CWC: We’re partnering with the Colorado Foundation for Water Education to bring you three webinars on Transbasin diversionsOctober 7, 2014
At head gate atop pass, Western Slope, Front Range interests meet — The Grand Junction Daily SentinelOctober 7, 2014
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A water-measuring flume on a ditch sitting exactly astride this pass outside Leadville might be as good a place as any to bring Western and Eastern Slope interests together to talk about water.
Those interests met in the middle here last week, at this point where the Ewing Ditch crosses the Continental Divide, on a transbasin diversion tour presented by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. It was a chance to consider the past of water development in Colorado while also pondering its future. And where better to look back at the history of transbasin diversions than at Ewing Ditch, the oldest diversion of Western Slope water to the Eastern Slope?
This straightforward, unassuming dirt conduit seemingly defies gravity, diverting water from Eagle River tributary Piney Gulch just a short walk from Tennessee Pass, and just high enough up the gulch that the water can follow a contoured course crossing basins and head into the Arkansas River Valley.
“It’s simple, but I love simplicity. It fits my mind,” Alan Ward, water resources manager with the Pueblo Board of Water Works, joked about the ditch, which the utility bought in 1955.
Buried in snow
It was built in 1880 and also is called the Ewing Placer Ditch, which Ward believes suggests early use of the water in mining.
As transbasin diversions go, it’s a minuscule one, delivering up to 18.5 cubic feet per second, or an average of about 1,000 acre-feet in a year. It diverts about five square miles of melt-off from snowpack that can leave the ditch buried beneath 10 to 20 feet of snow in the winter. David Curtis is in charge of clearing that snow and maintaining and operating the ditch during the seven months out of each year that he works out of Leadville as a ditch rider for the utility.
The utility says Ewing Ditch is about three-quarters of a mile long.
“I think it’s a little longer,” Curtis said, adding that at least it seems that way when he and others are busy clearing spring snow.
A chartered bus delivered more than two dozen tour participants to view the ditch, including Boulder County resident Joe Stepanek. He found last week’s two-day tour to be highly informative. He’s interested in Colorado’s history of water development, and is retired from a U.S. Agency for International Development career that had him traveling abroad.
“I come back and join this water tour and learn a lot about Colorado,” he said.
Sonja Reiser, an engineer with CH2M HILL in Denver, likewise was finding the tour to be eye-opening.
“I’m learning so much about how complicated Colorado water law is,” she said as the tour bus moved on from this tiny diversion point to the outlet of the five-mile-long Homestake Tunnel, which goes under the Continental Divide from Homestake Reservoir in Eagle County and is capable of delivering a much more massive 800 cubic feet per second to help meet municipal needs in Colorado Springs and Aurora.
Before getting to those cities, that water also is put to use at another tour stop, the Mount Elbert Power Plant just above Twin Lakes. There, the water goes through hydropower turbines that can be reversed to pull water back up from the lakes to a reservoir above the plant, helping ensure the water is available to create on-demand power to meet grid shortages at times when renewable energy from wind and solar sources wane.
While traveling to the tunnel, the busload heard Pitkin County Attorney John Ely discuss legal means that county has to at least weigh in on transbasin diversion proposals, even if it can’t outright stop them.
He then opined that Pitkin County has more in common with some Front Range counties than it does with some counties on the Western Slope.
“I think that at the end of the day everybody appreciates that we’re in this together,” he said.
Such thinking is helping drive an ongoing effort to develop a state water plan in Colorado. Ely said the priority is always going to be providing water for human consumption, but beyond that, decisions must be made about how to distribute it among competing uses such as agriculture, watering lawns, generating hydropower and maintaining streamflows.
“The only way you can get at that is to invite the public to participate,” he said.
Since 1880, many others have followed the lead taken with the Ewing Ditch and diverted Western Slope water for use on the populous Front Range. As a result, a big challenge facing the state water planning process is reconciling the Front Range’s desire to be able to access yet more of that water with the feeling of many on the Western Slope that they’ve given up enough of it. Although tours like last week’s can’t be expected to lead to breakthroughs on such difficult issues, they at least help to put faces behind the entities involved.
“We’re not three-headed monsters on the Eastern Slope,” Kevin Lusk, who works with Colorado Springs Utilities, said during a windy lunch break alongside Turquoise Lake, which stores water delivered by the Homestake Tunnel.
