Expert urges ranchers to get water rights for livestock | PostIndependent.com
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Expert urges ranchers to get water rights for livestock

Donna Gray

Ranchers should consider securing water rights for their livestock.That was the expert advice of John Sikora, assistant division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources in Glenwood Springs.”Why do you need water rights for cows drinking out of a stream?” he asked during Ag Day in New Castle last week. You don’t – at lest not yet. Cattle operations are still considered “incidental” use of surface water with little impact, as opposed to irrigation, which falls under state water law.Ranchers should also know that irrigation rights do not include livestock use specifically, and, “You don’t have the right to put water into an irrigation ditch for cows without a water right,” Sikora said. “Protect yourself. If you run several hundred cows, get a water right for livestock.Sikora also gave the audience a primer on Colorado water law.”A water rights is a property right,” he said. “You can buy and sell it.”Water rights, he said, allow the holder to use a given amount of water – in this area from the Colorado River or its tributaries – in order of priority.Colorado water law has often been described as “first in right first in use,” meaning holders of a 1905 water right, for example, have priority over a person with a 1977 water right on the same drainage.If a “call” is made on a stream or river, the water resources division actively administers water rights on that stream or river to ensure fair allocation of that water.A call is a formal written notification by a water right holder to the division that he is not receiving the water he’s entitled to. In the notification, he requests shutting down or curtailing all upstream junior water rights until there is enough water in the stream or river to satisfy his right.In winter, there are usually no calls made on the main stem of the Colorado nor its tributaries, Sikora said. So watering livestock out of a stream is not an issue. But during the summer, when water levels are low due to irrigation demands and the continuing drought, it’s another matter.Sikora said ranchers may have to have water rights for their livestock to ensure access to water year-round if a proposed hydroelectric plant is built on the Colorado River on the east side of Palisade.The water right attached to the site of the prospective power plant dates to 1980 and is for 2,000 cubic feet per second of water.Just upstream, on the west edge of DeBeque Canyon, is the major diversion for irrigation water for the Grand Valley. The Cameo right is one of the oldest and largest rights on the Colorado River. The Cameo call is usually in effect between April and mid-October, Sikora said.If the proposed new power plant goes through, its call could be in effect year round and would affect all the junior water rights on the main stem of the Colorado and its tributaries. By implication, that would also mean livestock watering no longer might be considered incidental use.”Watering stock in a stream is viewed as incidental, but that can change,” Sikora said. “So get your ducks in a row with a livestock water right now before this happens. If (the power plant) is built, it will change how we administer the upper (Colorado River) basin.”Ranchers and farmers have a few options for ensuring a good supply of water for livestock without having to file for a water right, Sikora said. One option is a stock pond, which is exempt from the priority water diversion system. However, it has a hitch: The water that feeds the pond has to be dry for 80 percent of the year, Sikora said. “If water comes into it year round, it’s not a stock pond.”One rancher in the audience asked, “A lot of people build where there’s a spring. Could that be called out?”If it’s an undocumented water right that’s been used historically, “I recommend you get a water right,” Sikora said, because springs can be considered tributaries of the Colorado River.Sikora said it’s also possible to get a well permit for livestock use that is exempt from the priority system, but that applies only to properties of 35 acres or more.He added that it can take from one to two years to obtain a water right if an attorney files, and three to five years if an individual files.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 510dgray@postindependent.com


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