Platte River: Protected species make water projects especially important — The Kearney Hub

The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.
The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.

From The Kearney Hub (Lori Potter):

Nebraska has a unique role among the four partners in the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, according to Nebraska Department of Natural Resources Director Jeff Fassett.

“All the (protected) species and all the habitat are in Nebraska,” he said.

The Central Platte Valley is the target area for least terns, piping plovers and whooping cranes, while pallid sturgeon are in the Lower Platte River.

All the water options for a proposed program extension, which will focus on reducing river depletions by another 40,000 [acre-feet] or more, are in Nebraska to be as close as possible to the target habitat.

Fassett said that with a major reservoir project now off the table, new projects will include groundwater recharge, facilities to hold water for retimed releases and water leasing.

He noted Tuesday at the annual convention of the Nebraska State Irrigation and Nebraska Water Resources associations that initial water projects were completed by all three states toward meeting the program’s first-increment goal to reduce river depletions by 130,000-150,000 [acre-feet].

However, more recent projects and those being considered for the future are only in Nebraska. “There is hydrologic logic about that,” Fassett said, because projects hundreds of miles from the target habitat are not as effective.

Nebraska’s benefits include regulatory stability the program provides for the Platte Basin. Projects in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming that must comply with the federal Endangered Species Act can do so through the program instead of individually, he said.

Another issue for Nebraska is its own demands to enhance water in the river. Fassett said state laws for the overappropriated area of the Platte Basin west of Elm Creek require “moving the train backward” to mitigate new water uses since 2007.

#Colorado Water Trust Presents: The Great Divide Screening and Fundraiser @COWaterTrust

thegreatdividefilmhaveyproductions

Click here to buy your tickets. Here’s the pitch from the Colorado Water Trust:

Overview

The destiny of the west is written in the headwaters of Colorado. Tens of millions of people, billions of dollars of agricultural production, and an enormous amount of economic activity across a vast swath of America from California to the Mississippi River are all dependent on rivers born in the mountains of Colorado. In this time of increasing demand and limited supply, it is essential to promote a more informed and inclusive discussion concerning decisions affecting our water resources.

VIP Reception starts at 5:30pm in Henderson’s Lounge followed by the screening.

Proceeds from the event will go to support the Colorado Water Trust:

The Colorado Water Trust is a private, nonprofit organization whose mission is to restore flows to Colorado’s rivers in need. Founded in 2001, the Colorado Water Trust coordinates market-based water transactions, water-sharing agreements, infrastructure projects, and other creative solutions to restore flows to our state’s dry rivers and streams. Together with our diverse partners throughout the state, we are restoring habitat for fish and other wildlife, improving local economic opportunities, and where lost, returning to Colorado’s landscape the beauty of a flowing river. http://www.ColoradoWaterTrust.org

Here’s the Coyote Gulch review of The Great Divide:

“I used to be a orthodox card-carrying humanities academic with contempt for the manipulations of nature that engineers perpetrated. And then, I realized how much a beneficiary I was of those perpetrations.” — Patty Limerick (The Great Divide)

This is an important film and Ms. Limerick hits the nail on the head with her statement. When folks understand the history of Colorado and how water has shaped that history, when they learn about the disease and hardship that goes hand in hand with scarcity of water here in the arid west, when they witness the bounty from plains farms and the western valleys and the economic drivers associated with Colorado’s cities, when they take time to sit down to talk and learn from neighbors and others, opinions can change, understanding can grow, problems can be solved, and opportunities can be realized.

Jim Havey and the filmmakers set out an ambitious goal, that is, the telling of Colorado’s water story, without advocacy and without pointing fingers. The Great Divide accomplishes the telling using a superb screenplay written by Stephen Grace, the stunning footage by Jim Havey, along with the old photographs and maps of Colorado (and the Colorado River Basin).

Prior appropriation and anti-speculation are big ideas that form the foundation of Colorado water law. Article XVI of the Colorado Constitution includes detail about the preferred uses and the rights of diverters to cross private land to put the public’s water to beneficial use. All water in Colorado belongs to the citizens but diverters gain a property right allowing them to use the water.

