Watering the West: How pioneers built local towns through irrigation — The Watch

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From The Watch (Regan Tuttle):

Telluride’s early days, survival depended dearly on water. The enterprises that built the region — farming, ranching and mining — required irrigation from rivers, and lots of it. Of course, water becomes scarcer the farther one moves from the mountains or from the San Miguel River.

For the pioneers, creating an infrastructure that could sustain them in the short term and withstand the march of progress was no easy task. Suffering cold conditions, subsisting on biscuits and beans, laboring with shovels, axes and other hand tools, pioneers worked to channel water from its source to where they needed it.
Back then, this was legal. Just decades ago, as the old-timers established our local towns, “Water could be diverted from the stream, and ditches built across public and private land to convey water to its place of beneficial use,” the Colorado Foundation for Water Education reported.

“In a dry and thirsty land it is necessary to divert the waters of the streams from their natural channels,” Colorado Chief Justice Moses Hallet said in the late 1800s.


During Telluride’s early days, water was hauled from the San Miguel River and from springs on the east side of town. Wilson Rockwell said in his book “Uncompahgre Country” that a man named Dutch George in the late 1800s delivered five-gallon buckets of water from the spring at Cornet Creek to saloons and businesses on what is now Colorado Avenue for 10 cents each, two buckets at a time, balanced by a yoke around his neck.

When attorney L.L. Nunn needed water for his commercial bathhouse on the east end, he ran a garden hose from Cornet Falls. Later, in 1886, H. H. Corbin constructed a 370-foot vertical pipeline that transported water from Cornet Creek into town.

Though people then said it couldn’t be done, high pressure water was flumed from Trout Lake to help establish the Ames power plant, and later the Ilium plant, that would put Telluride on the map as the first city in the world to be powered by alternating electric current. Of course, the purpose was to support the mining industry.


For some, creating access to water was more difficult. The Town of Nucla, formerly Tabeguache Park, was founded by a socialist organization whose members wanted to escape their greedy landlords in Denver. By accident, they discovered the location that provided everything they desired: mild winters, ample sunlight, virgin soil — but no water.

Called the Colorado Cooperative Company, the members, or comrades, set up camp in the late 1800s in what became the second largest city in Montrose County to bring water to the homesteads for which they’d filed claims.
They were told their task was impossible.

“I believe [that] actually helped build the ditch. When you are told you can’t, you’ll bust a tug to do it,” Leonard F. Zatterstrom said in a memoir published in Marie Templeton’s book “The Visionaries.”

The Colorado Cooperative Company constructed a 17-mile-long wooden flume, called the CC Ditch, built along the wall of the San Miguel River canyon. David Lavender in “One Man’s West” writes that those who worked on the ditch were compensated by “credit at the commissary for food and supplies, plus water credits toward the purchase of ditch rights. The canal succeeded, and several prosperous farms sprang up.”

People like Zatterstrom worked eight-hour days building the flume, sleeping in the bunkhouse, buying their food through the company store and receiving rations of milk from the cooperative’s dairy cows.

Nucla was born when the project was completed in 1904, and “Piñon became a ghost town practically overnight,” Zatterstrom said.

But the hard work didn’t pay off for everyone. Mary Rogers was a 9-year old girl during the CC Ditch project. Because both her parents died, she went to live with her grandmother and uncles, the Heinemans, who worked on the CC Ditch. Like others, the German family came to Piñon in search of a better life, and hoped to one day own a farm.

“My mother worked in the garden and did dishes,” Norma McKeever, now 88, said. According to her, the conditions were not pleasant, especially in the winter. Rogers said the food was terrible, just biscuits and beans at the camp’s boardinghouse in the cold season. But it was worth it to the family. They’d filed a homestead claim with hopes that when the CC Ditch was done, they’d have irrigation water and could build a life.

Rogers was in her teens by the time the CC Ditch was completed. But the water didn’t reach the Heineman’s farm in 1904. The majority of the CC Ditch workers had accomplished what they’d needed for their own homesteads, and they weren’t willing to extend the project. What can you do with a farm that has no water?

Grandmother Heineman went to work as a washerwoman and housekeeper for those who owned prosperous farms. Mary Rogers got a job at the Western Hotel in Norwood. One of her uncles moved to Nevada and never came back.

