Between the shade cast by pine trees crowding these banks and the mist thrown from the tumbling mountain stream, it feels about 10 degrees cooler down here. A flat bench of rock invites me to sit down and watch the tumbling creek, which roars and rushes through the skinny gulch, its outward ferocity nearly masking the slow and meticulous work it’s also performing: carving out stone and earth. Icy bits of froth catch light in patches of sun, downed trees scatter like spilled toothpicks across the water and birdsong echoes through the forest. I can no longer hear the voices of other hikers.
This spot can’t be more than 50 feet from a trail that is walked by hundreds of feet a week, including, often, my own. Families and dogs and tourists and locals flock to the trail for the shady forest, the cold waterfall and the glimpses of rugged…
The first drops of rain begin a gentle patter as soon as I get out of the car, a staccato of plinks on the windshield. No surprise; I didn’t exactly get an alpine start for this hike. In fact, I spent the morning watching the clouds building over here, stacking up and collapsing on themselves like an overdone meringue. When the ferocity of the sun blazing down on the lowlands became too much, I got in the car and headed this direction.
I start hiking, dog in front ranging through the ponderosas in search of the ever-elusive squirrel. The rain falls gently, a cool sprinkle, antidote to another hot summer day in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, to a dry spell that has run on far too long. The landscape opens up its pores, drinks in the much-needed moisture. The forest begins to burst forth in the intoxicating perfumes that…
In Episode 12 of We Are Rivers, we discuss the complicated nature of water law in the West. Listen in to learn more about how water law affects you and the rivers you love.
Water in the West is inherently complicated. A complex web of laws, compacts, and a little thing called “prior appropriation” dictates how and when people and entities are allowed to use water in the West, such as cities and towns, farms and ranches, and industry. This ability is what we call “owning a water right,” and explains much of how the West has been settled over the last century, and how many of the economic forces that affect our daily lives are driven by these water rights. Listen in to learn more about how water law affects you and the rivers you love.
Prior appropriation is the backbone of our water law system. Perhaps you’ve heard of “first in time, first in right,” – this phrase refers to the water law system. Prior appropriation allows individuals or entities who first apply water for a beneficial use to be entitled to that appropriation into the future (and has priority over subsequent users). Holding a water right doesn’t actually imply ownership over the water (water in Colorado is “owned” by the people) but is instead the right to use the people’s water for a beneficial use like agriculture, municipal water, and now more recently, in benefit of the environment as in-stream flows.
Even if the term “water rights” leaves you scratching your head, and you call a western state your home, you still are impacted by them. There’s a fairly high chance that you use water connected to a water right, (unless you have your own well or diversion). Water running through pipes in cities and towns across the West are likely municipal water obtained through a water right held by city or town. Your community has to have a water right themselves to divert and distribute the water that ends up in your home. Agriculture, industry, and even our rivers and streams all depend on the legal structure managing our water.
Join us in this month’s episode of We Are Rivers as we navigate through the complicated nature of water law in the West, including prior appropriation, instream flow rights, and the history of water law.
Large reservoirs have buffered urban areas in the Southwest from the worst of the year’s dry conditions, but rural farmers and ranchers are bearing the brunt of water shortages and the economic fallout.
Farmer Scott Sunderland runs the numbers on his smartphone and the outlook is bleak. He needs $250,000 just to pay the taxes and debts he owes on the 700-acre farm he’s managed for more than three decades. If he’s lucky, he’ll have $220,000 by the end of the season.
“If the drought holds on another year,” he said, “we’re going to have to start liquidating … But once you start down that road, it’s almost a dead end.”
Chester, an unincorporated community in central Utah, has been hit by “exceptional” drought conditions, the most severe rating issued by the United States Drought Monitor. For much of the southwestern U.S., this past winter has marked one of the driest periods in recorded history.
Population centers in the West have been relatively insulated from the disaster, protected by large reservoirs capable of storing water for multiple years. But rural towns and the farmers and ranchers who populate them have been devastated. In many cases, struggling farmers have already been pushed off more fertile lands by urban development. Now, some of the remaining ones hope to sell out and scrape together enough cash to retire, while others have already begun to look for new jobs.
“It’s hard to paint a picture because a lot of the time when people talk about drought, you just shower less and water your lawn less,” said Cassidy Johnston, a rancher in Capitan, New Mexico. “In town, yeah, your lawn may be yellow, but here, you may have to move and sell the business your family has had for generations.”
A Regional Crisis
More than half the western U.S. is currently experiencing some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Sparsely populated areas in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona in particular are grappling with dry conditions of historic proportions – many small irrigation companies are reporting water shortages the likes of which have not been seen since the 1970s.
This isn’t necessarily because these areas got less snow over a disastrously dry winter than some of the surrounding environs, said Troy Brosten, a Utah-based hydrologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service. The main issue is the lack of water storage in some remote areas.
Despite the lack of snowfall this past winter, Brosten said, larger reservoirs started the year with plenty of water left over from last year. These reservoirs are still mostly full, so the areas that draw from them haven’t experienced actual water shortages.
But some smaller reservoirs only have capacity for enough water to last about one year, Brosten said. They rely on each year’s snowpack to provide the following summer’s irrigation water. This year, there simply wasn’t enough snow to replenish their reserves.