The filmmakers manage to explain these details well during the film. The film describes the law, the compacts between states, river administration, and the 21st Century world of water. They emphasize the work and pioneering efforts needed to get Colorado where it is today.

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

Starting with the San Luis People’s ditch (the oldest water right in continuous use in Colorado — 1852) Coloradans have built out many projects large and small to put the water to beneficial use. The Great Divide describes many of these projects including the big US Bureau of Reclamation projects, Colorado-Big Thompson, Fryingpan-Arkansas, the Aspinall Unit, and what many think will be USBR’s last big project, Aninas-La Plata.

According to the film an early project, Cheesman Dam on the South Platte River, enabled delivery of high quality water to the City of Denver which had been plagued by outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases.

These projects have gotten Colorado to this point with over 5 million residents and a diversified economy. However, in the documentary the head of Denver Water Jim Lochhead states, “If we grow the next 5 million people the way we’ve grown the last 5 million — that may not be sustainable.”

There is a tension between environmentalists and water developers in today’s Colorado, highlighted by the film. The Great Divide explores the historical roots of the environmental movement starting with the Sierra Club effort to save Echo Park on the Yampa River, up through the legislation allowing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to hold and establish instream flow rights, the successful efforts to block groundwater withdrawals in the San Luis Valley for Front Range growth, and the mammoth decision to not permit the Two Forks Reservoir on the the South Platte River.

stoptwoforksdampostcardfrontcirca1988

The City of Denver and many of the suburbs were counting on that project for future needs. It is interesting to note that the loss of Two Forks led to increased groundwater withdrawals from the Denver Basin Aquifer System and an increase in purchases of agricultural rights by municipal systems. Both of these alternatives are unsustainable but have led to recharge projects, water reuse projects by Denver Water and Aurora Water, along with serious efforts to allow alternative transfer methods for agricultural water that would protect farmers and keep the water with the land. The Great Divide touches on these newer more sustainable solutions.

Drought is a constant possibility in Colorado. The film shows how the drought of the 1930s spurred northeastern Colorado to line up behind the Colorado-Big Thompson Project for new supplies and storage.

US Drought Monitor August 6, 2002
US Drought Monitor August 6, 2002

When things turned around after the drought of 2002 The Great Divide informs us that municipalities had to rethink conservation efforts and that pumpers with insufficient augmentation water were shut down. Denver Water managed to cut per capita consumption by 20% below pre-2002 levels and other utilities noted similar savings.

The film examines the aftermath of the 2002 drought and the efforts by the Colorado legislature which passed the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act. It established the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and the nine basin roundtables. The roundtables and the IBCC were formed as a forum to share needs but most importantly share values. One of the outcomes of the effort has been the realization, stated in the film by Travis Smith that, “We are more connected than we’d like to admit.”

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013
Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

This connectedness, along with the need to solve looming wide-ranging supply gaps were the motivation for Governor Hickenlooper to issue an executive order to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to create Colorado’s first ever water plan. The Governor has an opportunity to present his view of the need for the plan in the film. He touches on the fact that however the plan turns out it will be built by the grass roots.

During his introduction of the film Justice Gregory Hobbs advised us to listen to the words along with viewing the images. He was right, the narrative by Peter Coyote engages and informs. You cannot listen to Mr. Grace’s words without learning at the same time. And that’s the point right? Educate and inform with an accurate representation of Colorado water issues and history…

The film is a stellar vehicle for educating and generating conversation. Go see it when you can, buy the book, and then start talking and teaching.

#Colorado, #Wyoming Move Forward with #ColoradoRiver Diversions — Public News Service #COriver

Fontenelle Reservoir and Dam, at Green River. Kemmerer, WY - USA March 12, 2016. Photo credit ruimc77 via Flickr.
Fontenelle Reservoir and Dam, at Green River. Kemmerer, WY – USA March 12, 2016. Photo credit ruimc77 via Flickr.

From The Public News Service:

Wyoming has moved one step closer to getting more water for ranching, agriculture and industrial development.

