Some Arkansas Valley farmers remember — and not too fondly — the cold, blustery and sometimes snowy days around this time of year when they’d venture out to irrigation headgates and fight the ice to move water.
For the past 40 years, most have not had that chilly experience. The water is stored either in Lake Pueblo, John Martin Reservoir or along the Arkansas River in a ditch company’s reservoir.
On Sunday, winter water storage began this year, reflecting one of those unusual cases when all of the water interests in the Arkansas River basin appear to be rowing in the same direction.
“The best thing we did was the winter water program,” said Carl Genova, a Pueblo County farmer, when he left the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board in 2009. “The district was able to get all those people together.”
To be fair, achieving harmony in the program was no simple task. Ditch companies that had snarled at each other for a century came together in 1975 when Pueblo Dam had been completed to fulfill a vision from the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.
The idea isn’t complicated: You hold back the flows of the Arkansas River for a few months when no crops are growing for use later in the season.
But the execution of that concept is as complicated as the hit-or-miss, use-it-or-lose-it water conditions farmers in Southeastern Colorado have always labored under.
The winter water storage program was voluntary for the first 12 years, until a court decree was issued in 1987. The decree required participation not only by ditch companies, but by Pueblo and Colorado Springs as well. The Southeastern district administers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers operate two of the reservoirs used in the program.
And, oh yeah, Kansas also accused Colorado of violating the Arkansas River Compact when it filed suit in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985. The special master in the case threw out that claim a decade later.
Winter water has operated every year since 1975, with the exception of 1978, when the Catlin Canal refused to join because of a lawsuit with the Colorado Game and Fish Department. The program was diminished in 1998-99, when the safety of dams program lowered the level of Lake Pueblo temporarily so the dam could be reinforced.
In most years, it boils down to a math problem for farmers to contemplate during the chilly months. The water is allocated to the participating ditch companies and stored where they can best use it.
Over the past 20 years, it has stored an average of about 130,000 acrefeet (40 billion gallons) of water annually for use in the following irrigation season. The water is stored from Nov. 15-March 15.
During wet years, some winter water spilled — about 300,000 acre-feet total — from Lake Pueblo because there was no place to store it. Priority storage in Lake Pueblo goes to ditch companies that do not have their own reservoirs.
In recent years, there have been some quirky ripples surrounding the winter water program.
The release of water through Pueblo to support its Gold Medal trout fishery in the winter months became an issue during negotiations surrounding Pueblo Water, Aurora and Colorado Springs use of Lake Pueblo in 2004. The cities agreed not to exchange water into Lake Pueblo during low-flow periods.
The city of Pueblo had placed boulders in the river below Pueblo Dam to improve fish habitat, and having water during the river months became more critical. Pueblo already was gaining a reputation as a winter fishing mecca during times when other sites were less accessible.
The very next year, Arkansas River flows dried up as the winter water program sought to balance its accounts in Lake Pueblo because too much water had been stored in reservoirs below Pueblo.
After the same thing happened briefly in 2007, water users agreed to leave 100 cubic feet per second in the river and sort out the accounting later.
Three years later, the Pueblo Conservancy District needed to make emergency repairs to the levee through the Downtown Whitewater Park, partly caused by concrete anchors of parts of the kayak course that were attached to the levee.
By storing winter water in Lake Pueblo, flows in the Arkansas River are kept artificially low, making for favorable construction conditions.
That lesson was remembered last year, when the district began a complete rebuild of the levee through Pueblo and timed the work in the river bottom to the reduced flow period.
Winter water storage also places a very junior call on the river, 1910, that allows many junior rights in the Arkansas River basin — both upstream and downstream — to use or store water that might otherwise not be available.