In the middle of those towns that have been underwater for days is a long stretch of land surrounded by faraway ridges that sweep like waves. It’s been (so thankfully) safe and still under a deluge that’s driven thousands all around from their homes. It’s the place I grew up in.
Boulder County is high-desert, arid land more than a mile above the sea. With so far to travel, water doesn’t ever stay long. To receive so much rain—in one week, 21 inches, two times the annual average—is entirely strange.
West of there and higher up, where small towns are tacked into canyons, a handful of rivers begin—begin, at least, as much as they also ever end. Surrounded by peaks that reach eleven to fourteen thousand feet, the rivers are cozy with gravity. But in this storm, they rose to reach the rain. Under and over roads they erupted into tiny communities pitched amid red cliffs. Gathering fury, hurling shoulders of granite, they eventually seethed into a series of smaller valleys, fondly called the foothills. The foothills flatten into farmland and suburbs that greet the sun in the east as they meet the Great Plains. Last week the sun never came. And vast lengths of inhabited space bore the most inhospitable water. It overstayed where it didn’t belong.
This happened up and down the Rockies’ Front Range. From a series of fingered canyons, the mountains spilled pools across the plains, taking lives and livelihoods along the way. Rivers reset their courses, forging paths of least resistance, though we resisted for years.
Earlier this summer, as they do every summer—though sometimes more and sometimes, less—these same rivers ran from the mountains, communed in reservoirs, and trickled through an intricate network of streams, ditches, and dams that rendered them unrecognizable. Measured doses of water floating over land. For us, the “free” water from the St. Vrain River arrives first via the Swede ditch. Free means everyone takes what they need so long as it lasts, usually till late June. In August and September, the Big Thompson River offers “Big T” divvied shares. You only take what you have “rights” to.
This “free” and shared water allows us to irrigate, to make mini, carefully monitored floods. Structures are protected. The water is directed and stopped in the obstacle course that is houses and barns and fence lines. As the ground gurgles and sucks it all down, bubbles rise in haste, sounding of a thousand slight straws. Stalks of grass, so dry they’re violent, are fed. We slosh around in rubber boots and waders. With shovels, we set plastic tubes and sheets attached to two-by-fours, prop rocks, and sculpt dirt. Deceiving gravity, it worked. We reaped hay, almost always enough to get the horses through the year. And mostly, we enjoyed long hours of labor outside as the water eased along.
Also this summer, I was reading up on state history. I learned that before it was The Centennial State and The Columbine State, before it was Colorful, Colorado was Mother of Rivers.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised.