Don’t take more than you need: wrangling wasted water on the Western Slope

Erin Light, center, and Shanna Lewis in a pasture with a mule while checking on the Meeker Ditch on July 11. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch, which she determined was wasting water.
Erin Light, center, and Shanna Lewis in a pasture with a mule while checking on the Meeker Ditch on July 11. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch, which she determined was wasting water.

MEEKER – The mule in a pasture east of Meeker along the White River seemed happy to see Erin Light, a state division engineer, and Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner, when they went to take a look at the amount of water flowing through the Meeker Ditch on July 11.

Lewis, who grew up on a Colorado ranch, praised the mule’s beautiful, deer-like coloring and said they’d become friends on her frequent visits to check the ditch.

But the warm equine reception the two enforcers of Colorado water law received differed from the response they sometimes get from ranchers in Division 6, which encompasses the Yampa, White and North Platte river basins, especially when they are visiting a ditch because they think its operator is diverting more water than they need through their head gate.

“I would say I’m more telling than I am curtailing,” said Light, who has been the division engineer based in Steamboat Springs since 2006. “There have only been a few situations where I’ve actually said, ‘That’s it. We’re curtailing you.’ And they’re very obvious situations where they’ve got a lot of water going down the tail end of their ditch, where you can’t argue that this isn’t waste.

“Where the problem becomes in determining waste is that I can go out to a piece of land and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got 6 inches of water on this land. There’s ducks swimming around. This is wasteful,’” she 
continued. “You can go to the landowner or the irrigator and say, ‘This is waste,’ and they’ll stare you right in the face and say, ‘The hell it is.’”

Division and state engineers working for Colorado’s Division of Water Resources, as Light does, are the only officials who have the authority to determine if waste is occurring on an irrigation system. And their primary response is to curtail wasteful flows at the head gate.

But determining if there is waste in a ditch is a case-by-case exercise. It’s site specific and time sensitive, and it can take time to understand how someone manages their ditch.

There’s no state definition of waste or written guidelines, but in the end it’s a fact-based analysis focused on how much water is needed to irrigate so many acres.

An allowance is also made for customary inefficiencies on a ditch system. Water leaking out of an old ditch, for example, is not considered waste. But beyond inefficiency, which is often a physical issue, there is waste, which is usually a water-management issue.

And waste is a much bigger issue on the Western Slope than on the state’s drier eastern plains, where irrigators have long watched for anyone wasting water.

A field flooded with water from the Yampa RIver this year. Erin Light, the division engineer for Div. 6, said this is an example of diverting more water than is necessary.
A field flooded with water from the Yampa RIver this year. Erin Light, the division engineer for Division 6, said this is an example of diverting more water than is necessary.

Free river, or not

In 2014, Light served the Meeker Ditch with a written curtailment order, and she also told the big Maybell Canal on the Yampa River that they had to stop wasting water.

And she did so even though neither river was “under administration,” the term for the body of water being called out by senior downstream diverters, so both were considered in a “free river” condition.

Nor was there another water right that was being injured by either ditch’s diversions.

Just in the past 10 days, Light’s office has informed rancher Doug Monger that water is being wasted in the irrigation system he manages on his Yampa River Ranch three miles east of Hayden.

Monger is a Routt County commissioner, a member of the Yampa-White Roundtable, and a director on the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s board.

When asked Tuesday, during a break in a daylong strategic retreat at the River District, about Light’s belief that he was wasting water, he responded in a way that she has heard before.

“I don’t know what the hell difference it makes if I’m wasting water or not, it’s going back in the river,” Monger said. “Who the hell cares, if it’s a free river.”

“I know he is wasting water,” Light said Monday of Monger. “And he should be the poster child of what should be done, not what shouldn’t be done.

“About 10 days or so ago, our water commissioner approached a bunch of water users in the ditch system,” she explained. “There are several ditches that combine and co-mingle there.

“They were immediately going, ‘That’s Doug Monger’s responsibility, Doug’s the one controlling that,’ which I take as Doug is the one controlling the head gates,” Light said. “One of our water commissioners, Brian Romig, went to Doug and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here. You’re diverting too much water.’ From what Brian told me, Doug somewhat recognized it. He concurred that he needed to reduce his diversions.”

But Tuesday, Monger was not willing to go that far, saying he understood from the water commissioner only that he was still figuring out how Monger’s ditch works.

“I won’t acknowledge it,” Monger said of the allegation that he was diverting more water than he needs. “And if they start coming up with some scenario on it, we can always get our attorney. “

That was the same initial response that David Smith, the primary shareholder on the Meeker Ditch, had when Light curtailed his ditch in 2014.

But since then, and after spending $40,000 in legal and engineering fees, Smith has come around to see Light’s point.

“I would tell you that Erin and I started out on opposite ends on this thing, but both of us have kind of tried to work our way towards middle ground that we can both agree on,” he said.

Smith was busy this week bringing in hay on his well-tended fields along the White River just west of Meeker — the same fields his grandfather irrigated.

“I’ve had some disagreements with her, but Erin is an intelligent gal,” he said of Light, who has a master’s degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University with an emphasis in hydraulics and hydrology. “We’ve worked with her, and we’ve worked with the people that she has here, and at the end of the day it’s helped all of us, and I think we’re all better educated because of it.”

