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Water supplies won’t hinder West Slope growth

In one of Colorado’s worst drought years on record, new developments continue to win approval, and many people wonder where the water will come from.

But Western Colorado, in general, has enough water to supply many more years of growth, says one water expert.

“We have decades and decades of water resources available,” said Eric Kuhn, manager of the 15-county Colorado River Water Conservation District. But Kuhn said water resources must be carefully managed.



In New Castle, for example, Lakota Canyon Ranch is a new 487-acre, 827-unit golf-course development awaiting final approval.

“It doesn’t seem like there is enough water to serve our current needs,” said Debbie Wolf, a Castle Valley Ranch resident at a recent New Castle Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.



“I’m not against this development, but if you’re going to build this thing, you’ve got to have a reliable source of water,” said Canyon Creek irrigator Greg McKennis.

The developers are bringing the ranch’s Elk Creek irrigation water rights to the table, and are offering to pay 63 percent of the cost of building a new pump station on the Colorado River. That would tap the town’s storage rights in Ruedi Reservoir.

In addition, the developers plan to draw untreated water from the Canyon Creek Ditch to irrigate the golf course.

New Castle has to be very careful regarding annexation agreements,” Kuhn said, “because once those agreements are made, the town is responsible.”

“The developers will be long dead before there’s a water shortage crisis,” said Peter Roessmann, an education specialist for the River District “And municipal leaders are characteristically loathe to tie water availability issues to development.”

That’s why, at last Tuesday’s New Castle Town Council hearing for Lakota Canyon Ranch, the subdivision was approved at first reading before all of the water allocation issues had been resolved.

“That’s not unusual,” said Kuhn.

Kindergarten class

Kuhn says water allocation is like a water cooler in a kindergarten class. The kindergartners holding senior water rights are first in line. Their water rights don’t guarantee them a drink of water, but give them a better position in line.

That’s why there can be an infinite number of water rights sold to an infinite number of people. It doesn’t mean that there’s an endless supply of water, just that a more senior right will get the water user in a better position when and if the water is available.

But senior water right holders don’t always hold the top priority, he said. Municipal use can butt in the line.

“Domestic use is always the top dog,” Kuhn said.

“This priority began when Denver was founded,” said Roessmann, when the city relied on irrigation ditches for water.

“A farmer could have a senior water right and use it to irrigate his corn crop. At the same time, the city supply might be running out. In that case, the city would condemn the farmer’s right,” Roessmann said.

“Water has always been seen as a basic human right,” he added. “The farmer’s crops weren’t allowed to usurp those rights.”

That precedent still applies today.

“The state Constitution prioritizes water use,” Kuhn said. “Domestic use has first priority, industrial has second and agriculture has third.”

That means even if a rancher holds senior water rights, the Constitution gives a municipality the authority to seize that water, which can lead to litigation between the town and the water rights holder.

“New Castle came close to shutting down last summer,” Kuhn said, referring to calls for water from senior water rights holders downstream. “But then we got some rain.”

That took New Castle off the hook in a potential fight to keep its water from Grand Valley irrigators.

“I don’t think it’s ever happened here on the Western Slope,” Kuhn said of a fight between the town and irrigators. “But it has on the Eastern Slope. There are places operating on bottled water.”

Less water needed

Kuhn said another misconception people may have is how much water a residential development uses compared to the water used to irrigate a field.

“On the Western Slope, we’re seeing a lot of residential development replacing irrigated agricultural lands,” he said. “Generally, a subdivision such as Castle Valley actually uses less water than the original field it replaced.”

Kuhn explained that’s because manmade structures such as streets, driveways and roofs don’t absorb water like a crop does.

“A lot of domestic water goes down the drain and back into the system,” he said. “A dishwasher has virtually no depletive effect on the water supply.”

Golf courses, like the one being planned for Lakota Canyon, may use more water than an irrigated field, but not by much. Kuhn noted that an unirrigated parcel of land uses less than either an irrigated field or a residential community.

Pay attention

Even though Kuhn says that the Western Slope has an adequate supply of reservoir water, there’s still reason for residents and town planners to be vigilant with water allocation.

At the top of the totem pole are city dwellers living within annexed town limits.

Through the state Constitution, they receive top priority.

Even if a town like New Castle doesn’t hold senior water rights, in critical situations the town still has a constitutional right to take water from other users to satisfy town water needs. That, said Kuhn, is a legitimate reason for senior water rights holders to pay attention.

But will Colorado run out out of water for all these users?

“Not in our lifetime,” he said.


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