McKeever said the Heinemans, buried in the pauper site at Nucla Cemetery, weren’t the only ones to feel cheated out of their homestead dreams.

Though socialism failed, the town has not. Water still serves Nucla to this day, though the wooden flume has mostly been replaced by more practical means. The town celebrates the water victory every July with their Water Days celebration.


Wilson Barrett of Redvale is the ditch rider — the patroller or inspector — for the waterway that is the lifeblood of Norwood, the Gurley Ditch. He is the only employee of Farmer’s Water Development, the stock company that “owns” the Gurley and divides its shares of water. But nobody really owns the water in Colorado, he said, just the rights to use it. According to him, life in Norwood wouldn’t be possible for anyone if the old-timers hadn’t dug the ditch.

In the late 1800s, when pioneers began settling Wrights Mesa, Rockwell said Ed Joseph — of the Joseph family, one of the first to settle the area — began construction of a reservoir east of the Lone Cone in the high country.

Some people disagree as to who later built the Gurley Ditch and finished the reservoir above it. Barrett said it was Naturita Land and Cattle Company. Regardless, whatever company worked on the project went bankrupt. One of the owners in that outfit was named Charles Gorley. Over time, the spelling of “Gorley” evolved into “Gurley,” which is used today.

To avoid losing the rights to use their water, local farmers and ranchers on the mesa decided to purchase the floundering company, buying it out of bankruptcy, and then established Farmer’s Water Development.

Now irrigation water runs from the dam through Beaver Park and to Wrights Mesa, mostly for agricultural purposes, but a small percentage is used for domestic water in town.

Barrett’s great uncle, Gordon Barrett, was one of the first workers to help dig the Gurley.

“They came in 1914, and they worked on the ditch in the fall. If you worked in the fall, you could get shares in the company,” Barrett said. “He was nominated to work on the ditch as part of the family so they could get more water.”

Recently, going through old paperwork, Barrett found one of the original invoices for equipment. He discovered a purchase order, sandwiched between old papers, for picks, boxes of dynamite, shovels and other tools that made the Gurley.

Without the ditch, Barrett said, Norwood would not have survived.


Most people probably don’t know that Ridgway almost didn’t survive. Years ago, in the 1960s, there were plans for a dam to be constructed just north of where Ridgway now sits. Had the original plans been executed, Ridgway would now be under water.

Some refer to it as “the town that refused to die,” and Ridgway lucked out when officials in the 1970s decided to move the dam farther north. Now, the Ridgway Reservoir, constructed in the late ‘80s, covers what was the old ghost town of Dallas.

Though Ridgway is situated on the Uncompahgre River, that stream is not the town’s source of water. Sometimes running yellow or orange, the Uncompahgre is known as a “dirty river” due to the minerals it contains. The town of Ridgway sourced its water in the late 1800s from Hartwell Lake, now Lake Otonowanda, below Mount Sneffels.

Ridgway completed a major expansion of its reservoir last summer.


Today, being on town water is a luxury most people probably don’t think much about. While just 100 years ago we were hauling water and digging ditches through the local mountains, most folks now just turn on the tap. Our pioneers have made it possible for us to have access to water even in places where water didn’t naturally occur.

Those who live further out in the country have other water issues, and real estate in many parts of Colorado becomes complicated when water rights enter the picture. Sometimes water rights are a part of landownership; sometimes they’re not. Water is overseen by water commissions and boards in various regions.

These days, one cannot simply dig a diversion ditch from an existing stream or take water from a manmade ditch. Now, water projects involve planning, permits, engineering work and financing. The Colorado Doctrine, a set of laws pertaining to water use and landownership, has been in place since the 1860s.

Some producers, especially the new farmers without water rights, have trouble wrapping their heads around the laws.

Last July Leila Seraphin, formerly of California, bought a property in Norwood that the Gurley Ditch runs through. She said she wishes she could use some of that water for her own farming and gardening, but she knows it’s against the law.

“We were told right when we moved here water was a big issue and taking from the Gurley was not allowed, and that all the water was owned,” she said.

Building a life as a new producer on Wrights Mesa, she has learned a lot about where her water comes from.

“It’s hard to imagine water being free to use, as every drop has a price tag,” she said.