Well-tended fields along the White River west of Meeker irrigated by the Meeker Ditch. The ditch has been directed to divert less water at its headgate than it used to.
Well-tended fields along the White River west of Meeker irrigated by the Meeker Ditch. The ditch has been directed to divert less water at its head gate than it used to.
Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner in Div. 6, inspecting the Meeker Ditch's measuring flume. Lewis suggested it's easy for outsiders to critique how ranchers manage their water, but that there are a lot of factors, and experience, involved that are not always readily apparent.
Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner in Division 6, inspecting the Meeker Ditch’s measuring flume. Lewis suggested it’s easy for outsiders to critique how ranchers manage their water, but that there are a lot of factors, and experience, involved that are not always readily apparent.

Laying down the law

The Meeker Ditch has a water right dating back to 1883 to divert 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water and two other later and smaller rights that allow it to divert 25.95 cfs in all.

The ditch diverts water from the White River just east of Meeker, runs it through Meeker proper, and then to fields west of town. (See map).

In her August 2014 curtailment order, Light said the historic water rights held by the Meeker Ditch represent enough water to irrigate about 1,000 acres, but today only 153 acres are actively being irrigated. And engineers at Resource Engineering Inc. calculated that the Meeker Ditch only needed 6 cfs to irrigate the fields still served by the ditch.

Attorney Kevin Patrick of Patrick, Miller and Noto, a water law firm with offices in Aspen and Basalt, had hired Resource Engineering to analyze the irrigation ditch on behalf of a client who owned commercial property under the ditch.

Since 2004, the property had been intermittently subject to flooding by water leaking from the ditch.

Patrick sent the engineering report and a letter to Light. “The ditch is diverting unnecessary water which is merely being spilled” and “the excessive running of water, over that reasonably required for the reasonable application of water to beneficial use for the decreed purposes and lands, is forbidden” under state law, the letter says.

After investigating the matter, Light found the ditch had been consistently diverting about 20 cfs at its head gate, but was then sending much of the water out of the ditch and down Curtis Creek, Sulphur Creek or Fairfield Gulch, back toward the White River.

Light then curtailed diversions at the Meeker Ditch head gate, which she has the authority to do. And when asked to do so by Smith, she put the curtailment order in writing.

“Colorado statute clearly prohibits the running of water not needed for beneficial use,” Light wrote in her order, dated Aug. 15, 2014.

Light cited a Colorado statute that reads “it shall not be lawful for any person to run through an irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”

And she addressed the issue of water being released from the ditch and back to the river.

“Generally when water is being wasted off the end of the irrigated acreage, through waste gates, or at the tail end of the ditch, the head gate should be turned down to eliminate that waste of water,” Light wrote. “In this case it appears that water is being diverted at too great a rate for the lands that are being irrigated, and the rate of diversion is not being reduced to eliminate waste.”

Light’s stance on enforcing waste has the backing of her boss, State Engineer Dick Wolfe.

A photo from the Resource Engineering report documenting waste on the Meeker Ditch in 2014. Water from the ditch is being turned out into Sulphur Creek, while the main flow in the ditch continues through the pipe above the outfall.
A photo from the Resource Engineering report documenting waste on the Meeker Ditch in 2014. Water from the ditch is being turned out into Sulphur Creek, while the main flow in the ditch continues through the pipe above the outfall.

Use it or lose it?

Both Wolfe and Light served recently on a committee, convened by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, that issued a report in February on the widely brandished piece of advice to irrigators to “use it or lose it.”

The report is called “How diversion and beneficial use of water affect the value and measure of a water right” and is subtitled “Is ‘use it or lose it’ an absolute?”

The 11-page report ends with several declarative statements about waste that give further backing to Light’s approach, and that she might well wish to see chained to every head gate on the Western Slope.

“Water that is diverted above the amount necessary for application to a beneficial use (including necessary for transit loss) is considered waste,” states the report.

“Increased diversions for the sole purpose of maintaining a record of a larger diversion are considered waste,” it says, referring to the practice of diverting toward the full amount of a decree in order to bolster the future potential value of a water right.

And, “Wasteful diversions will either be curtailed, or will not be considered as part of the water right’s beneficial use.”

Wolfe, who recently gave a presentation to the Colorado Ag Water Alliance on the “use it or lose it” report, said that Light is not being overzealous in her enforcement of waste.

“She is not going out and as a division engineer purposely looking and being more assertive or aggressive about trying to find where waste is going on,” Wolfe said. “These are ones that just came to our attention.”

Alan Martellaro, the division engineer for Division 5, has not taken the same approach as Light when it comes to curtailing waste.

“To actually actively go look for waste is not something that’s historically been done unless there’s a call on the stream,” said Martellaro, who is based in Glenwood Springs and whose jurisdiction includes the Colorado, the Roaring Fork, and the Crystal river basins. “It just hasn’t been the mode we’ve ever been in.”

Kevin Rein, the deputy state engineer who also served on the “use it or lose it” committee, said issues vary from division to division.

“In Division 6, in the Yampa-White, we’ve had periods of free river without administration for a long time, because it hasn’t been over-appropriated,” Rein said. “That means not being water short. So very often people were just diverting whatever they wanted because, why not? But she’s really directing herself to getting people to measure their diversions and pay attention to duty of water. I think you choose what’s important in your division. That’s important in her division.”

“Duty of water” is essentially how much water someone needs to grow crops on a certain amount of land, without waste. In the Yampa and White river basins, the duty of water is generally held to be that it takes 1 cfs to adequately irrigate 40 acres of land.

