Pay attention and get involved, ditch companies told

Colorado Water Plan

now being created

A small group of area irrigators discussed their issues last Saturday morning at the Florida Grange Hall with representatives of the Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance (DARCA) as part of having a say in the Colorado Water Plan.

DARCA's admonition is, "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu." DARCA is based in Boulder and bills itself as a sort of trade association for ditch companies and irrigation districts, although membership is open to anyone.

Ditch companies own most of the water in the state, but often they don't have much of a seat at the table for things like the water plan process, DARCA executive director John McKenzie said.

The Colorado Water Plan is intended to address the predicted gap between water supply and state population growth, McKenzie said. The July 19 meeting was one of several workshops DARCA is hosting around the state.

DARCA will compile issues from those meetings and submit them for the Water Plan in October. The first draft of the plan is supposed to be submitted to Gov. John Hickenlooper by the end of this year, with the final plan in December 2015.

McKenzie asked about local ditch company issues.

One was fragmentation of ditch company ownership from large landowners to a lot of small shareholders who aren't farmers and who don't care about or understand water rights and irrigation. "To engage people and get them involved is our biggest challenge," said a man whose water comes from the La Plata River.

He and another Dryside man said their small ditches depend on a very few people, and there is a risk of burnout. "Nobody else cares," one of them said. "People look at their headgate and that's the end of their vision. They don't look at the rest of the ditch." He also cited people who think they can use ditch water because their land is next to the ditch, even if they aren't a shareholder.

"Call the sheriff," McKenzie said of illegal pumps in the ditch. The Dryside man said the sheriff here won't do anything. "They do in Boulder County," McKenzie said.

Charlie McCoy, a DARCA board member and superintendent of the Florida Consolidated Ditch Company, said, "Montezuma County has a deputy trained in water law. For the sheriff here (Duke Schirard), it's not important enough. I'm talking to the guy (Sean Smith) who's running against him. He hasn't shown a lot of interest either."

He continued, "I took a pump out of the ditch. The sheriff came to arrest me for taking the pump."

One of the Dryside men said, "I've superglued them, dropped them in the ditch. (The water is) personal property that they're stealing."

McCoy agreed with the Dryside men about irrigators who don't know where their water comes from beyond the headgate. He also cited resistance to anything new to make ditches more efficient. "Anything new is a struggle, even if you can show the benefits. Some of them would like to go back to the 1950s," he lamented.

John Taylor, who lives north of Pagosa Springs in Hinsdale County, said, "We limited the size of developments without an extensive land use process. The real estate developers that had been in the areas like flies left us alone. We haven't lost any land to development. Land is selling in big blocks."

McKenzie said DARCA is pushing counties and towns to change their land use codes to benefit ditch companies and agriculture. He called zoning a powerful tool to protect ag.

Taylor cited issues for ditches on Forest Service land and possible impacts of Wild and Scenic River designations. "In the Piedra (basin), the water community is trying to get Wild and Scenic eligibility off the table, or it will come up every 15 years," he said.

Taylor cited efforts to expand what constitutes "waters of the United States" in terms of ability to use "tail water," the runoff from irrigated fields.

McKenzie commented, "The ditch companies are pretty much waters of the U.S. because it goes back into the creek," he said. "The horse is out of the barn. DARCA is looking at the new regulations. Some of the regulators are good. Some will bend the rules for ditch companies. Some projects have been stopped because of rules, just because it's a rule. Sometimes someone just made it up because it sounded good."

Taylor cited trans-mountain diversions from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range, that water use in Southwest Colorado could be curtailed to make up for those diversions if there is a "call" on the Colorado River. He worries that even pre-Colorado River Compact water rights could lose out to municipal users if that happens.

A Mancos-area water user added, "The availability of water to all of us is a huge concern, if we have to compensate for what's being taken from us" with diversions.

Another concern is "public trust" initiatives that could be on the ballot in November. They could turn (water) property rights upside down, the Mancos man said.

John Wiener, who works on water and ag issues at CU Boulder, said, "Public trust is a huge mess. ... These ballot issues are very wrong. But the other is an attitude of, 'I can do anything I want.' But you can't do anything you want to me. I depend on zoning for my property values. Your ag depends on not having a toxic waste dump next door."

McKenzie and Wiener both said ag water interests need to do a better job of making everyone else aware of the "positive externalities" they provide - scenic green open space, larger riparian areas than would exist without irrigation, and groundwater recharge. These are "things the public doesn't have to pay for," McKenzie said.

One of the Colorado Water Plan themes is to find alternatives to "buy and dry" to provide water for population growth on the Front Range, where urban interests buy up ag water and take it off the land.

"Cities would rather just buy the water" than deal with more complicated alternatives, McKenzie said. "I believe the days of circling the wagons are over for ditch companies. It's better to talk to your enemy."

Wiener lamented that since the 1980s, some of the best ag land has gone out of ag use. "This is a national tragedy. It's going to bite us hard," he said.

Information web sites are www.darca.org and coloradowaterplan.org.