The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources has advanced a bill that would allow the state to take an additional 125,000 acre-feet of water from the Green River at the Fontenelle Dam…

State officials say expanding the Fontenelle is necessary for farmers and ranchers who need a reliable water supply to keep crops and livestock healthy.

They feel the measure would also be an economic incentive for new businesses to grow and create jobs in southwestern Wyoming…

[Gary Wockner] notes Wyoming isn’t the only state trying to get more water from a shrinking source.

He points to a proposal by Denver Water to expand the Gross Dam that would remove an additional 5 billion gallons annually from the Colorado.

While upper-basin states may technically have rights to the water, Wockner says the challenges of a changing climate and 16 years of drought can’t be ignored.

The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Michigan Ditch tunnel hits daylight

Boring machine photo via City of Fort Collins.
Boring machine photo via City of Fort Collins.

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Kevin Duggan):

The rotating cutting wheel of a custom-built tunnel boring machine began to slowly emerge from a mountainside around 5 a.m., said Owen Randall, chief engineer with Fort Collins Utilities.

The breakthrough was an exciting moment for crews that have been working on the 760-foot-long tunnel near Cameron Pass since June…

Crews still have four to six weeks of work to wrap up the project, which will carry Michigan Ditch and its valuable water to city-owned Joe Wright Reservoir.

Dismantling and removing a tunnel boring machine from the mountain will take three to four days. Hydraulic and electronic equipment used to operate the machine will be stripped from the tunnel before a 60-inch diameter pipe is installed to carry the water.

Weather could be a challenge as crews hustle to wrap up the project before heavy snowfall comes to the area. A few inches of snow fell last weekend, Randall said, but has since melted away…

Crews have been working on the project 24 hours a day since mid-September to make up for delays caused by equipment problems and the challenge of cutting through exceptionally hard rock.

Michigan Ditch provides the city with 2,000 to 3,000 acre-feet of raw water a year. The water is used to meet return flow obligations on the Poudre River mandated through various water-exchange agreements.

The market value of water supplied through the Michigan Ditch-Joe Wright Reservoir system is about $180 million, according to the city.

The tunnel project is in response to a slow-moving landslide that has been affecting the ditch for several years. Damage was especially severe in 2015.

City officials decided to protect the piped ditch by sending it through bedrock that the slide can’t affect. The project is expected to cost Fort Collins Utilities about $8.5 million.

For more information on the project, see http://fcgov.com/michigan-ditch-tunnel.

Joe Wright Reservoir (Courtesy of Dick Stenzel at the Applegate Group) and the City of Fort Collins.
Joe Wright Reservoir (Courtesy of Dick Stenzel at the Applegate Group) and the City of Fort Collins.

Michigan Ditch tunnel update

Joe Wright Reservoir (Courtesy of Dick Stenzel at the Applegate Group) and the City of Fort Collins.
Joe Wright Reservoir (Courtesy of Dick Stenzel at the Applegate Group) and the City of Fort Collins.

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Kevin Duggan):

After overcoming equipment problems and putting in 24-hour work days, crews on Wednesday were within 35 feet of reaching the end of what will be a 764-foot-long tunnel.

“We’ve made tremendous progress …,” said Owen Randall, chief engineer with Fort Collins Utilities. “We should be out sometime (Thursday) or Friday at the very latest.”

Breaking through the mountain will be done slowly and carefully to avoid destabilizing the mountainside, he said.

Crews still have four to six weeks of work to wrap up the project, which will carry Michigan Ditch and its valuable water to city-owned Joe Wright Reservoir near Cameron Pass.

Dismantling and removing a custom-built tunnel boring machine from the mountain will take three to four days. Hydraulic and electronic equipment used to operate the machine will be stripped from the tunnel before a 60-inch diameter pipe is installed to carry the water.

Michigan Ditch tunnel bore slows, new cutters for boring machine on order

Michigan Ditch photo via AllTrails.com
Michigan Ditch photo via AllTrails.com

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Kevin Duggan):

A stretch of unusually hard rock inside a mountain near Cameron Pass has slowed a tunneling project aimed at shoring up Fort Collins’ water supply.

Progress on a 760-foot tunnel that will carry Michigan Ditch water to the city-owned Joe Wright Reservoir was stopped as of Thursday.