After giving a presentation at a water workshop in Gunnison in June about the “use it or lose it” report, Rein was asked why the state doesn’t go around and curtail people who are over-diverting.

“We do, as resources allow,” Rein said. “It’s simply a matter of looking at our water districts where we, maybe, have one water commissioner and maybe a deputy. Maybe if they each had two or three more deputies, then we could do that.”

Light sounds like she could use some help.

“When it comes down to obvious waste,” she said, “I would say we have a tremendous problem with it. I had a long-standing water commissioner — he was with us for 40 years and grew up a rancher — tell me one day, ‘The problem with irrigators today is they don’t go out and move their sets. They just open the head gate wider.’”

“Sets” refers to how irrigators have set various control points, such as check dams and internal head gates, along their ditches.

“That just blew me away,” Light said. “Here’s a longtime rancher living in the community of Meeker his entire life who is more or less telling me that his co-irrigators … just open up their head gate and don’t move sets anymore. To me, that’s where the inefficiency is. Go out, divert less water, and move your damn sets.”

Erin Light, after being asked to pose for a photo at the headgate of the Meeker Ditch. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch to reduce the amount of water being wasted in the ditch system.
Erin Light, after being asked to pose for a photo at the head gate of the Meeker Ditch. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch to reduce the amount of water being wasted in the ditch system.

Defending Light

After receiving Light’s written curtailment order in August 2014 on the Meeker Ditch, Smith appealed it to an administrative hearing officer, which was a rare move.

Wolfe said the appeal, which was addressed to him, “is the only curtailment order that I am aware of that has been appealed since I have been state engineer.” He’s been state engineer since since 2007 and has been with the Division of Water Resources since 1993.

An attorney for the Meeker Townsite Ditch Co., which owns the Meeker Ditch, told the state that Light was “attempting to restrict the diversion of water down the Meeker Ditch at a time when the White River is not under an administrative call and at a time when no other water rights owner is affected by the diversion.”

At that point, the state stepped in to defend Light’s curtailment order, and Philip Lopez, an assistant attorney general, prepared an answer to Smith’s appeal.

In his answer, Lopez cited a relatively straightforward statute that reads: “During the summer season it shall not be lawful for any person to run through his irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, and for domestic and stock purposes, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”

And he quoted the Colorado Supreme Court in Fellhauer v. People, where it said, “The right to water does not give the right to waste it.”

As to the matter of Light, or any other division engineer, not being able to curtail waste if there is not a call on the river, Lopez wrote “the division engineer has the authority to curtail [the Meeker Ditch’s] wasteful diversions at any time pursuant to [state law], regardless of whether or not the White River is under administration.”

Lopez did concede, though, that the water rights held by the Meeker Ditch still allowed it to divert water, as long as they did so “without waste.”

That’s an important distinction for Smith, who insists that he wasn’t technically curtailed, only that he can’t waste water when diverting.

“She hasn’t curtailed me to the amount of water that I can use,” Smith said. “All that Erin tells me is that whatever amount of water I have in the ditch, that she doesn’t want us wasting any water.”

Light has a different take.

“We curtailed them,” Light said. “We issued an order to stop wasting. They hired an attorney. They hired an engineer. It went to the hearing officer. They don’t waste anymore.”

The hearing officer in the case denied the ditch’s appeal, indicating it was a matter for water court. But Smith declined to go there.

“We kind of came to a working agreement that we were going to try to work with it, but as far as the laws, there was never a test case,” Smith said.

That may be, but on July 11, when Light and Lewis measured the flow in the Meeker Ditch, it was running at 6 cfs, not 20 cfs as it often used to.

The diversion structure for the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River east of Maybell. The ditch has been working to reduce diversions after the division engineer found it was diverting more water than it needed.
The diversion structure for the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River east of Maybell. The ditch has been working to reduce diversions after the division engineer found it was diverting more water than it needed.

The Maybell Canal

Light has also curtailed another irrigation ditch in Division 6, the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River near Maybell, which she found was similarly diverting more water than it needed.

The canal diverts water from the Yampa into a head gate located in a canyon on the edge of Little Juniper Mountain, about 30 miles west of Craig. (See map).

The Maybell Canal has a senior water right for 42.2 cfs that was adjudicated in 1923 and appropriated in 1899. It also has a junior right for 86.8 cfs that was adjudicated in 1972 and was appropriated in 1946.

The waste on the Maybell Canal was brought to Light’s attention by one of her water commissioners who’d visited the ditch. Light then verbally instructed the canal’s manager to stop wasting water. Mike Camblin, manager of the Maybell Irrigation District, wasn’t happy when he got the curtailment order from Light, but he’s now working to secure funding to make $197,000 worth of improvements to the irrigation system.

On July 13, the Yampa-White-Green basin roundtable approved a $108,000 grant of state funds to help fix several issues on the ditch system. One of those improvements is a modern, automated “waste gate” a mile below the head gate.

Camblin said such a remote-controlled system won’t work at the head gate, which is higher up in the canyon without cell phone service and prone to being washed out by high water.

But he is willing to use the automated gate to reduce sending more water than necessary out the bottom of the ditch, where the water returns to the Yampa River.

The arrangement for the new gate does not entirely please Light, however. She insisted that Camblin agree to send someone up to the head gate within three days after receiving information from the new automated gate that they are over-diverting.

An agreement to that end has been worked out and is poised for adoption, both Light and Camblin said.

“The whole goal is to not only help Erin out but to make us better at what we do,” Camblin told his fellow roundtable members on July 13.

