Streams lucky to be trickles this year
Only three creeks in the entire Roaring Fork River drainage managed to retain relatively healthy flows through the drought this summer, according to the man who probably knows the water situation better than anyone.
Bill Blakeslee, water commissioner for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said at least portions of most other streams have dried up this year.
Some smaller streams didn’t flow at all because the springs that feed them dried up. Other streams went dry early because of the paltry snowpack. Irrigation for agriculture sucked some dry.
“There have been cases where some of the users didn’t have any water,” said Blakeslee, who is commonly called a ditch commissioner.
He and the state agency he works for administer the intricate and elaborate system of water rights. Colorado has a system that is often characterized as “first in time, first in right.”
What it means is the people who claimed water early – like ranchers in the late 1800s – established the senior rights to certain amounts of water from creeks, rivers and springs.
Those legal water rights create a pecking order that affects water use from the smallest of streams to the mighty Colorado River, Blakeslee explained. For example, a stream like Woody Creek has several users who irrigate via ditches. Those users are allocated certain amounts of water that were decreed in water court.
In a “normal” year, the water supply starts waning by July and the water commissioner has to shut the headgates of ditches of landowners with junior rights. That assures that landowners with senior rights get their legal share.
A similar pecking order exists on the Roaring Fork, Crystal and Fryingpan – the three rivers of the drainage. And demands on those rivers, known as “calls,” can control how much water can be diverted from various creeks that feed them.
Finally, calls on the Colorado River can dictate water diversion through the entire Roaring Fork drainage.
Blakeslee, of Basalt, helps administer that system from Glenwood Springs to Independence Pass. The Division of Water Resources has a computerized list of all water users. Each user is assigned a number that corresponds with their seniority of water right.
As water runs short, Blakeslee shuts off water diversions. “You shut the system down from the bottom up,” he said. “We’re kind of like cops.”
The priority system was put in place on many streams in May – three months earlier than usual, according to Blakeslee. A brief spurt of runoff from the paltry snowpack relieved junior water rights users for a 10-day period late in May, but by June many users were out of water.
Ranchers and large landowners in areas like Sopris Creek, Woody Creek and Four Mile Creek outside of Glenwood Springs were hit hardest.
“We had a lot of ditches that never ran,” Blakeslee said. Out of 20 ditches that may operate in a normal year on any given big stream, maybe only three or four ran this year in some cases, he said.
It won’t be known until next winter how much water diversion was down this summer. Blakeslee estimated it was only about 10 percent of normal in the district he covers. That exemplifies just how tough the drought has been on the remaining ranches in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“I wouldn’t call it the knockout punch, but another portion of the mix,” said Blakeslee, who grew up ranching on the Western Slope.
Some ranchers have the most superior water rights west of the Continental Divide. Those without good rights relied on sources that have nevertheless been reliable – chiefly due to the usual ample snowpack. Good, that is, until now. In some cases, there were no water rights to administer this year because there was no water.
Blakeslee estimated that half the ditches in the Roaring Fork drainage serve property that has water rights stretching back to the 1880s and 1890s. “The original ranchers were astute enough to file their water right then,” he said.
Those water users aren’t affected by major demands made on the Colorado River by fruit growers and other agricultural interests in the Grand Valley near Grand Junction, Blakeslee explained. But about half the water diverted by ditches in the Roaring Fork drainage is susceptible to those calls from outside the valley.
Blakeslee said it is a tough part of his job to have to crank down the headgate at a ditch and shut off someone’s water supply. Some users plead with him to leave a trickle; others ask for a few more days of irrigation.
“The ranchers may fuss a little bit at first because they can’t grow a hay crop,” Blakeslee said. “They come around.”
In other cases, second home owners or people who moved to the valley from a city may not understand Colorado’s water laws. They never dreamed that the place they saw surrounded by lush vegetation a few years ago could become such barren ground.
“There are a certain portion of people who brought property with a stream coming through and think they have a water right,” said Blakeslee. They learn the tough way that their right is junior and inadequate in a year like this.
It doesn’t matter if it is a rancher or desperate second home owner, Blakeslee won’t bend the rules, not even allowing a trickle of water to flow where it doesn’t belong.
“If everybody plays by the same rules, the system works,” he said.
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