Crews are waiting for the arrival of replacement parts for the cutting head of a tunnel boring machine, or TBM, that was custom built for the project, said Owen Randall, chief engineer for Fort Collins Utilities.

Bearings on cutting disks on the rotating head have repeatedly burned out while dealing with a wall of pegmatite, a type of granite that can have various minerals and be exceptionally hard, Randall said.

Project managers are “literally looking around the world” for replacement disks, he said. When some will arrive at the work site is not known.

Rock conditions have varied tremendously during the course of the tunneling, which began in late June. Some layers of rock have been fractured and relatively easy to cut through, he said. Others have been difficult.

“We went 300 feet on the first set of disks,” Randall said. “We used up two sets going the next 8 feet. It’s just been very variable.”

Before the TBM was shut down, the cutting wheel was grinding out clouds of powder rather than chunks of rock, he said.

The machine was 482 feet into the mountain as of Thursday. Time and weather are becoming concerns as crews want to have the TBM off the mountain before heavy snow comes.

Randall said crews still expect to finish the project this fall.

Once the tunnel is cut, a 60-inch pipe made of fiberglasslike material will be put in place to carry Michigan Ditch. Randall said he wants to have water flowing through the pipe before the onset of winter.

“We are going to get through,” he said. “But safety will dictate how long we keep people working up here.”

Crews have been working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. That will increase to 24 hours a day Sept. 12. About 1,000 feet of pipe is expected to be delivered that week, Randall said.

The project is in response to a slow-moving landslide that has been affecting the ditch for several years. Damage was especially severe in 2015.

Don’t take more than you need: wrangling wasted water on the Western Slope

Erin Light, center, and Shanna Lewis in a pasture with a mule while checking on the Meeker Ditch on July 11. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch, which she determined was wasting water.
Erin Light, center, and Shanna Lewis in a pasture with a mule while checking on the Meeker Ditch on July 11. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch, which she determined was wasting water.

MEEKER – The mule in a pasture east of Meeker along the White River seemed happy to see Erin Light, a state division engineer, and Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner, when they went to take a look at the amount of water flowing through the Meeker Ditch on July 11.

Lewis, who grew up on a Colorado ranch, praised the mule’s beautiful, deer-like coloring and said they’d become friends on her frequent visits to check the ditch.

But the warm equine reception the two enforcers of Colorado water law received differed from the response they sometimes get from ranchers in Division 6, which encompasses the Yampa, White and North Platte river basins, especially when they are visiting a ditch because they think its operator is diverting more water than they need through their head gate.

“I would say I’m more telling than I am curtailing,” said Light, who has been the division engineer based in Steamboat Springs since 2006. “There have only been a few situations where I’ve actually said, ‘That’s it. We’re curtailing you.’ And they’re very obvious situations where they’ve got a lot of water going down the tail end of their ditch, where you can’t argue that this isn’t waste.

“Where the problem becomes in determining waste is that I can go out to a piece of land and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got 6 inches of water on this land. There’s ducks swimming around. This is wasteful,’” she 
continued. “You can go to the landowner or the irrigator and say, ‘This is waste,’ and they’ll stare you right in the face and say, ‘The hell it is.’”

Division and state engineers working for Colorado’s Division of Water Resources, as Light does, are the only officials who have the authority to determine if waste is occurring on an irrigation system. And their primary response is to curtail wasteful flows at the head gate.

But determining if there is waste in a ditch is a case-by-case exercise. It’s site specific and time sensitive, and it can take time to understand how someone manages their ditch.

There’s no state definition of waste or written guidelines, but in the end it’s a fact-based analysis focused on how much water is needed to irrigate so many acres.

An allowance is also made for customary inefficiencies on a ditch system. Water leaking out of an old ditch, for example, is not considered waste. But beyond inefficiency, which is often a physical issue, there is waste, which is usually a water-management issue.

And waste is a much bigger issue on the Western Slope than on the state’s drier eastern plains, where irrigators have long watched for anyone wasting water.