Barrett said people living in this region should be grateful for their water.

“The water we have — 99 percent of it was done with a shovel and a pick. Without the pioneers, there would be nobody here,” he said.

He believes that is especially true for Wrights Mesa, as he said that before the Gurley ditch, life didn’t exist in Norwood.

“The early homesteaders had to go clear into the San Miguel River or into Naturita Creek with wagons and barrels to haul it to have any water at all,” he said. “I’d say for most people [this] is new information.”

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south
Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

#COWaterPlan: Front Range water providers defend their turf — Aspen Journalism


From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

A group of Front Range water providers have told the Colorado Water Conservation Board to stop denigrating lawns and civic landscapes in the Colorado Water Plan, while at the same time, Western Slope organizations are telling cities to use less water to grow grass.

“Urban dwellers are entitled to a ‘reasonable recreational experience’ in the environment in which they reside,” the Front Range Water Council wrote in a Sept. 15 letter about the water plan.

“This includes adequate irrigation supplies for yards, public parks, recreation fields, open space, etc.,” the council said. “Many urban citizens, including those of limited economic means or physical limitations, or those who simply are not kayakers, fisherman, backpackers or skiers, engage in enjoyable outdoor recreational activities ‘in their own backyard.’”

The members of the Front Range Water Council are Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Denver Water, Northern Water, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, the Southeastern Water Conservancy District and the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.

The deadline for comments on the draft water plan was Sept. 17. The finished document is to be released Nov. 19 at a CWCB meeting in Denver.

Colorado Springs Utilities also sent its own letter to the CWCB, signed by M. Patrick Wells, the managing engineer for water resource planning for the utility.

“Many city dwellers value their city parks, ball fields, and backyards just as much as the scenic rivers or bucolic valleys, and they enjoy their urban environment far more often,” Wells said in his Sept. 17 letter.

But Ken Nuebecker, the associate director of the Colorado river program at American Rivers, walked across the Front Range’s lawn argument in his own comment letter to the CWCB on Sept. 14.

“While parks, ball fields and the urban forest have their place, we need to make sure that these engineered areas, which can easily be rebuilt, are not ‘protected’ at the expense of far more complex rivers systems which are not so easily ‘rebuilt,’” Neubecker said.

But lawns can lead people to nature, and to rivers, Wells told the CWCB.

“How can we expect current and future generations of citizens in urban areas to understand or appreciate the value of locally grown food in the lower Arkansas Valley or the importance of healthy rivers on the West Slope if they do not have healthy, sustainable outdoor spaces of their own to first make a connection with nature,” Wells wrote.

Wells also said “there remains too much focus on curbing outdoor water use” which “currently accounts for less than 4% of Colorado’s total water use.”

However, Andre Wille, the chair of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, suggested to the CWCB that healthy rivers may be a higher priority for many than lush lawns.

“Truly, no Coloradan believes our water supply should be satisfied by sacrificing our quality of life or the very natural environment that has brought so many of us here and supports at numerous levels our state’s vibrant and growing economy,” Wille said in an Sept. 15 letter to CWCB.

This sign, on the irrigated lawn outside the Aspen music tent, could well sum up how Front Range and Western Slope water organizations view each other.
This sign, on the irrigated lawn outside the Aspen music tent, could well sum up how Front Range and Western Slope water organizations view each other.

The dissing of summer lawns

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead told the CWCB that the tone of the draft water plan was overly negative in regard to outdoor urban water uses.

“The assumption and tone of the plan that municipal use (particularly the roughly 3% of the state’s water use that supports urban landscaping) is somehow wasteful or less valuable than other uses of water needs to be removed and replaced with language that is respectful of all uses of water that are done in an efficient manner,” said Lochhead in a Sept. 17 letter.

Wells of Colorado Springs Utilities also said the tone of the first section of the water plan was “anti-growth and anti-city.”

“If the plan is to reflect the values of the citizens of Colorado, it must recognize and validate the values clearly espoused by the silent millions in the state who have voluntarily chosen the municipal lifestyle of single family residences with a reasonable amount of bluegrass lawn,” Wells wrote.

But the vision of a new wave of “silent millions” enjoying thirsty lawns on the Front Range creates apprehension on the West Slope.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy, which works to protect the heavily-diverted Roaring Fork River watershed, told that the CWCB that “outdoor water use is an area ripe for major conservation gains.”