In an interview this week, Camblin said, “At times we were probably taking more water than we need, but that’s what this whole process is about, to cut that down.” He said he is forging a productive working relationship with Light.

“I think it all comes down to communication, especially with Erin and the water commissioners,” he said. “If they get to know us and how our ditch can run better, and we allow them to do that, and we communicate, we can solve a lot of problems.”

Water diverted into the Maybell Canal enters a flume a mile below the headgate and crosses the Yampa River. A remote-operated outlet is to be installed just above the flume in an effort to reduce diversions into the ditch.
Water diverted into the Maybell Canal enters a flume a mile below the head gate and crosses the Yampa River. A remote-operated outlet is to be installed just above the flume in an effort to reduce diversions into the ditch.
The Maybell Canal, towards its end, below the town of Maybell, on July 13, 2016. The ditch is working to waste less water by reducing diversions from the Yampa River.
The Maybell Canal, toward its end, below the town of Maybell, on July 13, 2016. The ditch is working to waste less water by reducing diversions from the Yampa River.

Watch that stick

Dan Birch, the deputy general manager at the Colorado River Conservation District and a member of the Yampa-White basin roundtable, is supportive of the improvements that Camblin is trying make on the Maybell Canal.

“I think Mike’s really trying to do the right thing, and I think he wants to take a look at ways he can manage his diversions better,” Birch said. “I certainly don’t think he’s diverting just for the sake of diverting.”

Birch also cautioned against using a stick to beat back waste.

“You can’t go into a situation and say, ‘Hey, you guys are wasting water, I want you to reduce your diversions,’” Birch said. “You really have to be prepared to go into that situation and say, ‘Hey, look, here’s something that we’re seeing here. Let’s have a conversation. I’m interested in exploring what we might do to improve flow in the river.’”

But Light feels the Maybell Canal needed to be prodded into action.

“What has partially pushed the Maybell Canal to go the direction they have is us really putting our foot down that we’re not going to allow this waste to continue,” she said. “Again, the waste is so blatant. They were diverting about 54 cfs at the head gate, and we estimated about 18 cfs going out the tail end. It’s like, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”

Birch was asked directly if he thought the Maybell Canal would be making its proposed improvements without Light’s enforcement actions.

“That’s a fair question, and my immediate response is probably not,” he said.

While Light has been able to work with both Smith and Camblin, she knows she’s raising the hackles of ranchers in the Yampa and White river basins.

“I don’t think the irrigation community wants to be told they’re wasting,” she said. “I’d love to do more as far as waste, but I do have to tread lightly.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, July 24, 2016

How healthy is the Poudre River? — The Fort Collins Coloradoan

Map of the Northern Integrated Supply Project via Northern Water
Map of the Northern Integrated Supply Project via Northern Water

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacey Marmaduke):

Citing low flows in the winter and insufficient flushing flows in the spring, river experts give the health of the Cache la Poudre River moderate marks. Ken Kehmeier, senior fishery biologist at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, gives it a “C-plus.” Ellen Wohl, a Colorado State University geosciences professor, prefers “needs improvement.”

“It’s not going to catch on fire like the Cuyahoga River did in the ‘60s, but it’s a very different river than it was in say, 1858,” she said. “I’d never give up on the Poudre. It’s ailing in health, but it can recover, and it’s not anywhere near being done.”

What does the future hold for the Poudre? That interpretation depends a lot on who you ask. It also will depend on how Northern Colorado leaders respond to potential obstacles raised by climate change, urban development and the Northern Integrated Supply Project.

Climate change

Colorado’s in a weird spot when it comes to climate predictions.

While it’s clear temperatures will increase — they already have — there’s no consensus on whether climate change will bring more, less or the same precipitation to Colorado.

Regardless, warmer temperatures are an issue for the Poudre and its aquatic life and water users. The Poudre is fed primarily by mountain snowmelt, and as Colorado’s average temperatures rise, the spring pulse — the onset of higher spring flows fed by snowmelt — will come earlier than usual.

John Stokes, Fort Collins Natural Areas director, said he already sees it happening on the Poudre.

“Our snowmelt is getting earlier and earlier. It’s probably about two weeks earlier now than it used to be,” Stokes said. “As that accelerates, what does that do to our storage in the mountains, which is snow and ice? We rely on the timing of that storage.”

Not everybody agrees with Stokes. Poudre River Commissioner Mark Simpson said flows have varied so much during the last 50 years that he doesn’t see a shift in the peak, which generally occurs around the first week of June.

[Ellen Wohl] said she hasn’t necessarily noticed that trend on the Poudre — the system is so meticulously managed that it can be hard to tell when high flows are the work of Mother Nature or water engineers, she added…

Development

The biggest protection — literally — is a development buffer zone of 300 feet on either side of the river through most of Fort Collins. That’s nearly the length of a football field. The buffer zone, which is enhanced by city ownership of most of the land along the river, quells any fears that the Poudre will one day turn into a built-out river walk. It also mitigates flood risk.

“Maybe In a perfect world we would have had quarter- or half-mile setbacks from the river,” Stokes said. “This river used to go all over the place. It would change its course frequently. But now, it’s pretty much locked into its location because of the way we’ve developed around it.”

[…]

NISP

Proponents say Northern Colorado needed NISP yesterday. Opponents argue that the project will irreversibly damage the river that has long been a lifeblood for the region.

Reservoirs are “exhibit A” for the future of Western water, said Brian Werner, spokesman for NISP initiator Northern Water.