A field flooded with water from the Yampa RIver this year. Erin Light, the division engineer for Div. 6, said this is an example of diverting more water than is necessary.
A field flooded with water from the Yampa RIver this year. Erin Light, the division engineer for Division 6, said this is an example of diverting more water than is necessary.

Free river, or not

In 2014, Light served the Meeker Ditch with a written curtailment order, and she also told the big Maybell Canal on the Yampa River that they had to stop wasting water.

And she did so even though neither river was “under administration,” the term for the body of water being called out by senior downstream diverters, so both were considered in a “free river” condition.

Nor was there another water right that was being injured by either ditch’s diversions.

Just in the past 10 days, Light’s office has informed rancher Doug Monger that water is being wasted in the irrigation system he manages on his Yampa River Ranch three miles east of Hayden.

Monger is a Routt County commissioner, a member of the Yampa-White Roundtable, and a director on the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s board.

When asked Tuesday, during a break in a daylong strategic retreat at the River District, about Light’s belief that he was wasting water, he responded in a way that she has heard before.

“I don’t know what the hell difference it makes if I’m wasting water or not, it’s going back in the river,” Monger said. “Who the hell cares, if it’s a free river.”

“I know he is wasting water,” Light said Monday of Monger. “And he should be the poster child of what should be done, not what shouldn’t be done.

“About 10 days or so ago, our water commissioner approached a bunch of water users in the ditch system,” she explained. “There are several ditches that combine and co-mingle there.

“They were immediately going, ‘That’s Doug Monger’s responsibility, Doug’s the one controlling that,’ which I take as Doug is the one controlling the head gates,” Light said. “One of our water commissioners, Brian Romig, went to Doug and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here. You’re diverting too much water.’ From what Brian told me, Doug somewhat recognized it. He concurred that he needed to reduce his diversions.”

But Tuesday, Monger was not willing to go that far, saying he understood from the water commissioner only that he was still figuring out how Monger’s ditch works.

“I won’t acknowledge it,” Monger said of the allegation that he was diverting more water than he needs. “And if they start coming up with some scenario on it, we can always get our attorney. “

That was the same initial response that David Smith, the primary shareholder on the Meeker Ditch, had when Light curtailed his ditch in 2014.

But since then, and after spending $40,000 in legal and engineering fees, Smith has come around to see Light’s point.

“I would tell you that Erin and I started out on opposite ends on this thing, but both of us have kind of tried to work our way towards middle ground that we can both agree on,” he said.

Smith was busy this week bringing in hay on his well-tended fields along the White River just west of Meeker — the same fields his grandfather irrigated.

“I’ve had some disagreements with her, but Erin is an intelligent gal,” he said of Light, who has a master’s degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University with an emphasis in hydraulics and hydrology. “We’ve worked with her, and we’ve worked with the people that she has here, and at the end of the day it’s helped all of us, and I think we’re all better educated because of it.”

Well-tended fields along the White River west of Meeker irrigated by the Meeker Ditch. The ditch has been directed to divert less water at its headgate than it used to.
Well-tended fields along the White River west of Meeker irrigated by the Meeker Ditch. The ditch has been directed to divert less water at its head gate than it used to.
Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner in Div. 6, inspecting the Meeker Ditch's measuring flume. Lewis suggested it's easy for outsiders to critique how ranchers manage their water, but that there are a lot of factors, and experience, involved that are not always readily apparent.
Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner in Division 6, inspecting the Meeker Ditch’s measuring flume. Lewis suggested it’s easy for outsiders to critique how ranchers manage their water, but that there are a lot of factors, and experience, involved that are not always readily apparent.

Laying down the law

The Meeker Ditch has a water right dating back to 1883 to divert 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water and two other later and smaller rights that allow it to divert 25.95 cfs in all.

The ditch diverts water from the White River just east of Meeker, runs it through Meeker proper, and then to fields west of town. (See map).

In her August 2014 curtailment order, Light said the historic water rights held by the Meeker Ditch represent enough water to irrigate about 1,000 acres, but today only 153 acres are actively being irrigated. And engineers at Resource Engineering Inc. calculated that the Meeker Ditch only needed 6 cfs to irrigate the fields still served by the ditch.

