Salida resident Bruce Smith recently retired as Colorado Division of Water Resources district water commissioner after 40 years with the division, including 34 years as commissioner in the Upper Arkansas River Valley.
The Division of Water Resources, also known as the Office of the State Engineer, administers Colorado water rights, and as the Division 2 (Arkansas River Basin) District 11 (headwaters to Salida) commissioner, Smith oversaw two deputy commissioners and approximately 1,400 water rights.
He said he knows of only one other commissioner in the state who has done the job longer; in fact, he said, “When I started, river calls came by postcard. Now, with the Internet, people want (river) calls administered instantly.”
Colorado water rights are administered according to the Prior Appropriation System, which dictates when water can be used based on water-right seniority – “first in time, first in right.”
Water commissioners work within their respective districts to ensure the system is followed, enforcing Colorado water laws and decrees, sometimes by cutting off an irrigator’s water in order to meet a call on the river by the holder of a senior water right. Senior rights holders file river calls with the division engineer when they fail to receive all of the water they have been decreed. A call on the river is essentially a request for the division engineer to curtail all upstream water rights junior to the calling right until the senior right is satisfied.
Once the division engineer’s office receives a river call, it becomes the responsibility of the local water commissioner to ensure the call is met by curtailing water diversions by junior rights holders.
Smith said a typical day as water commissioner starts with a check of real-time gauges to see if the river is rising or falling.
The next order of business is to go to calling rights holders’ ditches to see how much water they have. “To put a call on the river, (rights holders) have to take all available water at their headgates,” Smith explained. If the calling ditches really are low, Smith said the water commissioner must then figure out how much water is needed to meet the call, based in part on how much the river is rising or dropping.
Smith said it then becomes a matter of shutting irrigation headgates of junior upstream water rights to try to get enough water to the calling ditch.
If the calling ditch still does not receive its decreed amount of water, Smith said, “you go out and do it again” until the ditch receives its decreed amount.
“It takes up to 3 days to get a dropping river set,” Smith said. “Sometimes you have to cut off three to five times as much water as the calling ditch needs” because of factors like evaporation.
“I always tried to be fair – hit a medium ground – and give people the benefit of the doubt,” Smith added.
Smith said he grew up around water. His father was deputy state engineer, but Smith planned to be a teacher and earned his education degree at the University of Northern Colorado.
While attending college in the early ’70s, Smith said, he took a job filling in for the Laramie River water commissioner. The job helped pay for college and gave Smith his start working for the State Engineer’s Office.
But Smith still had no plans to pursue a career in water until discovering that he could not land a job as a teacher. At that point, Smith accepted a deputy commissioner position on the Cache La Poudre River, where he worked until 1979. “Back then, we used computer punch cards,” he said.
Even after accepting the job as District 11 commissioner, Smith said, the state provided no supplies for years. “I didn’t have a state truck for 15 years. But since I was using my own truck, I took the kids with me a lot, which was great for them growing up.” Smith said “the kids” – Don, 36, and Erik, 34 – still talk about those experiences.
The downside back in those days, Smith said, was all the phone calls at home.
“Before cell phones,” Smith recalled, “I had an answering machine. I would get home in the evening, play messages and have to go back out. And for 5 years I didn’t finish a video with my kids without getting a water phone call.”
During the ’80s, Smith said, he would make a weekly trip through Bighorn Sheep Canyon to deliver an old 5¼-inch floppy disk to the Division Engineer’s office in Pueblo. “The first time I did that, the disk got corrupted. Eventually, I started making three disks. One would usually make it, but something in the canyon would corrupt those disks.”
Smith also recalled the first time he made the trip up the steep, rocky jeep trail to Boss Lake. “I went up with Doc Hutchinson in the back of his truck,” Smith said with a look of dismay. “Later, people would tell me, ‘Nobody rides with Doc up there.’”
Overall, Smith said he thinks he had the best commissioner job in the state here in the Upper Ark Valley. “I’ve had a lot of fun. I definitely have mixed feelings about retiring.”