Colorado Water Trust working to marry instream flow protection and ranch production on Little Cimarron River

Colorado fall colors 10-13-11
The San Juan Mountains backstop this valley, home of the Little Cimarron River, to the south.

By Zach Smith

When standing on the ranch, you can’t quite see the river. If it’s a good autumn, the snowy peaks of the San Juan Mountains within the Uncompahgre Wilderness Area backstop the narrow valley to the south, and the tops of the turning cottonwoods peek out of a ravine to the west. Just standing there among the cow pies you’d suspect, and be correct, that the river nearby but just out of sight is renewed by those melting snows each spring. The cottonwoods betray the river’s path below the ranch.

During most springs, runoff on the Little Cimarron River that meanders through those cottonwoods fills each water right’s claim to its flows to the brim and then some. Water taken out at the McKinley Ditch headgate upstream winds along the steep slopes and eventually to this tableland, where acres irrigated since federal government patent and first appropriation in 1886 produce hay and cattle. Back at the river, water flows down the Little Cimarron to the Cimarron and eventually to the Gunnison River, upstream of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and then, finally, to the Colorado River.

As the summer turns to fall, though, the Little Cimarron can often run dry for more than a mile as the mountains stop producing water and diversions from the river lap the very last drops from the stream. Fish, both upstream and down, lose passage or get trapped in pools in the middle.

The challenge is figuring out how to keep the cow pies fresh and the fish wet, the fields green and the rivers blue. Colorado is asking broad iterations of this question all over the state, boiled down to something short with no uniform answer: How can we get the most out of every drop of Colorado’s water?

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This 214-acre ranch in the Gunnison Country, after being offered for purchase in 35-acre lots and eventually being lost to Montrose Bank, was eventually purchased, intact and from the bank, by Western Rivers Conservancy in partnership with the Colorado Water Trust. With Western Rivers specializing in conservation purchases of riparian lands in the West, and the Trust working to restore and protect flows using voluntary, market-based tools in Colorado, the project constitutes an ideal land and water conservation partnership. Included with the ranch purchase was more than 18 percent of the water decreed to the McKinley Ditch. Western Rivers sold those water rights, some very senior, to the Trust.

Shepardson property (m) 10-13-11
Western Rivers Conservancy bought this 214-acre ranch, then sold the attached water rights to the Colorado Water Trust. Under the arrangement the Trust is currently developing, the water rights will still be used to irrigate the ranch property but will also boost streamflows during dry parts of the year.

Now, with Western Rivers Conservancy and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Trust is using those water rights to build the first permanent agriculture and instream flow sharing agreement in Colorado. If successful, irrigation will occur on the ranch in most years until July or August, when the water use will switch to instream flow use by the CWCB. In Colorado, instream flows are the exclusive province of the CWCB, a state agency within the Department of Natural Resources.

In the driest of years, all the water may stay in the river for the duration of the season. In the biggest snow years, it may irrigate all season long. At the Gunnison, where flows are managed by releases from the Aspinall Unit’s Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs, upstream of the Black Canyon, the Trust plans to re-market the water to a third, downstream use.

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Instream flow projects of any kind do not happen in a vacuum. To add water to a river long-term, even under a shared contract as with this project, requires a two-meeting process with the CWCB’s board of directors. In September 2014, that board approved and agreed to pay for the inclusion of this water into its instream flow program under the sharing terms. The project then requires approval from Colorado’s water court system—an adversarial process designed to protect other water users from injury resulting from a new or changed water use. The Trust entered this process in 2014. There are also infrastructure challenges, such as measurement and delivery of flows. Additionally, the Trust is just one shareholder now among several. This year, for example, the ditch blew out and we paid our share of the repair cost like everyone else.

Little Cimmarron 10-6-11
A healthy section of the Little Cimarron River

The ecological benefits to the project are sizable, and will nearly connect two existing instream flows together. One stretches from just upstream of the McKinley headgate 16 miles up to the Little Cimarron’s headwaters—a reach managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as Wild Trout Water. The other protects flows on the Cimarron River from its confluence with the Little Cimarron to the Gunnison River. These environmental protections were secured in 1984, 101 years after the first pioneer diverted water from the Little Cimarron.

Little Cimarron reach downstream of the McKinley Ditch intake structure
A dry reach of the Little Cimarron downstream of the McKinley Ditch intake structure

When used in-stream, the project’s water will add several cubic feet per second of flow to the driest reaches, but benefits will accrue to almost ten miles of river. As part of building the most complete project possible, the Trust has studied flows, fish and bugs in the river for two years to gain a good picture of the baseline conditions. When the project is implemented, we can track how those populations respond. This tracking is part of a formal Stewardship Program attached to all projects the Trust completes.

But even with all the effort put in already, there are still many unanswered questions, particularly about how the yearly operation of the project and ranch will work. We can’t truly answer that question until we have the legal right to use the water for both instream flow and irrigation. As we move forward, we will try to build enough flexibility into each step so that by the end we can manage the project according to what works, rather than what we told ourselves would work.

At that September 2014 CWCB board meeting, one board member told the Trust, “It takes gumption to irrigate.” We believe him whole-heartedly. And most importantly, we’re learning, sharing water in Colorado will require it, too.

Zach Smith has been the staff attorney at the Colorado Water Trust since 2010. After college, he did a stint as a reporter in the newspaper business, writing for such publications as High Country News and the Santa Fe Reporter. A Denver native, Zach graduated from University of Denver Sturm College of Law where he focused on environmental and water law. During school, he interned with Denver Water and the Natural Resources and Environment Section of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.  After graduation, Zach worked briefly as a water policy analyst for a San Diego City Council member before coming back to Denver to work at the Trust. He is a 2013 Colorado Foundation for Water Education Water Leader Alum and Vice President of the Colorado Watershed Assembly.

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