Attorney Kevin Patrick of Patrick, Miller and Noto, a water law firm with offices in Aspen and Basalt, had hired Resource Engineering to analyze the irrigation ditch on behalf of a client who owned commercial property under the ditch.

Since 2004, the property had been intermittently subject to flooding by water leaking from the ditch.

Patrick sent the engineering report and a letter to Light. “The ditch is diverting unnecessary water which is merely being spilled” and “the excessive running of water, over that reasonably required for the reasonable application of water to beneficial use for the decreed purposes and lands, is forbidden” under state law, the letter says.

After investigating the matter, Light found the ditch had been consistently diverting about 20 cfs at its head gate, but was then sending much of the water out of the ditch and down Curtis Creek, Sulphur Creek or Fairfield Gulch, back toward the White River.

Light then curtailed diversions at the Meeker Ditch head gate, which she has the authority to do. And when asked to do so by Smith, she put the curtailment order in writing.

“Colorado statute clearly prohibits the running of water not needed for beneficial use,” Light wrote in her order, dated Aug. 15, 2014.

Light cited a Colorado statute that reads “it shall not be lawful for any person to run through an irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”

And she addressed the issue of water being released from the ditch and back to the river.

“Generally when water is being wasted off the end of the irrigated acreage, through waste gates, or at the tail end of the ditch, the head gate should be turned down to eliminate that waste of water,” Light wrote. “In this case it appears that water is being diverted at too great a rate for the lands that are being irrigated, and the rate of diversion is not being reduced to eliminate waste.”

Light’s stance on enforcing waste has the backing of her boss, State Engineer Dick Wolfe.

A photo from the Resource Engineering report documenting waste on the Meeker Ditch in 2014. Water from the ditch is being turned out into Sulphur Creek, while the main flow in the ditch continues through the pipe above the outfall.
A photo from the Resource Engineering report documenting waste on the Meeker Ditch in 2014. Water from the ditch is being turned out into Sulphur Creek, while the main flow in the ditch continues through the pipe above the outfall.

Use it or lose it?

Both Wolfe and Light served recently on a committee, convened by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, that issued a report in February on the widely brandished piece of advice to irrigators to “use it or lose it.”

The report is called “How diversion and beneficial use of water affect the value and measure of a water right” and is subtitled “Is ‘use it or lose it’ an absolute?”

The 11-page report ends with several declarative statements about waste that give further backing to Light’s approach, and that she might well wish to see chained to every head gate on the Western Slope.

“Water that is diverted above the amount necessary for application to a beneficial use (including necessary for transit loss) is considered waste,” states the report.

“Increased diversions for the sole purpose of maintaining a record of a larger diversion are considered waste,” it says, referring to the practice of diverting toward the full amount of a decree in order to bolster the future potential value of a water right.

And, “Wasteful diversions will either be curtailed, or will not be considered as part of the water right’s beneficial use.”

Wolfe, who recently gave a presentation to the Colorado Ag Water Alliance on the “use it or lose it” report, said that Light is not being overzealous in her enforcement of waste.

“She is not going out and as a division engineer purposely looking and being more assertive or aggressive about trying to find where waste is going on,” Wolfe said. “These are ones that just came to our attention.”

Alan Martellaro, the division engineer for Division 5, has not taken the same approach as Light when it comes to curtailing waste.

“To actually actively go look for waste is not something that’s historically been done unless there’s a call on the stream,” said Martellaro, who is based in Glenwood Springs and whose jurisdiction includes the Colorado, the Roaring Fork, and the Crystal river basins. “It just hasn’t been the mode we’ve ever been in.”

Kevin Rein, the deputy state engineer who also served on the “use it or lose it” committee, said issues vary from division to division.

“In Division 6, in the Yampa-White, we’ve had periods of free river without administration for a long time, because it hasn’t been over-appropriated,” Rein said. “That means not being water short. So very often people were just diverting whatever they wanted because, why not? But she’s really directing herself to getting people to measure their diversions and pay attention to duty of water. I think you choose what’s important in your division. That’s important in her division.”