“We’re going to need reservoirs for the next 200 years,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out where to store that water in the wet times so you can use it in the dry times.”

It’s easy to reduce NISP to a lengthy timeline and a lot of bureaucratic jargon, but it’s more than that. The project has become symbolic of a major question about the future of water use: How do we meet the water needs of staggering population growth without harming our rivers?

NISP would divert from the Poudre during peak springtime flows. That causes concern for many because the river needs flushing flows to thrive.

“As the water moves, it has the power to carry things,” Kehmeier said. “When you take that power away from it, then all those sediment pieces drop out and deposit on the (river bed).”

Sediment buildup can make the river dirtier, smellier and fill it with algae and non-native, potentially invasive, species.

Wohl is skeptical of NISP, partially because of the flushing flows issue and partially because the river already lacks a natural flow regime.

Downstream, “the volume of the water isn’t really natural,” Wohl said. “That has a cascade of effects. If you change the amount of water in a river, you change the energy available for processes like picking up and moving sediment, you change the shape and size of the river, you change the habitat available for organisms.”

But it’s possible for NISP to coexist with a healthy river if Northern Water plans accordingly, Kehmeier said.

“With these flushing flows, you’re looking for a recurrence interval,” he said. “Every one-and-a-half to two years, you should have a flow that’s considered bank-full.”

NISP could also boost historically low winter flows on the Poudre by releasing reservoir water into the river during dry times, Kehmeier said.

“From a fisheries standpoint, the Poudre is as limited by low flows, probably more so, than it is by flushing flows,” he said. “Fish don’t survive very well without water.”

Wintertime releases are a component of Northern Water’s recently unveiled conveyance refinement proposal, which is basically a plan to run 14,000 acre feet of the diverted water through most of the Poudre’s stretch in Fort Collins. The move was partially intended to address some of the city of Fort Collins’ issues with NISP, but the city, which is not a NISP member, has yet to respond to the new plan…

What’s next for NISP:

The Army Corps of Engineers says it will release a final environmental impact statement for the project sometime in 2017. After that must come a 401 permit and a record of decision, which NISP opposition group Save the Poudre Executive Director Gary Wockner anticipates will come in 2019. If the record of decision approves the project, Save the Poudre is prepared to challenge it in court, setting off a legal battle which could take years.

Cache la Poudre River administration in wet and dry years

ThePoudreaworkingandsingingriver

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacey Marmaduke):

Poudre River Commissioner Mark Simpson knows that better than anybody. It’s his job to keep track of water rights for the various groups who’ve sometimes paid roughly the price of a new car for each share of water to irrigate their crops, power their businesses and provide to their residents.

Technically, the people of Colorado own the water flowing in Northern Colorado’s Cache la Poudre River. If you want to put the water, to use, though, you have to buy a water right. That can sometimes be as simple as going to the state’s water court, paying a fee and filling out some paperwork…

If you want to use water during a dry year, you need an old water right — some date back to the 1860s and 1870s. People sell older, senior water rights for astronomical prices.

For Simpson, the last several years have been a relief because the Poudre’s flow has been higher than average. The amount of water that runs through the Poudre varies wildly annually, from 100,000 acre feet during dry years to 700,000 acre feet during historically wet years.

The average is about 300,000 acre feet, almost enough to fill Horsetooth Reservoir twice.

During dry years, when everybody wants water but few can get it, Simpson works months without a day off.

“You’ve really got to be paying attention,” he said. “You don’t want a dry-up in town because you shorted somebody. I make it a big point for myself to always be watching the river when it’s on its way down.”

Simpson estimated about 85 percent of the Poudre’s water is diverted for agriculture — mostly corn and hay — and about 15 percent is used for municipal water supplies and industry.

Some of the biggest industry users of Poudre water include breweries, microprocessor factories and other industrial manufacturers. Municipal users of the Poudre include Fort Collins and Greeley. Recreational users have an important place at the table, although their use is classified as “non-consumptive” and is free.

Click through to read the whole article. Ms. Marmaduke talks to users of the river’s water.

Arkansas River Basin storage administration

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

To look at the numbers, you’d expect to see otters frolicking everywhere in the Arkansas River basin.

Then you realize that the nearly 10,000 storage vessels in Southeastern Colorado are spread over more than 28,000 square miles in mostly arid or semiarid areas. Then consider that many of the reservoirs are seldom full. Finally, the vast majority are pond-sized, not lakes.

Still, someone has to keep an eye on them all, because water stored in them rightfully belongs to someone else. In the past 10 years, there have been 79 orders issued by the state in relation to improper storage practices.

“The Arkansas River is a big basin, and there’s a lot of complexity in the basin,” Assistant Division Engineer Bill Tyner told the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District last week. “We put our emphasis on the top 200 structures.”

Tyner then walked the board through the different types of reservoirs that are known to exist. Even that can be a problem to determine, because reservoirs are man-made, while natural features such as lakes, ponds or wetlands on a creek might show up in aerial photographs.
There are more than 1,500 decreed structures in the Arkansas Valley, although some may not be in use or are restricted.

Of those, only 20 hold more than 10,000 acrefeet (3.25 billion gallons), and another 169 hold more than 100 acre-feet.

The rest are there, legal to use, but subject to water rights administration. In other words, they cannot store water if a user with a senior appropriation right is calling for the water downstream.

