East Mesa Ditch owners open to leaving water in Crystal River

A graphic from the Snapshot Assessment of the Roaring Fork Watershed , a report done by Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. The graphic shows how a section of the Crystal River below several major diversions can be nearly dried up.
A graphic from the Snapshot Assessment of the Roaring Fork Watershed , a report done by Seth Mason of Lotic Hydrological. The graphic shows how a section of the Crystal River below several major diversions can be nearly dried up.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The East Mesa Water Co. has told the Colorado basin roundtable it could potentially leave in the Crystal River about a third of the water it now diverts in late summer if enough improvements are made to its 8.5-mile-long irrigation ditch.

Today about 30 to 40 percent of the water sent into the antiquated East Mesa Ditch is lost to evaporation and ditch leakage. But adding pipes and improving structures could reduce those water losses and allow more water to flow down the often de-watered lower Crystal River.

The East Mesa Ditch has a senior 1902 water right to divert 31.8 cubic feet per second from the Crystal, as well as a 1952 right to divert another 10 cfs. The diversion structure for the ditch is nine miles south of Carbondale, on river right.

“A 30 percent savings could mean, potentially, 10 (cubic) feet of water back into the Crystal River system,” said Richard McIntyre, the treasurer of East Mesa Water Co., during a grant application presentation to the Colorado roundtable on March 28.

The ditch company is currently seeking $60,000 from the roundtable to improve three sections of the ditch as part of a $114,000 project planned for this year.

McIntrye, representing the 12 owners in the East Mesa Water Co., also read a prepared statement to the roundtable as part of the grant presentation.

“The ditch company believes that there are avenues becoming available to us that may assist in easing some pressures on the Crystal River system and benefit the shareholders as well,” McIntrye said. “However, before we are able to intelligently assess and address the issues it is essential that we make our delivery system efficient.”

The biggest shareholders in the East Mesa Ditch include McIntrye, Paul and John Nieslanik, Tom Bailey of the Iron Rose Ranch, Hal Harvey, Tom Turnbull and Willa Doolan. Marty Nieslanik is the president of East Mesa Water Co.

“Although we have made concentrated efforts to rehabilitate the infrastructure on the ditch recently, it remains in poor to satisfactory condition,” McIntrye continued.

McIntrye said the ditch company was developing a five-year plan to “rehabilitate failing aspects of the ditch” and a 10-year plan to “pipe much, or even all” of the ditch.

Last year the Colorado roundtable gave East Mesa Water Co. $60,000 to help fund what turned out to be a $760,000 project to repair a 450-foot-long tunnel and install 1,200 feet of pipe in the ditch. East Mesa also received a $300,000 grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for the work.

“With irrigation efficiencies made by managing shareholders, combined with an effective delivery system, we hope to be a contributor to resolving the pressing issues that we all face in maintaining substantial water flows in the Crystal River and beyond,” said McIntrye, concluding his prepared remarks.

The lands irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are shown in purple, according to a technical report from Lotic Hydrological called Water Rights Allocation and Accounting Model Development for the Lower Crystal River.
The lands irrigated by the East Mesa Ditch are shown in purple, according to a technical report from Lotic Hydrological called Water Rights Allocation and Accounting Model Development for the Lower Crystal River.

‘The four questions’

A member of the roundtable then asked McIntyre if East Mesa was involved in the ongoing process to develop a stream management plan for the Crystal River.

“We’ve attended a lot of the meetings,” McIntrye said. “And over years of attending those meetings we keep asking the four questions, as they obviously want some of our water: one, when do you want the water; number two, how much water do you want; number three, what’s the water worth to you; and number four, who is going to pay us? And it’s been impossible to get any one of those questions really answered, but we still attend the meetings.”

McIntyre said East Mesa is forming an association of diverters on the Crystal River to gather information on its own and to possibly present an offer to the community.

There are 12 irrigation ditches on the lower Crystal River and collectively they divert about 171 cfs of water from the river each day during irrigation season, according to Ken Ransford, the secretary of the Colorado roundtable.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board holds an instream environmental flow right of 100 cfs on the Crystal, but the river often drops far below that level in late summer, at least in the section below the bigger irrigation ditches,

East Mesa is the second largest diverter on the Crystal, behind the Sweet Jessup Canal.

According to Ransford, the East Mesa ditch has diverted an average of 9,626 acre feet of water annually from 1952 to 2014. In 2014, it diverted 8,774 acre feet.

According to records gathered and maintained by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, East Mesa irrigates 383 acres of hay fields, which Ransford notes in his minutes of the March 28 roundtable meeting works out to “25 acre feet for each of the 383 irrigated acres.” In a follow-up email, Ransford notes it typically only takes two acre feet of water to grow an acre of hay.

The East Mesa Water Co., in its grant application to the roundtable, says the ditch has a service area of 740 acres.

And it says the hay grown on that 740 acres is worth about $500,000 annually, assuming a yield of four tons per acre and a hay price of $170 a ton.

The ditch company, however, also says there is more value in how the hay fields look to tourists than in the hay itself, saying the economic value is “closely related to recreation and tourism.”

“The effect on overall commerce would be significant if one of the most scenic views in the valley, that approaching Mt. Sopris, were to be brown and dry rather than green and lush because this ditch failed,” East Mesa’s grant application states.

The proposed $114,000 ditch improvement project pitched to the Colorado roundtable last week includes replacing the measuring device at the headgate and replacing two failing sections of the ditch where it crosses Nettle and Thomas creeks. East Mesa says the improvements could save 150 acre feet of water a year.

The 12 shareholders in the ditch company plan to put up $19,000 of the $114,000 project and are hoping to get a $35,000 from a grant from the Colorado River District and $60,000 from the Colorado roundtable.

The roundtable gets its funds from the state’s Water Supply Reserve Account program. In turn, that account is funded with oil and gas severance taxes, which are down sharply this year.

The Colorado roundtable now has $353,327 in its account for 2016. On March 28 the roundtable was presented with four grant requests totaling $263,500, including the $60,000 request from East Mesa.

A next steps meeting has since been set for April 11. The roundtable is expected to vote on East Mesa’s application at its May meeting.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado and the West. The Daily News published this article on Monday, April 4, 2016.

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