Drought news: Irrigation water is running short across southern Colorado #COdrought

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From The Denver Post (Nancy Lofholm):

Sheldon Zwicker has been keeping an eye on irrigation ditches at his family’s McElmo Canyon ranch since he was no taller than a cattail and was tagging along to help his grandfather water crops. The 68-year-old remembers farmers and ranchers getting hot under the collar about water disputes then. And he’s not surprised that, in the current drought year, the same squabbles have water users in ditchside near-brawls, threatening one another with shovels, pitchforks, guns and words.

Water has been fought for since before King Hammurabi first declared in his famous Code somewhere around 1795 B.C. that farmers needed to be neighborly about using it. That’s never been an easy code to follow throughout history because water is a paycheck to those in the agricultural trade. It’s an especially tough sell these days in Colorado when all but a sliver of the state is in various levels of drought.

In the southwest corner of Colorado, where a dozen water users operating on a sort of honor system might rely on one ditch, the problem seems to be particularly bad. When those users are tempted to take more than their share to sprinkle on crispy crops and slake the thirst of baking bovines, the number of disputes has gone up as fast as the midsummer thermometer. “There’s probably more disputes over water down here now than there is over wives. It’s been a real trying year,” Zwicker said. “When it’s 110 (degrees) out and you’re trying to get your crops wet, and you’re out of water, and you find your neighbor has it, well, you blow your stack.”

There are no statewide figures for the anecdotal spike in water disputes this year. Each county and the dozens of water districts and ditch companies in Colorado handle the trouble in different ways.

Montezuma County has had enough trouble that Sheriff Dennis Spruell has designated a water deputy to act as a mediator and an enforcer when neighbors call in accusing one another of stealing, hogging or wasting water. That deputy has been fielding 20 to 30 calls a day lately, compared with four or five calls in the past. He’s not the only one overburdened by water woes. On some hot mornings, the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co.’s water commissioner in Cortez has received 20 to 30 calls by coffee-break time.

Disputes range from finding suspicious shovel-built ditches to catching someone red-handed diverting water.

One method of stealing water is for a water thief to open a gate in the middle of the night to divert water to his crops and to sneak back before daylight to reset the water flow and try to cover up the crime.

Drought maps can bring some understanding of this kind of desperation. Montezuma County shows up on the drought map covered in orange — the color denoting extreme drought. In southeast Colorado, the fire-engine red identifying a worse rating — exceptional drought — has crept across more than 10 counties of farm country. Even with recent rains, Colorado is colored with the shades of lesser drought — the yellow of “severe drought” and the cream-colored tone of moderate drought. One bit of green now snakes down north central Colorado, which means an upgrade from drought to “abnormally dry.” In the “exceptional drought” area of southeast Colorado, the irrigation water situation has gotten so bad for a second year in a row that water squabbles are actually few between farmers who are all in the same dire boat.

“There isn’t much dispute here over water because there isn’t any,” Fort Lyon Canal Co. manager Wesley Eck said. Nearly three-fourths of the 93,000 acres the canal company supplies are without water this year because a depleted Arkansas River and its tributaries can no longer deliver. Farmers didn’t even bother planting many of their crops this year.

In the southwest corner, the McPhee Reservoir is trickling 25 percent of water to farmers and ranchers, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and a fishery. “We not only have a limited supply, but the duration of the season will be cut short,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District that disburses McPhee water. That district uses pressured meters to track exactly how much water users get so there is less room for arguing about fair shares. Arguments tend to happen more when users have a direct flow of water in a canal that is dispersed to individual users’ fields through the use of flow-controlling headgates. “So everyone is kind of suffering together,” Preston said.

Water woes have resulted in more disputes than just neighbors throwing punches and shovels. Legal actions are also in the arsenal with larger users. In Craig, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed charges against two brothers who allegedly cut unauthorized ditches to take water from BLM lands to their ranches.