“While Roaring Fork Conservancy doesn’t insist lawns are a thing of the past, local land use codes ought to mandate green infrastructure and water-efficient native landscaping in new development, and incentivize conversion for existing development,” said Rick Lofaro, the conservancy’s executive director, in a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB.

And the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs under the auspices of the CWCB, took an even stronger stance on suburban lawns and civic landscapes.

“It has been said that municipal outdoor irrigation is but three percent of the state’s water use,’ the roundtable said in its Sept. 17 comments. “Outdoor water use, however, is roughly 50 percent of municipal demands in the irrigation season. In totality, it is the municipal gap – most often described as 500,000 acre-feet — that is driving the water plan. A high conservation level closes better than 90 percent of the gap.”

Denver Water’s Lochhead comes at it from the other side of the fence.

“Denver Water serves almost a quarter of the state’s population using less than two percent of all the water used in Colorado,” Lochhead told the CWCB. “Even if we eliminated all outdoor water use (approximately half of our total water demands), we would only make a one percent change in the State’s water usage.”

Meanwhile, the Colorado River District, which represents 15 counties on Colorado’s Western Slope, acknowledged the Front Range’s sensitivity about its lawns and civic landscaping.

“The River District does not wish to ‘demonize, lawn grass, the district told the CWCB in an unsigned memo on Sept. 17. “However, outdoor landscaping is by far the greatest, single consumptive use of municipal water supplies. Accordingly, the plan must include specific, measurable goals for turf-related conservation.”

Enjoying a recreational experience on grass.
Enjoying a recreational experience on grass.

Lawns aside, more water

And while Front Range water utilities tend not to intertwine their defense of lawns with a call for new water supplies, most of their letters do include direct calls for more water storage projects – new dams and reservoirs – and new transmountain diversions.

The Front Range Water Council told the CWCB that the water plan must “emphasize the need for ‘new’ storage as well as the expansion of existing facilities, and the state must advocate for policies that advance this end.”

Denver Water’’s Lochhead said that “conservation alone will not be enough to close the gap. Additional storage will be required to allow us to manage water efficiently and for multiple benefits.”

And Wells of Colorado Springs Utilities told the CWCB, somewhat deeper in its letter than the section about the virtue of lawns, that “the final plan should contain a definitive statement that a new transmountain diversion will be constructed, even if no formal concept has been proposed. Any plan that fails to include a section on new supply development … cannot be considered a comprehensive, strategic vision for meeting Colorado’s future water needs.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on the coverage of statewide water issues and the development of the Colorado Water Plan. The Post Indy ran a version of this story on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2015.

Twin Lakes finishes dam repairs, draws opposition in water court — Aspen Journalism

A recent photo of the water behind the Lincoln Gulch Diversion Dam on Lincoln Creek that forms Grizzly Reservoir. Repairs to the outlet gate were completed on Oct. 6 without having to drain the standing water at the bottom of the reservoir.
A recent photo of the water behind the Lincoln Gulch Diversion Dam on Lincoln Creek that forms Grizzly Reservoir. Repairs to the outlet gate were completed on Oct. 6 without having to drain the standing water at the bottom of the reservoir.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Nine weeks after the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. drained Grizzly Reservoir in early August due to the failure of an outlet gate in the dam across Lincoln Creek, repairs have been made and reservoir operations are returning to normal.

But the usually obscure company is now also facing questions in state water court about its diversions through its larger system, which moves about 40,600 acre-feet of water a year from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east to Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West.

On Tuesday, a new seal was installed on the bottom of the dam’s outlet gate, according to Scott Campell, general manager of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.

The installation of the relatively simple rubber seal was done underwater by crews standing in knee-deep water, reaching down to tighten the bolts on new steel straps holding the seal in place.

By working this way, they didn’t have to release the remaining dirty water at the bottom of the reservoir, as was done Aug. 10, when 10 to 20 acre-feet of muddy, yellowish water was released from the bottom of the reservoir and sent down Lincoln Creek and the Roaring Fork River.

After the release of water in August, the flow in the Roaring Fork near Aspen jumped up from fewer than 70 cubic feet per second to more than 160 cfs in a few hours and alarmed residents notified local public officials about the color of their local river.

