Lower Arkansas Valley: Conflict flowing from use of irrigation return flows below John Martin Reservoir

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The senior water rights on the Arkansas River in the area date back to the 1880s, with some as far back as the 1870s. The return flows, or seep rights, from major ditches like the Amity Canal were claimed as irrigation rights in the early part of the 20th century. The older the right, the higher the priority. The problem, according to [Water Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte], is that by intercepting the return flows on tributaries to the Arkansas River, downstream water rights could be affected. It could also lead to further disputes with Kansas over the Arkansas River Compact. “All we’re trying to do is improve the administration on the tributaries,” Witte said.

Last year, irrigators who use the seep rights were contacted by the state Division of Water Resources and told their junior water rights had not been regulated, but were going to be in the future. There were two meetings, and Witte made it clear what was needed: measuring devices on tributaries, control devices for diversions and diversion points that matched the legal descriptions of where those points should be. “We are assessing who is in compliance and who is not,” Witte said. “We told all of them we intend to enforce the priority system.”

Late last year, the state issued 28 orders to bring irrigators into compliance, and some court complaints have been filed on those who have not taken any steps toward corrective action. “Some have large amounts of water,” Witte said.

[Dwain Eaton, a Lamar veterinarian who has junior water rights] Eaton is riled by the orders, and says it will cost $5,000-$10,000 per diversion to install the required measuring devices. The orders have the potential to dry up thousands of acres of farm ground, he said. “I feel these rules concerning the measuring devices were made for the ditches and were never intended to be required on individual seep rights,” Eaton wrote in a letter to state legislators, Agriculture Commissioner John Stulp and Gov. Bill Ritter. “It would be hard to put out this unnecessary expense when we can see no value in it, except to satisfy the powers that be. These decisions are being made with very poor economic foresight.” Over the past 40 years, there have been few complaints from senior water rights holders, Eaton said. “I think the reason for the senior ditch not making a request is the amount of water that would be made available would be so small by the time that it made the river that no farmer would even know it was there,” Eaton said. Simply removing the water creates more problems. “There have been no plans made to revegetate these farms after the water has been taken from them, leaving a catastrophic environmental issue — soil erosion,” Eaton said.

More Arkansas Basin coverage here.

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