The largest reservoirs are John Martin Reservoir, which was built for flood control and to settle interstate compact differences between Kansas and Colorado, and Lake Pueblo, which was built as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project for water supply, flood control and recreation.
There are nearly 1,800 erosion control dams, which must be under 15 feet in height, store less than 10 acre-feet and can be drained in 36 hours. They have to be dry 80 percent of the time.

“There are a lot of these at the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site to mitigate vehicle damage,” Tyner said.

As would be expected, erosion control dams are found in the hilly areas of the basin in the Upper Arkansas, El Paso County and the Spanish Peaks area.

There are more than 5,400 livestock tanks, which fall under a specific state statute that has the same criteria as erosion dams, but also sets a chronological priority within the same drainage.

“Livestock ponds have a seniority system, but it’s not as formal as a decreed right,” Tyner said.

Gravel pit ponds are a different category. There are about 750. The ponds intercept groundwater because of activities by humans, so must be augmented to replace evaporation losses. Those are most common on the Eastern Plains, where gravel mining is prevalent.

There are roughly 140 head stabilization ponds, which are limited to storing water up to 72 hours, by state policy, primarily to reduce sediment for sprinkler or drip irrigation.

Aside from the known reservoirs, there are unknown storage systems including post-wildland fire facilities, stormwater detention ponds and unregistered ponds used for erosion control, livestock or head stabilization.

After years of #drought and overuse, the San Luis Valley aquifer refills — The High Country News

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle
Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

From The High Country News (Paige Blankenbuehler):

The San Luis Valley in southern Colorado is an 8,000-square-mile expanse of farmland speckled with potato, alfalfa, barley and quinoa fields between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges. Only about 7 inches of rain fall each year in the San Luis Valley. But while farmers and ranchers can’t depend on moisture above ground, they make up the difference beneath it. The valley is underlain by a vast aquifer, which is punctured by more than 6,000 wells that pump water onto the valley’s crops and supports the livelihoods of 46,000 residents.

For generations, the aquifer provided enough water to sustain the arid farming community. But beginning in 2002, a multi-year drought shrunk the nearby streams and water table. Farmers and ranchers began to notice the falling levels of the Rio Grande and the rapidly draining aquifer. Some wells throughout the valley abruptly stopped working.

The aquifer dwindled so much that the Closed Basin Project, a Bureau of Reclamation pumping effort that had long met downstream water diversions and delivered flows to the Rio Grande River to maintain the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, failed to convey enough water to the valley’s farms and ranches. “We operate in a highly over-appropriated system,” says Cleave Simpson, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the main water management entity in the San Luis Valley. “Agriculture had overgrown and far outstretched water supply.”

Without change, state water regulators could shut off thousands of wells. So the valley’s farmers and ranchers, unlike other agriculture communities in the West, did something nearly unprecedented: They decided not to ignore the problem.

In 2006, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and San Luis Valley water users created the sub-district project, an innovative solution for solving water problems. The plan would charge farmers and ranchers $75 per acre-foot for the groundwater they pumped, and in turn use the funds to pay farmers to fallow portions of their fields, limiting demand on the water supply, as High County News reported in 2013. The experiment began at sub-district 1, the valley’s largest of six sub-districts, which sits at the heart of the San Luis Valley in aptly named Centre, just west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Center-Pivot and Acequia Farms. The green belts along the Río Culebra and tributaries in San Acacio, San Luis, Chama, Los Fuertes and other unmarked villages are the principal acequia farm bottomlands in Costilla County. The  center-pivot circles are concentrated in the Blanca-Ft. Garland vicinity to the N and the Mesita-Jaroso vicinity due W and SW of the acequia bottomlands.  Source: Google Maps (screenshot).
Center-Pivot and Acequia Farms. The green belts along the Río Culebra and tributaries in San Acacio, San Luis, Chama, Los Fuertes and other unmarked villages are the principal acequia farm bottomlands in Costilla County. The center-pivot circles are concentrated in the Blanca-Ft. Garland vicinity to the N and the Mesita-Jaroso vicinity due W and SW of the acequia bottomlands. Source: Google Maps (screenshot).

Today, four years into the operation of the project after it launched in 2012, the aquifer is rebounding. Water users in sub-district 1 have pumped one-third less water, down to about 200,000 acre feet last year compared to more than 320,000 before the project. Area farmers have fallowed 10,000 acres that once hosted thirsty alfalfa or potato crops. Since a low point in 2013, the aquifer has recovered nearly 250,000 acre-feet of water. By 2021, the sub-district project plans to fallow a total of 40,000 acres, unless the ultimate goal of rebounding the aquifer can be reached through other conservation efforts, like improving soil quality and rotating to more efficient crops.

The plan’s proponents say it provides a template for groundwater management in other arid communities whose agricultural economies are imperiled by drought. “The residents of the valley know that they are in this together, and that the valley has overgrown the water available to us,” says Craig Cotten, Almosa-based division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “This is a water user-led solution, which makes it unique. I really think this can be a model.”

Crucially, the plan is state-mandated, which requires everyone to either participate in a district, fallow their fields or work with water engineers to develop their own augmentation plans, which in turn need to be approved by state water courts. Those choices — paying premiums for groundwater or scaling down operations significantly — have been tough for farmers. Nevertheless, Simpson says the valley’s water users have gotten on board. “It’s not comfortable but most everyone has really come forward,” Simpson says. “It’s a bit of a paradigm shift for farmers who are individualistic and don’t typically work together — but by necessity they realize that we will bankrupt ourselves if we continue to stretch our water resource.”

