWUA, whose goals ultimately coalesced into the Colorado-Big Thompson Project (C-BT). The WSSC purchased a small bit of supplemental water from the CB-T, but not a significant amount, leery of the heavy regulation accompanying it.[11. Hansen, “The WSSC,” 14; J. C. Mattingly, “A Tale of Two Pioneers,” 9, WRA, Box 1, Folder 1. Hansen claims that there was “close cooperation” between WSSC and the NCWUA, but does not provide any details beyond McMurry serving on both boards. Mattingly claims that the “government sponsored supplemental water project [CB-T] diluted the basin’s existing native and imported water rights” and thus the WSSC opposed the project from the beginning and “had little, if any, subsequent relations with the project in terms of water exchanges or related politics.”  I do not know who Mattingly was—he wrote a piece on the WSSC’s dispute with Thornton that takes a much more critical view of WSSC history than Hansen’s piece. Definitely need to know more about the CB-T project and how the regulations on the water work to verify Mattingly’s claims.]

But the WSSC could not forestall impositions on its water forever; the WSSC faced the consequences of urbanization in the postwar era. The well-watered soil, the extensive irrigation, and the profitable farms had attracted people to the area in the first place, spawning diversification into new industries as the fortunes of farmers waxed and waned. The city of Fort Collins grew, and new communities—suburbs of Denver—sprouted and expanded. All needed water. The WSSC was one of the enablers of this growth and now had to deal with the consequences.

Many members of the WSSC board, its shareholders, and the lawyers who guarded its rights did not view the situation as a stark divide between urban and rural, agrarian and metropolitan, however. Harvey Johnson, long-time member of the WSSC, perhaps better than anyone else embodied the contradictions and complications that attended the situation in reality.  In the 1960s, Johnson had been on the board of the WSSC for over thirty years. At the time, Fort Collins was facing a water crisis because, for many years, the city had not been acquiring additional sources of water, including water from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, assuming that it already possessed sufficient amounts. But as the years went by and the city’s population increased, it became clear they had made a serious mistake. A group of several lawyers, including Albert Fischer, attorney for the WSSC, came to Harvey Johnson and asked him to run for mayor so that he could try and fix the city’s water problem. Johnson agreed and won the 1962 election. Johnson did not appear to see any irony in his role as a farmer championing the water rights of the city. In fact, he became the president of the WSSC in 1962 in the midst of his mayoral campaign. Johnson’s efforts to secure water for Fort Collins proved successsful.[12. Fischer, interview; Johnson, interview by McComb; Hansen, “The WSSC,” 22.]

Its water assured, Fort Collins continued to grow. As subdivisions sprang up around reservoirs and lakes, many residents viewed these places as perfect locales for recreation. Concerned about liability issues, the WSSC entered into contracts with homeowners or other entities, leasing out the recreation rights as long as the other party carried enough liability insurance. In 1989 the WSSC was leasing out the recreation rights to Lindenmeier Lake, Black Hollow, Long Pond, Kluver Lake, and Richard’s Lake. The Department of Fish and Wildlife had the fishing rights to Chamber’s Lake and Long Draw. An unfortunate incident occurred in 1975 when a man named Volmer trespassed on Long Pond and dove off a diving board into water that was too shallow. He broke his neck and was paralyzed. Although the homeowners had the recreation rights and insurance, the WSSC was also drawn into the subsequent lawsuit.[13. Vivienne Woodward, interview by James E. Hansen II, Fort Collins, CO, multiple days in 1989, transcript, WRA, Box 1, Folder 12.]

Urbanization brought new challenges for the WSSC, yet Johnson had helped steer Fort Collins towards a future where its water was secured, ensuring that urbanization would continue. When outside interests attempted to infringe on the WSSC, though, Johnson defended his company and its water fiercely. In the spring of 1986, as the controversy dragged on over the proposed Two Forks Dam, an anonymous buyer began purchasing shares of WSSC stock. It quickly became apparent to Johnson and other board members that the buyer intended to gain a majority control in the WSSC by purchasing over fifty-percent of the shares. At last, as the WSSC board grew increasingly frantic, the buyer stepped forward—it was the city of Thornton, a growing community north of Denver that desperately needed water. They had secured options to 12,000 acres of farmland and 35,000 acre-feet of water rights in the WSSC; 283 out of 600 shares. Beyond its extensive ditch and reservoir system, the WSSC was also attractive to Thornton because it only owned a small supplement of CB-T water “and hence fell outside much of the [Northern Colorado Water Conservancy] District’s regulations.” Because of this, “WSSC waters were eminently more transferable out of the basin than water from a ditch company that derived a significant portion of its water from the C-BT system because CB-T water was tied directly to the District’s bureaucratic nexus.” Thornton wanted water, but water that it could use as it pleased.[14. Mattingly, “A Tale of Two Pioneers,” 5, 9; Fischer, interview. Ward Fischer suggested that a Greeley television station had discovered the identity of the buyer, prompting Thornton to step forward before the information was publicly revealed.]