“Duty of water” is essentially how much water someone needs to grow crops on a certain amount of land, without waste. In the Yampa and White river basins, the duty of water is generally held to be that it takes 1 cfs to adequately irrigate 40 acres of land.

After giving a presentation at a water workshop in Gunnison in June about the “use it or lose it” report, Rein was asked why the state doesn’t go around and curtail people who are over-diverting.

“We do, as resources allow,” Rein said. “It’s simply a matter of looking at our water districts where we, maybe, have one water commissioner and maybe a deputy. Maybe if they each had two or three more deputies, then we could do that.”

Light sounds like she could use some help.

“When it comes down to obvious waste,” she said, “I would say we have a tremendous problem with it. I had a long-standing water commissioner — he was with us for 40 years and grew up a rancher — tell me one day, ‘The problem with irrigators today is they don’t go out and move their sets. They just open the head gate wider.’”

“Sets” refers to how irrigators have set various control points, such as check dams and internal head gates, along their ditches.

“That just blew me away,” Light said. “Here’s a longtime rancher living in the community of Meeker his entire life who is more or less telling me that his co-irrigators … just open up their head gate and don’t move sets anymore. To me, that’s where the inefficiency is. Go out, divert less water, and move your damn sets.”

Erin Light, after being asked to pose for a photo at the headgate of the Meeker Ditch. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch to reduce the amount of water being wasted in the ditch system.
Erin Light, after being asked to pose for a photo at the head gate of the Meeker Ditch. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch to reduce the amount of water being wasted in the ditch system.

Defending Light

After receiving Light’s written curtailment order in August 2014 on the Meeker Ditch, Smith appealed it to an administrative hearing officer, which was a rare move.

Wolfe said the appeal, which was addressed to him, “is the only curtailment order that I am aware of that has been appealed since I have been state engineer.” He’s been state engineer since since 2007 and has been with the Division of Water Resources since 1993.

An attorney for the Meeker Townsite Ditch Co., which owns the Meeker Ditch, told the state that Light was “attempting to restrict the diversion of water down the Meeker Ditch at a time when the White River is not under an administrative call and at a time when no other water rights owner is affected by the diversion.”

At that point, the state stepped in to defend Light’s curtailment order, and Philip Lopez, an assistant attorney general, prepared an answer to Smith’s appeal.

In his answer, Lopez cited a relatively straightforward statute that reads: “During the summer season it shall not be lawful for any person to run through his irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, and for domestic and stock purposes, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”

And he quoted the Colorado Supreme Court in Fellhauer v. People, where it said, “The right to water does not give the right to waste it.”

As to the matter of Light, or any other division engineer, not being able to curtail waste if there is not a call on the river, Lopez wrote “the division engineer has the authority to curtail [the Meeker Ditch’s] wasteful diversions at any time pursuant to [state law], regardless of whether or not the White River is under administration.”

Lopez did concede, though, that the water rights held by the Meeker Ditch still allowed it to divert water, as long as they did so “without waste.”

That’s an important distinction for Smith, who insists that he wasn’t technically curtailed, only that he can’t waste water when diverting.

“She hasn’t curtailed me to the amount of water that I can use,” Smith said. “All that Erin tells me is that whatever amount of water I have in the ditch, that she doesn’t want us wasting any water.”

Light has a different take.

“We curtailed them,” Light said. “We issued an order to stop wasting. They hired an attorney. They hired an engineer. It went to the hearing officer. They don’t waste anymore.”

The hearing officer in the case denied the ditch’s appeal, indicating it was a matter for water court. But Smith declined to go there.

“We kind of came to a working agreement that we were going to try to work with it, but as far as the laws, there was never a test case,” Smith said.

That may be, but on July 11, when Light and Lewis measured the flow in the Meeker Ditch, it was running at 6 cfs, not 20 cfs as it often used to.

The diversion structure for the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River east of Maybell. The ditch has been working to reduce diversions after the division engineer found it was diverting more water than it needed.
The diversion structure for the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River east of Maybell. The ditch has been working to reduce diversions after the division engineer found it was diverting more water than it needed.

The Maybell Canal

Light has also curtailed another irrigation ditch in Division 6, the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River near Maybell, which she found was similarly diverting more water than it needed.

