Formation of Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park offers lessons for dealing with drought

The Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado, nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, as seen from space in 2007.
Photo: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

DENVER – Eighty percent of Colorado is experiencing some form of drought or dryness, which means dry river basins, hungry wildfires and parched farmland across the state. Some have already started comparing conditions with the 2002 drought, which climatologists say was the worst since the late 1600s.

The drought also is spurring a closer look by historians into how communities have survived and triumphed over water scarcity — instead of adhering to the Old West canard that “Water is for fighting.”

In 1999, some of Colorado’s most powerful politicians stood on top of the windswept sandy hills of Great Sand Dunes National Monument, which would soon become Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. It was an attempt to conserve not only the land, which includes the tallest dunes in the U.S., but the aquifer and waterways, including the seasonal Medano Creek.

“I think the feeling was, ‘If we’re going to save this resource, the time is now. We’ve got to act,’” said historian Michael Geary, who wrote “Sea of Sand: A History of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.”

The Summit on the Sand at Great Sand Dunes National Monument took place Dec. 18, 1999. Attending were (from left) Rep. Scott McInnis, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Sen. Wayne Allard, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar.
Photo: Fred Bunch, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Just the year before, voters had defeated Amendments 15 and 16, which would have allowed water to be exported from the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, where the dunes are found. A famous photo was taken when state and federal lawmakers shooed away the news media and park employees to discuss formation of the park. Rep. Scott McInnis, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, Sens. Wayne Allard and Ben Nighthorse Campbell spoke out in the open for more than half an hour.

The Summit on the Sand led to Allard’s legislation to expand the national monument to a national park. It was the culmination of cooperation by Republicans, Democrats, ranchers and such environmental groups as the Nature Conservancy.

“There was a great sense of relief that they got this through when they did. And that they did something that was very worthwhile,” Geary said.

Historians at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center of the American West want to know why some communities rally to protect water resources and others fail. In the San Luis Valley, the community first fought over water, then banded to save it. Patty Limerick, director of the center, said inevitable fights over water leave people beaten down.

“But water also causes some people in some circumstances to say, ‘We’ve got to pull it together,’” she said.

The Center of the American West has looked at examples of cooperation tracking back to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. They’ve also looked at more recent cooperative agreements in the Colorado River basin since 1999.

Roger Pulwarty, a senior advisor and drought expert for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that in many cases, reaching a crisis point “actually allowed us to create systems to be more efficient, to protect our watersheds, has actually led us to produce very positive outcomes.”

Crises don’t always force people to work together. In Oregon nearly 20 years ago, conflict arose when the federal government stopped farmers from pumping water to protect endangered fish. After years of fighting, a diverse group of tribes, ranchers, farmers, environmental groups and state governments came together to sign the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement in 2010.

“It was quite remarkable that people were able to find common ground and come together,” said Brian Cannon, history professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

As with the establishment of Great Sand Dunes National Park, congressional approval was needed. But Republicans became wary of a deal to remove dams from the river. Cannon said there were misunderstandings among stakeholders. The agreement unraveled in 2015 and Congress never approved it.

“One of the things we can learn is that the negotiations took place behind closed doors,” said Cannon, blaming proprietary business issues for the lack of transparency. “So that’s one thing we can learn is the value, where it’s possible, of transparency in negotiations.”

A revised version of the Klamath restoration plan has been proposed. A corporation has proposed removal of the dams. But this provides little help to irrigators who have struggled with water supply in the past because of the presence of endangered fish.

Geary, the historian, said Colorado’s San Luis Valley is gearing up for another water fight. The Bureau of Land Management has delayed a plan that could expand oil and gas drilling within 1 mile of the park, which has some worried about disruption of water supplies. The BLM has agreed to consult with the Navajo Nation, which is a local landowner, before making a final decision.

“It’s very easy (to think) black and white, us versus them,” Geary said. “But that really doesn’t get anybody anywhere. What gets people somewhere, and hopefully it’s a place they want to be, is dialogue.”

There’s still work to be done on the agreements that helped create Great Sand Dunes National Park. This is the final year of a study to determine the park’s rights to conserve its underground water. If approved, the water right would exist in perpetuity.