Subsequent testing Aug. 13 by Lotic Hydrological for the city of Aspen found “elevated levels of several dissolved metals including aluminum, copper, iron, manganese and zinc” in Lincoln Creek and the Roaring Fork River because sediment in the bottom of Grizzly Reservoir includes material washed down from the historic Ruby Mining District and the naturally acidic upper Lincoln Creek Valley, according to a report provided by the city of Aspen.

The levels of aluminum and iron exceeded state standards, but no fish kills were reported. The city is awaiting results of recent testing for insect health on the river, according to April Long, Aspen’s stormwater manager.

With the repairs in place, water is now backing up again behind the dam on Lincoln Creek, and the reservoir, which normally holds 570 acre-feet of water, is expected to contain 300 acre-feet by Oct. 20, Campbell said.

The small reservoir primarily acts as a forebay to Tunnel No. 1, which allows for as much as 625 cfs to be moved from Grizzly Reservoir under the Continental Divide and into to the south fork of Lake Creek and down to Twin Lakes Reservoir.

Tunnel No. 1 and Grizzly Reservoir are the central components of the larger Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, which is owned by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. and diverts water from the Roaring Fork River and Lincoln, Grizzly, New York, Brooklyn, Tabor and Lost Man creeks through a series of dams, ditches and tunnels.

The water rights for the Independence Pass system have a priority date of 1930 and a court-issued decree from 1936. The water originally was diverted to grow crops in the lower Arkansas River Valley, but cities gradually bought the rights to the water.

On May 29, Twin Lakes filed an application in Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs to make 21.33 cfs of its conditional water rights, as specified in its 1936 decree, “absolute.”

It offered evidence to the court that it has now physically diverted an additional 21.33 cfs of water through the Lost Man Canal, which today can carry as many as 272.33 cfs of water from Lost Man Creek to Grizzly Reservoir.

On Sept. 30, Pitkin County, the city of Aspen, the Stillwater Ranch Open Space Association, and Anthony and Terri Caine of Aspen each filed so-called statements of opposition in the case.

The Stillwater Ranch subdivision is on the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen, and the Caines own a home on Wildwood Drive west of Independence Pass.

Craig Corona, a water attorney in Aspen representing Stillwater Ranch and the Caines, said the application from Twin Lakes raises questions “as to Twin Lakes’ accounting of its diversions and administration by the state.”

Corona specifically points to a 1976 decree, which includes limits and conditions on Twin Lakes’ right to divert water.

“Twin Lakes must show that they diverted water in accordance with their water court decrees, including the restrictions the court included in the 1976 decree from Case W-1901 regarding storage in Twin Lakes Reservoir and the amount of water available to the Colorado Canal,” Corona said.

The decree, for example, states that if there is enough water in the Arkansas River to provide a certain amount of water to the Colorado Canal, then Twin Lakes does not have the right to divert water for that purpose.

Laura Makar, an assistant Pitkin County attorney specializing in water cases, said the county filed its statement of opposition to ensure that Twin Lakes was held to “strict proof” regarding its historical diversions.

“This involves transbasin diversions, and the county always wants to know what is going on if there is water leaving the basin,” Makar said. “We want to make sure all diversions have been in accordance with all prior relevant decrees.”

The resulting water court process could shed more light on the operations of the Independence Pass system and could do so just as a new level of communications has been established between Twin Lakes and various officials.

A map of the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, as submitted to Div. 5 Water Court by Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
A map of the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, as submitted to Div. 5 Water Court by Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.

Rush of water

In early August, when Scott Campbell realized that Twin Lakes had lost the ability to store water in Grizzly Reservoir behind a damaged and leaking outlet gate, he made the rare call to drain the reservoir.

But in his rush to prevent a catastrophic release of water, he had failed to inform local and state officials of the pending release of muddy water from the bottom of the reservoir on Aug. 10, an oversight he has since acknowledged and regrets.

Over the past two months, Campbell has been working to repair both the seal on the outlet gate in the dam and his relationships with various officials.

In a sign of progress on both fronts, Campbell sent out a notice Friday that the repairs were complete and that by Tuesday, the reservoir would begin releasing about 1 cfs of water and do so through a sediment-trapping system below the reservoir.

