Water Diversions parts two, three, and four — Pagosa Daily Post #COwaterplan

Summary of Observed Wet & Dry Surface Water Hydrology via SCW
Summary of Observed Wet & Dry Surface Water Hydrology via SCW

Here’s Part II of Bill Hudson’s essay on the Colorado Water Plan. Here’s an excerpt:

One thing becomes very clear when you start trying to understand the politics of water in Colorado. It’s a complicated mess of competing priorities. Like many states in the arid West, Colorado has historically rejected the riparian water rights law that governs most of the eastern U.S. According to riparian doctrine, the water in a river or stream belongs to the land owner who owns property adjoining that waterway. This doctrine copies elements of English and Spanish common law; ownership of the water rights are attached to the related property and usually cannot be sold except with the sale of the adjoining land.

But when American and European settlers began populating Colorado, the most profitable industry was mining, and unlike a farm — the basic economic unit for land private ownership prior to 1850 — a mine is very often established some distance from the nearest river. Some the lawyers and judges of Colorado came up with the “prior-appropriation doctrine.” That doctrine grants superior water rights to whichever water user made the earliest use of the water source, historically speaking. In Colorado, it doesn’t matter if your own property adjoining the river; it only matters that you made historical use of a water source.

A water user who began pulling one million gallons a year from the San Juan River in 1892, for example, has — in Colorado — the legal right to pull a full one million gallons out of the river each year, even if he leaves no water at all for anyone with a later (“junior”) water right.

And in Colorado, the owner of an 1892 water right, for example, can sell that water right without selling the land on which that water has been historically used. (Which makes no logical sense to me, but that’s how the Colorado courts have ruled.)

This is known as the Colorado doctrine, and it was adopted by many of the other states west of the Great Plains. It has worked reasonably well, apparently… so long as we had more water in the rivers than we needed each year.

But a couple of things have changed. Back when the Colorado doctrine was established, most people in Colorado made their living by farming, ranching or mining. They used water mainly to produce useful and necessary items. Today in Colorado, most of us use water to flush our toilets and water our lawns. Not exactly the production of useful items in the same sense. The Pagosa Daily Post, for example, uses not a drop of water in its production process (unless La Plata Electric Association happens to be buying hydro power.) We can certainly question whether any useful products are created.

The other thing that’s changed is the population of the West. In 1950, Colorado had about 1.3 million residents; the number today is 5.3 million.

If you take into account the seven Western states that signed the Colorado River Compact of 1922 — allocating each states’ water rights to the mighty Colorado River — we can see that the total population of the seven states in 1950 was about 14.5 million. (US Census.)

The total population today is 58.6 million.

The amount of water available to serve all these new residents has not increased. In fact, it may have decreased. Substantially.

Here’s Part III. Here’s an excerpt:

As I mentioned, about two dozen people attended the Southwest Basin Roundtable presentation on November 17, and brought with them a range of concerns. Some were concerned about federal control or Colorado’s water. But mostly, I think, we talked about the pending water diversions by Colorado’s larger Front Range community’s — diversions that might draw water out of various West Slope watersheds and pipe it over the Continental Divide to water lawns and flush toilets in Denver and Colorado Springs. That’s a potent issue. The West Slope generates most of the water in Colorado, but most of the state’s population lives on the eastern side of the Rockies…

The users of Colorado’s water are varied, and their level of concern about water resources reflect the manner in which they use water. Families. Ranchers. Farmers. Industries. Fishermen. Boaters. These are the human users — the users that we normally include in water conversations. But we can also, if we so choose, consider other users of Colorado’s water: wild game animals, trees, grasses, fish, birds.

Mice. Earthworms. Ladybugs.

If we stop and consider, for a moment, how these other, non-human users interact with Colorado’s water resources, we can easily see a natural, conservative approach. Animals and trees use only what they need, and not a drop more.

In some places in the world, humans approach water in the same manner. They use only what they absolutely need and not a drop more. How much water, then, does a human social group need? Say, for example, a social group that grows food and operates industries and hosts tourists and raises families?

Colorado’s Water Plan sums up the primary challenges facing us, with this language:

“Colorado faces a financial gap in addressing future environmental, recreational, agricultural, and communal needs. Without adequate investment, Colorado cannot effectively address the above-listed challenges.”

Sometimes what appears to be a crisis is merely a lack of imagination, or an unreasonable attachment to an expectation.

According to a 2010 report by the The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, it requires about 1,122 gallons of water per day to supply the average American with his or her daily needs. This includes the water used to produce the food we eat, and the myriad other products we consume.