Many farmers are increasingly reliant on these smaller reservoirs and water systems, said Kate Greenberg, who oversees western chapters of the national Young Farmers Coalition from her office in Durango, Colo. Farmers who once held senior rights in more secure reservoirs have, in some cases, opted to escape pressure from urban development by selling their lands and moving their operations further afield. The situation has been exacerbated by government policies to encourage water managers to secure water for urban growth by buying out farms, Greenberg said.
This was the fate of the Sunderland family farm, which was originally located in Lehi, Utah – a city that in a few short years has been completely transformed by the arrival of several big-name software companies, including Adobe.
The family knew that the new property in Chester was “drier country” when they moved more than 30 years ago to avoid being crowded out by development, Scott Sunderland’s brother Edwin said. But they were willing to take the risk so they could expand their operation and hopefully increase their earnings potential.
But compared to even a decade ago, Scott Sunderland added, Chester’s water doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to.
Chester doesn’t have access to a full-sized reservoir, but gets its water from a series of pipelines and storage ponds, said Edwin, who now manages a small portion of the family property. They started the season, he said, with about half their total water capacity. By July 4, the water was gone.
Last Friday, Colorado Parks and Wildlife began releasing cooler water from Lake Avery in an ongoing effort to keep coldwater fish in the river alive as tough, drought conditions persist.
Trout have adapted to thrive in water temperatures between 50-60 degrees. According to CPW, some sections of the White River have exceeded 70-plus degrees consistently since early June. In addition, water flow in portions of the river have been running at or below the 25th percentile of the historical median in recent weeks.
When flows are low, water is susceptible to warming quickly and dissolved oxygen levels drop, leading to significantly stressed fish. They gather in residual pools and become easier to catch. Even if returned to the water immediately, stressed fish hooked under these conditions could quickly perish.
In addition to the water release, CPW has implemented a voluntary fishing closure between 2 p.m. and midnight on both north and south forks of the White River, from the boundary of the National Forest through the main stem down to the bridge at Rio Blanco County Road 5, west of Meeker.
CPW has implemented additional voluntary fishing closures across the region, due to similar conditions.
The White River within Rio Blanco County is renowned for excellent fishing, drawing thousands of anglers from across the world to catch the large rainbow, cutthroat and brook trout that typically thrive in these waters.
“It’s a great place to fish, but the White River fishery is also a critical resource that local residents depend upon for their livelihoods,” said deVergie. “Whether you run a hotel, a restaurant or an outfitting business, everyone up here has a vested interest in conserving this important natural resource.”
Since the voluntary closure went into effect last week, deVergie says he has seen excellent cooperation from the public. He stresses it could be a while before things improve.
“Now that we have a little more flow in the river, we are asking irrigators to leave as much of it as they can in the river for the benefit of the fish,” said deVergie. “Until we get some moisture, the release is one of the last remaining options we have to help prevent extensive fish mortality in the White River.”
Through an agreement with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, CPW can release water from Lake Avery to help the Board meet their instream flow right of 200 cubic feet per second. The goal is protecting aquatic life in Big Beaver Creek downstream of Lake Avery, and the White River downstream to the confluence with Piceance Creek.
The terms of the agreement allow for releasing 20 cfs up to 120 days. CPW will monitor water-quality conditions and fish to gauge the effects of the additional water, adjusting the release from Lake Avery as conditions warrant.
Due to similar climate conditions at the time, CPW released water from Lake Avery in 2012. Per the terms of the agreement, the agency can release water from the reservoir only one more time prior to 2022.
CPW recommends honoring all voluntary closures, fishing at higher altitude or fishing early when it’s cooler. Anglers should consider using barbless hooks, land fish quickly and release them quickly. Wet your hands before handling and let them go immediately, preferably without removing them from the water.
For more information about conditions on the White River, contact CPW’s Meeker office at 970-878-6090.
For general information about fishing in Colorado, visit the CPW website.
In the state known as the “mother of rivers,” the third–warmest and driest period in more than a century is wreaking havoc on waterways that provide the economic lifeline for rural communities and high–alpine habitat for Colorado’s signature fish, the greenback cutthroat trout.
The extremes of temperature and precipitation – too much of one, too little of the other – have grounded rafting companies in places that usually offer white-knuckle rides. With water barely lapping over jagged rocks, some outfitters have moved operations to rivers fed by reservoirs higher up in the parched Rockies.
“Boats can get piled up and people can get hurt if they flip, and guides were having to use their backs to pull the rafts off of rocks,” said Alan Blado, owner of Liquid Descent Rafting, which is based about 40 miles west of downtown Denver. “We didn’t want them to get injured.”
Summer 2018 came after a rough winter in which some areas received 30 percent of what once was typical snowpack. A warm spring thawed drifts early, causing rivers to peak in May, weeks before the busy summer season. Severe to exceptional drought now covers two–thirds of Colorado, and some of the worst wildfires in state history have broken out.
Despite opinion surveys showing that Valley residents are deeply concerned about how climate change is affecting them, local and state officials are paying little heed to their constituents. According to a 2013 federal study (pdf), even before accounting for climate change the region is expected to run a “staggering” water supply shortage of almost 600,000 acre-feet in 2060. At the same time, some Texas border cities have been at the forefront of water conservation, and the US and Mexico have found ways to cooperate on protecting the Rio Grande.
This nine-part collaboration between the Texas Observer and Quartz explores the complexities of border water in search of answers for how people can work together in a hotter, drier world.