Through a prearranged notification system, Campbell sent his update on Friday to the Pitkin County dispatch center, which in turn sent it out to various officials.

“We’re doing things that we’ve never even contemplated before,” Campbell said Friday, referring to the sending of updates to various officials. “But we’ve learned from this. We’ve made changes. And our intent is to operate as a good neighbor.”

When asked about the water court case, Campbell referred questions to Kevin Lusk, president of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.

A sediment filtering system has been set up below the outflow gate on the dam at Grizzly Reservoir. The silt fencing and straw bales has been an effective way to trap sediment coming out of the reservoir, according to Scott Campbell, the general manager of Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
A sediment filtering system has been set up below the outflow gate on the dam at Grizzly Reservoir. The silt fencing and straw bales has been an effective way to trap sediment coming out of the reservoir, according to Scott Campbell, the general manager of Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.

A modest proposal

Lusk is also a principal senior engineer with Colorado Springs Utilities, which owns 55 percent of the shares in Twin Lakes.

The Pueblo Board of Water Works owns 23 percent of the shares in Twin Lakes, while the Pueblo West Metro District owns 12 percent and the city of Aurora owns 5 percent.

Lusk characterized the water court application from Twin Lakes as modest.

“Our case itself is one to just make a little bit more of a certain portion of the system absolute,” Lusk said. “It does not change the amount of water that we can bring to the East Slope in any way.”

Lusk also said the city of Aspen’s opposition to its application was routine.

“This is what we in the business typically call a smiley-faced objection, Lusk said. “It really is just a way to be more involved in the court case.”

He also said that Phil Overeynder, a senior utilities engineer for the city of Aspen, had called him in advance about the city’s filing of a statement of opposition.

“Phil assured me this is not an indication of any change in our cooperative relationship,” Lusk said.

The city is working with Twin Lakes on the management of other water rights that may allow more water to remain in the Roaring Fork River for environmental reasons, city officials have said recently.

But it remains to be seen how hard Pitkin County and the parties represented by Corona, the Aspen water attorney, will push on the issue of whether Twin Lakes has strictly adhered to the requirements of the 1976 decree.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015 and the Post Independent published it on Monday, Oct 12, 2015.

The Water Values podcast: Prior Appropriation and How It Shaped the West with Hon. Gregory Hobbs, Jr. (Ret.)

Click here to listen to the podcast. Here’s an excerpt from the Water Values website:

Recently retired from the Colorado Supreme Court, Justice Greg Hobbs joins The Water Values Podcast to share his knowledge of western water law, specifically the doctrine of prior appropriation and its impact on how the West developed. Justice Hobbs uses his deep and broad knowledge of water law to explain how the doctrine of prior appropriation developed, stretching his explanation of water in the West all the way back to the reservoirs the inhabitants of Mesa Verde used and up through the Spanish and Mexican influences in the West. He provides an eye-opening analysis of water law and contrasts differing versions of prior appropriation (Colorado with California; court adjudicated rights versus administratively granted rights). Finally, Justice Hobbs discusses his involvement with the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and its many programs.

San Luis People's Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain
San Luis People’s Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain

“We kind of just grew and grew together to realize we are neighbors” — Ralph Curtis

San Luis Valley Groundwater
San Luis Valley Groundwater

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

When State Engineer Dick Wolfe turned in a set of proposed groundwater rules and regulations to the division water court on Sept. 23, he channeled Yogi Berra.
“When you come to the fork in the road, take it,” he said, quoting the Hall of Fame Yankees catcher who passed away the day before.

But for nearly four decades, the San Luis Valley’s water users avoided any path that involved giving the state engineer the authority to shut down or limit pumping by the valley’s roughly 4,500 irrigation wells.

Two aquifers supply the water for those wells and help farmers irrigate valley staples such as potatoes, barley and alfalfa.

The shallower of the two, the unconfined aquifer, is fed by streams, seepage from irrigation canals and return flows from fields, and some upward leakage from a deeper aquifer.

The deeper aquifer, known as the confined aquifer, is fed by streams at the rim of the valley and is under artesian pressure.

Both aquifers are hydrologically connected to the valley’s surface streams to varying degrees, a fact that underlies complaints from surface-water users that their rights are injured by groundwater pumping.