A person living in the Netherlands meets all his or her needs with about 465 gallons per day, less than half what we use here in America.

The same report notes that the average Israeli — living in a desert climate very similar to regions of the American West — meets his or her water needs with 204 gallons a day… less than one quarter the water used by a typical American.

Do we really have a crisis here in Colorado?

Here’s Part IV. Here’s an excerpt:

If Colorado is truly facing water shortages of some kind — which is a story we hear regularly from people who run water districts and from people who profit from building massive water projects — how will we prioritize the use of our ever-more-precious water? Agricultural uses? Recreational uses? More suburban lawns?

Michael Whiting:

“If we’re going to use taxpayer money to store more water, then I think the taxpayers ought to get a say in what that water gets used for. I don’t want to save water on the West Slope so there’s more water to irrigate golf courses in Denver. So I think, if you’re going to use taxpayer money, you have an obligation to the taxpayers.

“And I don’t think the taxpayers are going to say, ‘Yes, more golf courses.’ The taxpayers might say, ‘More food,’ or they might say, ‘More jobs.’ I’m not suggesting that we change the [prior-appropriation doctrine]; private water is private water. I get that. But public money makes the water public.”

Good comment. If we are going to use taxpayer money to store more water, here in Archuleta County, how will that water be used?

We might even ask a more direct question. If we are going to use taxpayer money to someday build Dry Gulch Reservoir — one of the four projects currently listed in the draft Southwest Basin Implementation Plan — shouldn’t the taxpayers have some say in how the reservoir’s stored water gets utilized?

The voters of Archuleta County have expressed their desires pretty clearly over the past three years, regarding the Dry Gulch Reservoir. They have elected five anti-Dry Gulch candidates to the five-member Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) board of directors, and the board currently does not show any additional reservoirs in their 25-year Capital Improvement Plan.

So then… why is the Dry Gulch boondoggle currently part of Colorado’s Water Plan? I believe the answer is pretty simple. The voters do not elect the members of the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD); they are appointed by Judge Greg Lyman, the same judge who approved the original water rights for Dry Gulch back in 2004. And it’s the SJWCD board that has somehow inserted a glaringly unpopular water project into a statewide planning document.

The SJWCD owns only a 10 percent interest in the Running Iron Ranch property northeast of downtown Pagosa, but it might require years of legal wrangling to separate PAWSD’s 90 percent interest in the property from SJWCD’s interest. Another alternative for partitioning the two water districts’ ownership of the reservoir site was proposed last winter by SJWCD president Rod Proffitt.

Following a contentious meeting with the PAWSD board, the SJWCD board had voted to continue moving forward with building an 11,000 acre-foot reservoir: “to give the project a chance to succeed,” as Mr. Proffitt once put it. Mr. Proffitt began talking to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) — the state board that had provided PAWSD and SJWCD with the $10 million to buy the Running Iron Ranch — about giving PAWSD “some breathing room” on their loan, so PAWSD wouldn’t press to sell the land to reduce its debt. (PAWSD has a lot of debt at the moment.)

Suspension of payments, debt forgiveness and lower interest rates were all discussed, with Mr. Proffitt pitching ideas to both CWCB and PAWSD. Mr. Proffitt also approached the Southern Ute Tribe about them buying out PAWSD’s interest and becoming partners in the project.

The PAWSD board’s lead negotiator, Allan Bunch, continued to stress ‘partition’ as the best solution to the problem of joint ownership — an action that would likely force the sale of the ranch and drive a final stake into the heart of the zombie reservoir. But Mr. Proffitt was able to get the PAWSD board to consider a trade: $4.6 million in loan forgiveness from CWCB — if PAWSD would assign its Dry Gulch ownership to CWCB.

Numerous twists and turns later, the CWCB came back with a rather different offer. They explained that, legally, CWCB can’t own reservoir sites, so trading loan forgiveness for a share of the Dry Gulch property was not feasible.

But CWCB might be willing, they said, to lower the interest rate on PAWSD’s $9 million loan — if PAWSD and SJWCD would hold onto the property for 20 years, and then consider whether to build a reservoir there. If they did not build the reservoir by 2035, PAWSD would have to pay the remaining $4.6 million, plus interest, in a nice big balloon payment.

SJWCD would assume management of the Dry Gulch project. We might note that SJWCD currently cannot afford to hire any paid staff; apparently CWCB is comfortable asking a board of well-meaning volunteers to manage a $100 million water project. (I am simplifying the actual proposal somewhat, to make this article more readable.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here. More Dry Gulch Reservoir coverage here and here.

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