The canal diverts water from the Yampa into a head gate located in a canyon on the edge of Little Juniper Mountain, about 30 miles west of Craig. (See map).

The Maybell Canal has a senior water right for 42.2 cfs that was adjudicated in 1923 and appropriated in 1899. It also has a junior right for 86.8 cfs that was adjudicated in 1972 and was appropriated in 1946.

The waste on the Maybell Canal was brought to Light’s attention by one of her water commissioners who’d visited the ditch. Light then verbally instructed the canal’s manager to stop wasting water. Mike Camblin, manager of the Maybell Irrigation District, wasn’t happy when he got the curtailment order from Light, but he’s now working to secure funding to make $197,000 worth of improvements to the irrigation system.

On July 13, the Yampa-White-Green basin roundtable approved a $108,000 grant of state funds to help fix several issues on the ditch system. One of those improvements is a modern, automated “waste gate” a mile below the head gate.

Camblin said such a remote-controlled system won’t work at the head gate, which is higher up in the canyon without cell phone service and prone to being washed out by high water.

But he is willing to use the automated gate to reduce sending more water than necessary out the bottom of the ditch, where the water returns to the Yampa River.

The arrangement for the new gate does not entirely please Light, however. She insisted that Camblin agree to send someone up to the head gate within three days after receiving information from the new automated gate that they are over-diverting.

An agreement to that end has been worked out and is poised for adoption, both Light and Camblin said.

“The whole goal is to not only help Erin out but to make us better at what we do,” Camblin told his fellow roundtable members on July 13.

In an interview this week, Camblin said, “At times we were probably taking more water than we need, but that’s what this whole process is about, to cut that down.” He said he is forging a productive working relationship with Light.

“I think it all comes down to communication, especially with Erin and the water commissioners,” he said. “If they get to know us and how our ditch can run better, and we allow them to do that, and we communicate, we can solve a lot of problems.”

Water diverted into the Maybell Canal enters a flume a mile below the headgate and crosses the Yampa River. A remote-operated outlet is to be installed just above the flume in an effort to reduce diversions into the ditch.
Water diverted into the Maybell Canal enters a flume a mile below the head gate and crosses the Yampa River. A remote-operated outlet is to be installed just above the flume in an effort to reduce diversions into the ditch.
The Maybell Canal, towards its end, below the town of Maybell, on July 13, 2016. The ditch is working to waste less water by reducing diversions from the Yampa River.
The Maybell Canal, toward its end, below the town of Maybell, on July 13, 2016. The ditch is working to waste less water by reducing diversions from the Yampa River.

Watch that stick

Dan Birch, the deputy general manager at the Colorado River Conservation District and a member of the Yampa-White basin roundtable, is supportive of the improvements that Camblin is trying make on the Maybell Canal.

“I think Mike’s really trying to do the right thing, and I think he wants to take a look at ways he can manage his diversions better,” Birch said. “I certainly don’t think he’s diverting just for the sake of diverting.”

Birch also cautioned against using a stick to beat back waste.

“You can’t go into a situation and say, ‘Hey, you guys are wasting water, I want you to reduce your diversions,’” Birch said. “You really have to be prepared to go into that situation and say, ‘Hey, look, here’s something that we’re seeing here. Let’s have a conversation. I’m interested in exploring what we might do to improve flow in the river.’”

But Light feels the Maybell Canal needed to be prodded into action.

“What has partially pushed the Maybell Canal to go the direction they have is us really putting our foot down that we’re not going to allow this waste to continue,” she said. “Again, the waste is so blatant. They were diverting about 54 cfs at the head gate, and we estimated about 18 cfs going out the tail end. It’s like, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”

Birch was asked directly if he thought the Maybell Canal would be making its proposed improvements without Light’s enforcement actions.

“That’s a fair question, and my immediate response is probably not,” he said.

While Light has been able to work with both Smith and Camblin, she knows she’s raising the hackles of ranchers in the Yampa and White river basins.

“I don’t think the irrigation community wants to be told they’re wasting,” she said. “I’d love to do more as far as waste, but I do have to tread lightly.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, July 24, 2016