Wolfe’s predecessor had proposed rules in 1975 only to see them shelved as the valley’s water users looked for another way to mitigate the impacts of well pumping on surfacewater users. And while this version still will have to gain approval from water court, enough had changed in the intervening decades to prompt a second stab at rules and regulations.

To begin, the federal Closed Basin Project, which pumps groundwater from the eastern edge of the valley for delivery to the Rio Grande, has been ineffective.

The valley’s water user groups signed an agreement in 1985 that divvied up how the project’s water would apply toward Colorado’s obligations to the Rio Grande Compact.

The move was regarded as an olive branch to surface-water users on the Conejos and Rio Grande rivers, since they alone carried the burden of complying with compact obligations.

Without the policing powers rules could give the state engineer, groundwater users faced no such burden.

The pact, commonly known as the 60-40 Agreement, also included a provision that kept valley surface-water users from going to court to shut down groundwater wells.

But since 2000, the amount of water produced by the project has never exceeded 20,000 acre-feet — far below envisioned amounts of up to 100,000 acre-feet when it was authorized by Congress in 1972.

Another change since the last rule proposals involved a pair of unsuccessful efforts in the 1990s to ship large amounts of the valley’s groundwater to the Front Range.

The proposals from American Water Development and later the Stockmen’s Water Company put all of the valley’s water users in the same boat, said Ralph Curtis, who managed the Rio Grande Water Conservation District for 25 years.

“We kind of just grew and grew together to realize we are neighbors,” he said.

Moreover, less was known in the 1970s about the two major groundwater bodies that sit beneath the valley floor. When the 1975 rules were proposed, a monitoring network that could measure levels in the unconfined aquifer in the north-central part of the valley still was a year away.

Exactly how much was pumped from the aquifers was not known either until 2006 when the engineer’s office implemented well-metering requirements.

Mac McFadden, who was the division engineer for the valley in 1975, and Steve Vandiver, who later would serve 24 years in the same post, both pointed to the development of the state’s groundwater computer model as an important advancement.

While that model could be a point of contention in court hearings for the current version of rules, it provides the basis for estimating how much instream losses are caused from well pumping Lastly, both Curtis and Vandiver point to the drought that began in 2002 as a pivotal point in the valley’s water politics and one that would pave the way to a new version of state rules.

“The drought of 2002 just tipped over the bucket of worms,” Vandiver said. “It was obvious then what the impacts of wells were on the (Rio Grande) — river just went away.”

The lowest flows ever recorded on the Conejos and the Rio Grande rivers where they enter the valley floor came in 2002.

And much of those meager flows were lost to aquifers that were being drawn on heavily by irrigators that had no surface supplies.

The division engineer’s annual report for that year estimated stream losses on the Rio Grande were as high as 40 percent at times, while on the Conejos they peaked as high as 60 percent.

“That provided the impetus for the surface-water users to say we’ve had enough,” Vandiver said.

Vandiver credited Manassa rancher Kelly Sowards and other surface-water users for creating the subsequent push to regulate wells.

Two years later, state lawmakers would pass a bill that created the framework for the current version of the rules and groundwater management subdistricts.

The first such subdistrict, which buys water to return to the Rio Grande and also pays ditch companies for losses caused by pumping, went into operation four years ago in the north-central part of the valley.

Fountain Creek: Kansas is keeping a watchful eye on potential dams

Fountain Creek photo via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District
Fountain Creek photo via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Kansas has concerns that the effects of a large dam on Fountain Creek are not adequately modeled in a study of flood control and water rights that is nearing completion.

But comments from Kevin Salter of the Kansas Division of Water Resources indicate the modeling done by the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District is “reasonable” when it comes to side-detention ponds.

Kansas is an important player because its 1985 federal lawsuit over the Arkansas River Compact raised storage issues along with wells. The Supreme Court ruled in Colorado’s favor on the storage questions, but new dams would be untested waters.

“The methodology in this draft report appears reasonable to protect water rights below the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River for the scenario involving side-detention facilities,” Salter said.

“As for the scenario to construct a multipurpose reservoir on Fountain Creek; Kansas is concerned.”