But water users in the San Luis Valley have also gone beyond the call of duty, says Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. While the SLVWCD helps include users in its augmentation plan as an alternative to joining the sub-district project, Dutton says that few water users have gone that route. That’s partly because farmers and ranchers themselves have helped create the sub-district rules, through participating in public meetings and getting involved with the board of managers. “This has been a good exercise in self-governance,” Dutton says. “It’s been a success story in people coming together and trying things that my grandpa’s era would have thought were crazy.”

Although sub-district 1 has proved a success, the broader sub-district project remains in its fledging stages. In March, Colorado District Court in Rio Grande County mandated that sub-district 2, a cluster of a hundred or so wells between Monte Vista and Del Norte, unroll as phase two of the program. The second district is currently forming a board of managers to develop official rules for farmers and ranchers within the territory. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District is still working with valley residents to implement the remaining four sub-districts.

Still, the project’s first phase has been encouraging for residents. Patrick O’Neill grew up in Central California’s San Joaquin Valley and first came to the San Luis Valley in 1998 to work as an intern at Agro Engineering, a consulting company. Though he later returned to his family farm in California, he came to feel that the Central Valley, built on its own wasteful groundwater use, was not sustainable. He returned to the San Luis Valley in 2005, where he now owns Soil Health Services in Alamosa and works with area farmers and ranchers to improve soil health. “I chose this place in a very deliberate way for my home because there’s potential for putting our water system back into balance,” O’Neill says. “People here are much more conscious of how much water they are using.”

#Snowpack #Runoff news: Streamflow up as the basins melt-out

Arkansas River at Salida May 24, 2016 via the Colorado Division of Water Resources
Arkansas River at Salida May 24, 2016 via the Colorado Division of Water Resources

From Rocky Mountain PBS (Jim Trotter):

Spring snowmelt is already bringing fast-moving and rising water to the Arkansas River in Pueblo, according to the local Swift Water Rescue Team, and kayakers and fishermen alike are being urged to take caution.

The U.S. Geological Survey showed the Arkansas River spiking by 600 cubic feet per second on Monday through Pueblo, deepening one stretch by a whole foot. The river at the Moffat Street gauge was running at 1,440 cfs on Wednesday afternoon, making water in the city kayak course in particular a challenge, according to KOAA Channel 5.

“The kayak course … was designed for people who are used to kayaking or boating, who know what they’re doing and have more river experience,” Pueblo Fired Department engineer Ryan Moran told the news outlet. “This is not a place for just inner-tubing leisurely.”

From 9News.com (Colleen Ferreira and Blair Shiff):

Denver Water says, so far this year, their water supply is in good shape thanks to above-average snowpack levels in the local collection areas, nearly full reservoirs and continued efficient water use by consumers.

But what will it look like as the state heads into the hot, summer months?

Water conservation is not only needed in dry years. Colorado is a dry area, and water is finite. It’s vital for those who live in the state to conserve water in order for Colorado’s economy to thrive. Farmers and ranchers across the state rely on higher water levels. Wildlife and aquatic life in local rivers and streams need enough to live off of. Those who enjoy the recreational activities in the state want higher river and reservoir levels.

useonlywhatyouneed

No matter what the conditions may be, Coloradans must use water efficiently. Denver Water has annual summer watering rules in place from May 1 until Oct. 1. The rules should reinforce best practices to help customers use water properly and when needed while still keeping landscapes healthy.

The biggest mistakes people make is with their irrigation controller settings. Sprinkler systems are not meant to be forgotten once they are set. It’s important that consumers adjust their settings depending upon the month and recent rainfall. That means, if it rains, and your system doesn’t have a rain sensor, turn off your irrigation system until your landscape needs water again.

Extension offers fact sheet on how to harvest rainwater under new Colorado rules

Photo via the Colorado Independent
Photo via the Colorado Independent

From Colorado State University (Jim Beers):

Colorado’s longtime ban on residential rain barrels has come to an end. Now most homeowners in the state are allowed to collect precipitation for later outdoor use.

Gov. John Hickenlooper recently signed House Bill 1005, which allows a maximum of two rain barrels — with a combined capacity of 110 gallons — are allowed at each household. The measure is to take effect on Aug. 10.

Rainwater collection, also called rainwater “harvesting,” is the process of capturing, storing and directing rainwater runoff and putting it to use. Water from roof gutter downspouts that is directed onto landscaped areas is not regarded as rainwater harvesting under this legislation.

The Colorado Legislature passed the bill last month after previously rejecting the measure in past sessions over concerns that household rain barrels would take water from the supply available to agriculture and other water-rights holders.

But a study conducted by the Colorado Stormwater Center, housed within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University, showed otherwise. Nearly all of the water would be absorbed in the ground by the downspout or in the ground in the garden, the CSU analysis indicated.

“We do not think any changes to the water cycle could be accurately quantified or measured,” said Chris Olson, a researcher and program manager at the Stormwater Center. “The water is going to be infiltrated or evaporated. The only difference is the timing, a day, maybe two, before the rain barrel is emptied.”

Colorado has been the only state with an outright ban on residential rain barrels and one of just four states that restrict rainwater harvesting.

Water law experts say rain barrels are only technically illegal, because proving they injure the water rights of other users is nearly impossible.

Collection systems

Collected rainwater may be used to irrigate outdoor lawns, plants or gardens. Untreated rainwater collected from roofs is not safe to drink.

