Water commissioners primer

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Here’s a great primer of sorts about the role of water commissioners in the administration of diversions on Colorado streams, from the University of Northern Colorado (Joshua Zaffos). Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

As the District 4 water commissioner for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, [Jason Smith] is doing his monthly check of reservoir levels within the Big Thompson River Basin to help him prepare for the upcoming spring snowmelt and runoff. The task is as old as the post of water commissioner, which dates back to 1879, when Colorado officially began recognizing water rights and managing the flows that pulse through streams and irrigation ditches.

Smith is among 114 commissioners across the state, each patrolling a district covering part, or all, of a river basin. Their job of administering water rights based on legal priority and the decrees of the state’s water courts is both straightforward and nebulous. Depending on climate and weather, runoff rates and stream volumes, commissioners say when cities can fill their reservoirs, or irrigation companies can open their diversion ditches. Sometimes known as water cops, they are also faced with telling people when they must limit their diversions to protect senior, or older, water rights.

Smith finds Green Ridge Glade and other reservoirs sitting at relatively high and steady levels through early February. But the dry and windy Colorado winter serves as a forewarning. Smith has heard from plenty of colleagues and ditch riders that the seasonal conditions so far are reminiscent of the brutal drought of 2002 — supported by media reports in May that statewide snowpack totals were tracking at 19 percent of the 30-year average.

Working long hours and often tramping through the field, or buried under paperwork, water commissioners are unsung heroes in keeping water flowing to farm fields and household faucets. In many ways, the job hasn’t changed much in 130 years — except for the pickup trucks and stream-gauge technology that greatly reduce uncertainty and delays.

More Colorado Division of Water Resources coverage here.

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