As soon as the news broke, the WSSC board, as well as the city of Fort Collins, which was a shareholder in the WSSC, protested Thornton’s actions. Thornton was stealing “their” water, they claimed. Some farmers, though, were happy to sell, particularly given the depressed agricultural climate. As Ward Fischer, the attorney representing the WSSC at the time, explained it: “While Thornton are, no doubt, very nice people, naturally the board felt that the interests of the majority of the board would be more Thornton oriented than it would be agriculturally oriented, and that the remaining shareholders might be in a position where they would be forced by the way the ditch was run to sell out more to Thornton and destroy our whole ditch system.” Fischer’s comment obscured the strong connections already existing between the WSSC and the city of Fort Collins, an interest that also was not agriculturally oriented by that point. Just as with Johnson’s earlier role in aiding Fort Collins in obtaining water, loyalty to a specific locality, whether tending towards the agricultural or the urban, was a significant factor in the issue of water rights.[15. Mattingly, “A Tale of Two Pioneers,” 6; Fischer, interview.]

The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which managed Colorado-Big Thompson water, publicly protested Thornton’s actions as well. The WSSC board asked Fischer and his partner, Bill Brown, to come up with a strategy to defeat Thornton’s bid for water. Ignored in the controversy was the fact that in the past, the WSSC had been accused of stealing water when it extended its ditches into the Laramie and Colorado basins. The WSSC had also done exactly the same thing that Thornton was now doing when the WSSC bought the majority of the shares in the Jackson Ditch Company back in 1900 and took over the company.[16. Mattingly, “A Tale of Two Pioneers,” 8; Fischer, interview; Laflin, “Irrigation, Settlement, and Change on the Cache la Poudre River,” 84.]

Undeterred by such historical niceties, Fischer and Brown came up with several options to outmaneuver Thornton. They went to the First Interstate Bank of Fort Collins, with which the WSSC had always banked, and asked for a multi-million dollar credit line in order to outbid Thornton on the remaining three-percent of shares. The bank agreed to give them the money. Fischer and Brown also suggested that the WSSC could issue new shares of stock so that Thornton would no longer possess a majority share. The WSSC purchased 2086 units of Colorado-Big Thompson water from the Great Western Sugar Company’s bankruptcy sale with part of the $3,000,000 loaned to them by the bank. An ironic moment, considering WSSC’s rigorous avoidance of CB-T water in the past. The purchase was planned so that the city of Fort Collins owned the water and the WSSC could issue additional shares for that water. As they prepared to issue more shares, Thornton took the WSSC to court, hoping to stop the multiplication of shares, which would erase Thornton’s advantage. The judge denied the preliminary injunction, stating that the WSSC was not doing anything wrong.[17. Fischer, interview; Mattingly, “A Tale of Two Pioneers,” 6-7, 11.]

As tensions mounted, the lawyer for the city of Thornton, Kenneth Broadhurst, approached Fischer, asking for a chance to sit down and negotiate with the WSSC to work out an agreement satisfactory for both parties. As Broadhurst said, if they took the case to the courts, it could drag on for years. Thornton also wanted to avoid a court case if at all possible—it had already had a rough time tangling with the Famers Reservoir and Irrigation Company in the 1970s and was not eager for a repeat experience. Ward Fischer sympathized with Broadhurst and managed to convince Harvey Johnson to agree to the meeting. Johnson was furious over Thornton’s actions—as Fischer said, the WSSC was Johnson’s “baby.” He had managed the system for most of his life and did not appreciate an interloper trying to take it away from him.[18. Fischer, interview; Mattingly, “A Tale of Two Pioneers,” 2, 22-24.]

In the negotiated settlement, Thornton paid WSSC approximately nineteen million in a package that included: 3,000 acre-feet of CB-T water; 3,500 acre-feet from Poudre River reservoir Trap Lake 11; compensation to WSSC for legal expenses; $30,000 per share plus the cost of future assessments to WSSC shareholders entering into first-use contracts; and money to insure that water quality standards were maintained on all returned first-use water. Thornton also agreed to a perpetual minority position on the WSSC board, even if it ever acquired a majority of the stock. WSSC agreed to remove any legal barriers to Thornton’s use of the water and to retire the newly issued stock. Fischer related that the city of Fort Collins remained unhappy with the agreement and the water quality standards, and that the dispute soured the WSSC’s relationship with the city. Still, the WSSC board had managed to maintain control of their company. And yet in many ways it was a Pyrrhic victory—Thornton was still going to be using the water, and by the early 1990s, Fort Collins owned forty-eight percent of WSSC stock. The WSSC, formed to bring water flowing high up in Colorado’s mountains to irrigated farms in the Cache la Poudre Valley, now served a primarily urban, rather than rural constituency.[19. Fischer, interview; Mattingly, “A Tale of Two Pioneers,” 2; part about city owning 48% in Bill Jackson, “Pioneering Water Man Moves On,” newspaper name unknown, February 3, 1991, WRA, Box 1, Folder 2.]