In an email to a committee looking at engineer Duane Helton’s draft report, Salter said more study is needed to look at the full impact of a 52,700 acre-foot reservoir that would include a 25,700 acre-foot pool for recreation and water supply and 27,000 acre-feet for temporary flood storage.

“Should the actual implementation of detained flood flows on Fountain Creek impact compact conservation storage Kansas would fully expect that those flows be restored,” Salter said.

Larry Small, executive director of the Fountain Creek district, said a more complete evaluation would be made of water rights if a large reservoir is pursued.

“The district will complete a full evaluation of alternatives and a feasibility study of the preferred alternative in the future before any decision is made on flood control facilities, to include multipurpose facilities,” Small said in an email reply.

Helton’s study shows there would be little impacts on water rights if flood control structures allowed a flow of 10,000 cubic feet per second to flow through Pueblo during large floods. Water would be released as quickly as possible following the peak flow.

The study discounted extremely high flows, such as the 1999 or 1965 floods, saying there would be little damage to water rights because the high volume would fill John Martin Reservoir, creating a free river.

Division Engineer Steve Witte said Kansas concerns must be treated carefully, so a new round of litigation isn’t triggered.

Witte would like the 2015 flooding to be studied. Flows on Fountain Creek exceeded the 10,000 cfs mark on three occasions during six weeks of elevated flows. John Martin Reservoir did not fill, so it would be an ideal opportunity to explore how flood storage could be administered, he said.

“I think we need to be careful in any scenario to make sure there isn’t some material depletion,” Witte said.

After the 1999 flood, when Kansas and Colorado were in litigation over the Arkansas River Compact, Kansas raised questions about how such large flows should be divided. Those issues have not been resolved, Witte said.

Another downstream party, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association which owns half of the Amity Canal in Prowers County, said more study is needed to determine the damage if water is detained at lower flows and how water would be allocated after a flood.

The committee looking at the report, which includes some downstream farmers, Kansas, Colorado Springs Utilities, Tri-State and others, will meet again at 10 a.m. Oct. 14 at the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District offices.

#ColoradoRiver: Grand County rancher uses 2013 law to leave water in Willow Creek without penalty — Hannah Holm #COriver

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

A Grand County rancher has become the first person in Colorado to use a 2013 state law to intentionally leave water in a stream without fear of diminishing his water right. Working with the Colorado Water Trust , Witt Caruthers developed a plan to curtail diversions from Willow Creek when its flows drop to critical levels.

The additional flows will benefit half a mile of Willow Creek and then four and a half miles of the upper Colorado River before encountering the next downstream diversion, where another water user could potentially take the water. This stretch of the Colorado River has been heavily impacted for decades by upstream diversions across the Continental Divide to Front Range cities and farms.

The 2013 law, Senate Bill 13-019, allows some Western Slope water right holders to reduce their water use in up to five out of any consecutive ten years without having the use reductions count against them in water court calculations of “historic consumptive use.” This reduces the “use it or lose it” disincentive for conservation in Colorado water law.

The law applies only to water users in Colorado Division of Water Resources Divisions 4 (Gunnison River Basin), 5 (Colorado River Basin) and 6 (Yampa, White and North Platte River Basins). In order to qualify for the law’s protections, the water use reductions must be the result of enrolling land in a federal land conservation program or participating in an officially-sanctioned water conservation or banking program.

Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River District, which approved Caruthers’s conservation program, told the Sky Hi Daily News that “we’re glad to be in the vanguard and helping the agricultural community protect their water rights when they want to lend the water rights to environmental purposes.” The same article quotes Caruthers as saying that he and his partners sought to “one, preserve our water rights but also to contribute to the overall maintenance of the ecosystem there by leaving water in the stream when it wasn’t needed.”

The Colorado Water Trust has also pioneered the use of other voluntary and market-based tools for landowners to share water with streams without diminishing their water rights. These include a 2003 law that created a streamlined process for water users to make short-term leases of water to the state for environmental purposes. The Trust first used this tool in 2012 by brokering a deal to support flows in the Yampa River. It has since been used in several other places.

Support and funding for such innovative water conservation efforts is rising as Colorado and the other states and cities that share the Colorado River are seeking ways to prop up water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead in the face of long-term drought.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

Willow Creek via the USGS
Willow Creek via the USGS