Front Range lawns
Fielding questions from a few Western Slope residents as they ate, Lusk and some other Front Range utility officials found themselves defending the amount of water conservation they’ve already undertaken, and questioning the Western Slope frustration about water being used to keep Front Range lawns green. Brett Gracely, also with Colorado Springs Utilities, said that watering accounts for just 3 percent of state water use.
“I don’t get it — why do people hate grass?” Lusk wondered.
But as Lusk later described Colorado Springs’ efforts to better shore up its diversion infrastructure to reduce leakage far up the Roaring Fork Valley in Pitkin County, it engendered a frustrated sigh from Lisa Tasker, a member of Pitkin County’s Healthy River Board. She has hiked around that infrastructure, and what has leaked from it has helped vegetation in the same pristine mountain basins from where that water originates, rather than irrigating Front Range lawns.
Still, Tasker bit her lip during Lusk’s presentation. She was on the tour to look and listen, and said earlier it was a chance to see diversion infrastructure firsthand and hear not just the perspectives but the passions of people from the Front Range.
“I’m strictly in learning mode,” she said.
Chris Treese, external affairs manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, based in Glenwood Springs, sits on the board of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, which uses tours and other means to provide unbiased information on water resources and issues. Treese, who also was a presenter during last week’s tour, said he believes such events help foster dialogue about water in the state and get new voices involved in the state’s water future.
“If it’s going to be a state water plan, it can’t just be water buffaloes’ state water plan,” Treese said, referring to the more traditional participants in water issues on both sides of the divide.
“It’s good for us to get outside of our box and look at the bigger picture,” said tour participant Joe Burtard, who works in external affairs for the Ute Water Conservancy District utility in Mesa County. “… It’s good for us to be exposed to the Front Range and Eastern Slope perspectives as well.”
More Colorado Foundation for Water Education coverage here.
Here’s a report about last week’s Colorado Foundation for Water Education transbasin diversion tour from the Water Quality and Quantity Blog. Here’s an excerpt:
Because QQ works to address environmental (and resulting economic) impacts from transmountain diversions, the best part of the tour for me was gaining a better appreciation for how interconnected the State is through transmountain diversions.
The Arkansas Valley is the recipient of water that is diverted through complex tunnel systems, or simple diversion ditches, from the western side of the Continental Divide to water population centers on the Front Range. The tour focused primarily on the benefits that historic transmountain diversions (TMDs) have provided to the Eastern Slope. Chaffee County Commissioner Dennis Giese even thanked the West Slope for the water that makes their recreation and ranching economies thrive (a touching gesture that does not happen enough in dialogue across the divide).
We saw the first-ever TMD, the Ewing Ditch, and walked along the ¾ mile ditch from the diversion point to the point it crosses the Continental Divide. We saw TMDs of a much larger scale too, watching water blast from the side of a mountain, bringing water from Homestake Reservoir in the Eagle River basin through a 5-mile tunnel to Turquoise Reservoir and the Arkansas River basin.
More Colorado Foundation for Water Education coverage here.
From the Watch (Samantha Wright):
Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs’ favorite tool for teaching about the history of water law in Colorado is the Land Office Map of 1902. All of the forces at play that shaped Colorado’s water-scape today are there to see, from Indian reservations to homesteads to growing cities and vast forested watersheds out of which plummet the headwaters of great rivers that flow on journeys toward the sea.
Some pink blobby areas near the bottom of the map signify the Mexican Land Grants. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo required the United States to recognize the rights of the settlers on those lands – including their age-old water rights.
The town of San Luis, one of the oldest communities in Colorado, lies within one of these pink blobs in the heart of the Sangre De Cristo Grant. And here, at the south end of town, Hobbs said reverently, “You can see the 1852 People’s Ditch.”
Serving the village of San Luis de la Culebra before Colorado was even a territory, let along a state, the People’s Ditch began as a hand-dug irrigation channel and was later widened by oxen pulling a plow. It was one of many acequias (gravity-fed ditches) in the San Luis Valley, allowing agriculture to flourish through a water-sharing network originally based on equitable allocation, rather than priority.