In the Canyons of the Ancients, in southwest Colorado, a citizens group has sued the BLM alleging the government is taking water that should belong to individual citizens.

The city of Ouray has asked a water court to change its water rights so agricultural users downstream can’t cut back on the city’s allotment in dry times.

And for farmers who aren’t currently fighting about water, Nate Midcap, the manager of the Central Yuma Groundwater Management District in the relatively wet drought-stricken northeast corner of Colorado, has a prediction, given the fact that aquifers are dropping and heat waves are increasing: “Sooner or later they will be.”

From KOAA (Kirsten Bennett):

The Colorado Springs City Council has voted to remain in Stage IIB (two days a week outdoor watering) of the Water Shortage Ordinance, with a change to the threshold by which a Colorado Springs Utilities residential water customer would pay a drought surcharge. Effective Aug. 1, the entry point for block 3 water pricing has been increased to 2,500 cubic feet of water usage, up from 2,000 cubic feet.

The updated drought surcharge has been reduced from twice the block 3 cost, to 1.25 times the block 3 cost.

Commercial customers are billed using a baseline calculated from 2012 average water use. Commercial customers exceeding that baseline will now be charged 1.25 times the current price, and 1.15 times the current price for non-potable water use.

Here’s the latest drought update from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Ben Wade):

June was the 9th warmest June on record (dating back to 1895) with most areas of the state experiencing temperatures 2-4 degrees above normal. Compounding the warm temperatures was the lack of precipitation; as a percent of average, June was the driest month of 2013. Above average temperatures have continued to-date in July, with the western slope seeing temperatures 4-5 degrees above normal. However, July has also brought well above average moisture for many portions of the state, alleviating, but not eliminating, dry conditions in those areas. Water providers feel they have adequate storage and supplies to meet customer demands for the remainder of the summer months.

  • As of the July 16, 2013 US Drought Monitor, 100% of Colorado continues to experience some level of drought classification. Conditions across the state have slightly improved since June. Two percent of the state, isolated to the northern Front Range foothills, are now classified as D0 (abnormally dry), while D1 (moderate) conditions cover 35% of the state. D2 (severe) conditions comprise 29% and D3 (extreme) accounts for an additional 17%. 17% of the state is experiencing D4 conditions (exceptional drought).
  • As of July 3, 2013, all of Colorado’s 64 counties have some level of Federal USDA Drought designation. 53 Colorado counties have primary designations, while an additional 11 counties have designations for being contiguous to the primary counties.
  • Following two consecutive months of below average precipitation statewide, July to-date has seen precipitation levels ranging from 100% of average in the Yampa/White to 243% of average in the Upper Rio Grande. The state as a whole has seen 163% of average precipitation thus far in July. Since October 1, 2012 the state as a whole has received 78% of average precipitation.
  • Spring snow storms brought significant gains in the snowpack to the Colorado and South Platte River basins, which helped to fill reservoirs and improve storage; however increased demands and higher temperature have led to a slight decline in overall statewide storage, as a percent of average, from 78% last month to 74%.
  • The Rio Grande has the lowest storage levels at 35% of average, well below where the Basin was this time last year. All but two basins (the Upper Colorado and the Yampa/ White) have storage levels below where they were this time last year.
  • Improvements in storage levels from earlier in the year, coupled with successful drought response measures have led many municipalities along the Front Range to relax mandatory watering restrictions. http://www.coh20.co remains active and can be utilized to determine what restrictions are in place in local communities.
  • Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) values remain largely negative, with the exception of the Colorado Headwaters which sits at +2.27 due to strong reservoir storage. The July SWSI uses the observed streamflow measured during June rather than a forecasted flow. Many streamflows across the state remain below average.
  • The long term experimental forecast for late summer (July-September) favors precipitation on the eastern plains of CO, while the northern Front Range may face renewed drought conditions. The Climate Prediction Center forecasts for August through October and October through December both show high probability for above normal temperatures, while equal chances of wet and dry conditions are reflected in the precipitation forecast.
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