Any container capable of collecting the rain shedding from a roof or patio can be used as a rainwater harvesting system. To comply with Colorado water law, the container must be equipped with a sealable lid. Rainwater collection systems vary from simple and inexpensive to complex and costly.

Typically, rooftop rainwater collection systems are simple — gutters, downspouts, and storage containers. Inexpensive rainwater storage systems commonly make use of an above-ground container such as a barrel or plastic tank with a lid to reduce evaporation and bar access for mosquitoes to breed. More sophisticated systems have “first flush” diverters that are recommended to exclude capture of the initial rain that might carry impurities from the roof.

Rain barrel use under HB 1005

There are several restrictions that are important to follow in order to use rain barrels legally in Colorado. These restrictions differ depending on your residential situation.

Under House Bill 1005, rain barrels can only be installed at single-family households and multi-family households with four or fewer units. A maximum of two rain barrels can be used at each household and the combined storage of the two rain barrels cannot exceed 110 gallons. Rain barrels can only be used to capture rainwater from rooftop downspouts and the captured rainwater must be used to water outdoor lawns, plants and/or gardens on the same property from which the rainwater was captured. Rain barrel water cannot be used for drinking or other indoor water uses.

“The capture and use of rainwater using rain barrels does not constitute a water right,” said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute, part of CSU’s Office of Engagement. “HB 1005 includes language that could result in the State Engineer curtailing the use of individual rain barrels if a water-right holder can prove that those rain barrels have impacted their ability to receive the water that they are entitled to by virtue of their water right.”

Colorado State University Extension has created a fact sheet with additional details on rainwater harvesting.

From The Greeley Tribune (Samantha Fox):

It’s now legal for residents to collect rain water and use it to water their gardens — something most probably haven’t thought twice about.

Before Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a rain barrel bill into law Thursday, only well owners were able to utilize rain barrels legally. A similar bill died in the Legislature last year, but with the governor’s signature on House Bill 1005, anyone can collect rainwater in two 55-gallon barrels.

The bill is only a small aspect to the larger picture of water rights in Colorado — which rain barrel owners are not guaranteed.

The bill’s passage also means — at least for now — a pause on discussion around major changes to Colorado’s water laws. There have only been grumblings and some failed attempts to put water laws to a vote, but the slight change of legalizing of rain barrels is one that puts the conversation to rest — for now.

“For the first time we really have a situation in place where we can account for and make sure water rights are protected,” said Marc Arnusch, a farmer in Keenesburg.

Colorado’s water laws, in short give water rights to people on a first-come, first-served basis. The priority goes to senior water holders — those who got rights to use the water first. The trickle-down system puts junior rights holders are the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to using and taking water sources. But if the junior water rights holder takes more then their share, the senior holder can hold them responsible for damages to the supply.

That’s where the rain barrel discussion fits in. Even with rain water coming from clouds, Colorado’s water supplies rely on runoff water from storms. Rain barrel collections could reduce the amount of runoff water, but only when a large amount of water is collected from rain barrel owners.

Hesitation during the discussion of the bill was to protect the rights of the junior water rights holder. Legislators wanted to make sure junior holders weren’t held responsible for less available water due to a diversion into rain barrels.

Colorado State University researchers studied the effect rain barrels collections might have on downstream water from the rain and found there would be little, if any, change. This also plays into how many rain barrels will, realistically, be used. Arnusch said urban residents will most likely use the barrels, and Northern Water’s Brian Werner said a good utilization of the barrels would be if 10-15 percent of Colorado residents actually used the barrels. But even that might take time.

The CSU study didn’t convince everyone, though. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, was one of three in the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy committee to vote against the bill. His disagreement came from a lack of solutions to make sure the barrels wouldn’t take water away from those who own it and how to keep the rights in check. There was talk of a statute that would hold rain barrel owners responsible if there was a deficit from water rights owners, but there was no consensus, as the CSU study said there would be little, if any noticeable change in runoff water.

Even though the study said there wouldn’t be much of a change, statutes to hold barrel owners responsible in case of a reduction were rejected.

“If there isn’t an impact, why would they be worried about a statue?” Sonnenberg said in March.

But there was a checks and balance system put in place in which state officials can check to see — if rain barrels prevent water owners from getting their full share — how that can be fixed and changed. Werner said the chance for a revisit, along with the results from the CSU study was a large reason why the bill passed this year, unlike past sessions.

“If everyone were to (buy barrels) there are the checks and balances in there so somebody can go back there and look on a regular basis to see if there is, indeed, an impact,” Werner said.

The impact comes down to whether there will be enough water when rain barrels are used. With water rights remaining as they are, Arnusch said the bill is a step in the right direction to keep the water rights structure as is.

The biggest overhaul talks have been about switching to a public trust doctrine system. Arnusch is on the Ground Water Commission for the Colorado Division of Water Resources and said talks about the public trust doctrine system would still be priority-based, but the priority would go to wherever need is seen, rather than water ownership. That could mean years with less agricultural priority, which is why farmers and ranchers oppose the system.

“If the public trust doctrine were to go into effect in Colorado, that would be just a catastrophe for agriculture,” he said.

While a change to the public trust doctrine isn’t favorable to agriculture, Arnusch said it’s still important to evaluate and make reasonable changes within the existing water use system. Rain barrels were one of those changes. Now, the micro-storage options have a place in Colorado’s complex priority system, he said.

But there is a difference between the use of rain barrels and who owns that water.

“At the end of the day, a rooftop doesn’t entitle you to a water right,” Arnusch said.