This “beautiful ditch” that delivers water from the west side of the towering Sangre de Cristo range to the dry lands of the San Luis Valley holds a special place in Hobbs’ heart. That’s because it holds the very first adjudicated water rights in Colorado – rights that Hobbs has been sworn to uphold through his role as a Colorado Supreme Court Justice.
The People’s Ditch still serves water users today, irrigating approximately 2100 acres of hay and other row crops.
It was only one stop in Hobbs’ romp through Colorado’s water history and law, delivered as a keynote address at the Annual Water 101 Seminar hosted in Telluride on Monday, Sept. 21. The annual seminar is an outreach program coordinated by the Durango-based Water Information Program.
Other stops along the way ranged from an ancient (long dried-up) ditch-fed reservoir near Mesa Verde that is believed to be one of the oldest water supply structures in North America (“This just proves the Mormons and miners invented water law,” Hobbs quipped); to utopian agricultural communities along the Poudre River where the doctrine of public ownership subject to allocation for beneficial use (basically “We were here first – put the water back!”) was first hashed out; to Glorieta Pass in northern New Mexico, where in 1862 a ragtag bunch of Colorado farmers and miners “made the Texans go back to Texas.”
This decisive western battle of the Civil War thwarted the dreams of a Confederate stronghold in the southwest, and paved the path for continued settlement of the region under Union terms via the Railroad Act, Homestead Act, and various land grants.
It all fits into Hobbs’ intricate and nuanced understanding of the complexities of Colorado water law, which evolved alongside the evolution of Colorado as a territory carved out of surrounding states, “to hold against confederates the whole area where gold might be found.”
While Colorado’s headwaters, along with its gold, are high in the mountains, the roots of its system of prior appropriation and the beneficial use of water can be traced to the Eastern Plains, Hobbs said.
Simply put, the system evolved out of the need of Front Range farmers to have the assurance they could raise crops on intermittently arid lands to feed the miners and residents of growing cities, on a landscape where water must be conveyed great distances via rivers and ditches across other peoples’ property, to reach one’s crops.
Thus, as irrigators in an arid land, the foundation of Colorado’s water law is the right to cross intervening private and public lands to build a ditch to get water where you need it, “because if an intervening land owner could block your ditch you could not perfect a water use right,” Hobbs explained.
As Hobbs wrote in his “Colorado Water Law Summary,” the water provisions of the state’s 1876 Constitution laid out four key principals that are still in place today, that together comprise the Prior Appropriation Doctrine:
All surface and groundwater within Colorado is owned by the public and dedicated to the use of the people through water rights established as prescribed by laws of Colorado and the United States; Court decrees and groundwater permits enforced by state water officials define the right of water use for a wide variety of agricultural, municipal, commercial, recreational and instream flow purposes (together described as “beneficial uses”); Water users paying just compensation may obtain a right-of-way across the lands of others for the construction and operation of needed diversion, conveyance and storage structures; The streams and aquifers can be used to transport and store water without interference by riparian landowners.
“It’s a doctrine of scarcity, not of plenty,” Hobbs said, and it has held up well over the years, largely thanks to Colorado’s groundbreaking 1881 legislation that set up an administrative and judicial system to enforce priority rights.
Hobbs will be turning 70 this December, and is retiring from the court in Aug. 2015. As a Colo. Supreme Court Justice, he has fully embraced his role as final arbiter in water disputes, which in Colorado bypass the Court of Appeals and ascend straight from the state’s seven water courts to the Supreme Court level…
A poet, author and historian who has taught water history and culture throughout the country as well as in the Netherlands and France, Hobbs is particularly well-versed in the bipolar nature of Colorado, and its “80 percent problem” – stemming from the fact that 80 percent of Colorado’s water is on the Western Slope, and (almost) 80 percent of its population on the Front Range.
Adding to the complexity of this problem, Colorado’s waters spill off the Continental Divide and flow to the Gulf of Mexico and (sometimes) the Sea of Cortez, with 19 states including Colorado dependent upon this snowmelt.
Nine interstate compacts ensure equitable apportionment of water among the states that share the system; Colorado is only permitted to consume about one third of the water that arises in the state and must ensure that the remainder stays in the rivers for downstate water users.
These compacts will be tested in the years to come, with the predicted gap between demand and supply, and some states like California already in crisis.
As Hobbs said, “It all comes down to water.”
More water law coverage here.
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