OURAY – With the Uncompahgre River Watershed snowpack still well below average, and little hope of enough new snowfall in April to make up the deficit, the City of Ouray is once again bracing for a water call from downstream senior water rights holders this summer.
Bob Hurford, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division Engineer for District 68, which encompasses Ouray County, confirmed that his agency expects the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association to place a call on the Upper Uncompahgre River with its Montrose & Delta Canal sometime in late April.
The call would affect not only the City of Ouray but other junior upstream water users, including Tri County Water Conservancy District which controls the water in Ridgway Reservoir.
The City of Ouray may be much further upstream than the M&D Canal’s multiple users, but proximity to a watershed’s headwaters does not factor into the complicated calculus of Colorado water law. What matters is who filed and adjudicated their water rights first. As the Colorado Division of Water Resources puts it: “The essence of a water right is its place in the priority system.” And when it comes to senior water rights on the Upper Uncompahgre River, the M&D Canal is the biggest (and oldest) dog in the fight.
Last year, when the M&D Canal placed a call on junior upstream water users because sub-average snow pack and early run-off had resulted in excessively low seasonal flows, the City of Ouray scrambled to augment its junior municipal water rights in order to avoid immediate curtailment of its water supply.
This year, the city is in better shape, having recently closed on a $72,000 deal several years in the making to augment its water rights through the purchase of the Red Mountain Ditch, a historic trans-basin diversion that starts in the Animas River Watershed near the top of Red Mountain Pass and is piped into the Uncompahgre River Watershed.
The long-neglected ditch, formerly owned by a ranching couple near Colona, represents a 6 cubic feet per second water right that would otherwise flow into Mineral Creek in the Animas River Basin. Ideally, this will be enough for Ouray to keep its municipal water flowing, while still satisfying the downstream demands of senior water rights holders during a call. “It’s a pretty good flow,” Rondinelli said. “That [6 CFS] would meet the majority of what we had called on us last year.”
Actual data compiled by the CDWR going back to 1970 show that the ditch historically has a maximum average capacity of considerably less than 6 CFS, so it may not completely solve the City’s water woes, but at least it’s a start, said District 68 Water Commissioner Eric Weig.
The city closed on the ditch deal on Feb. 22. The transaction included submittal of permitting documentation to the Forest Service along with the transfer of ownership.
The city’s public works staff will begin eight weeks’ worth of work to rehabilitate the ditch (and maximize its water-carrying capacity) as soon as weather permits in the late spring.
This work will consist of repairs of the diversion site on the Mineral Creek side, about 500 feet south of Black Bear road, where improvements will be made to the head gate and weir.
“The ditch hasn’t been maintained for many years,” Rondinelli said. “There are minor blow-out spots where the bank has been eroded away. One section washed out in 2006 and will require significant repairs to the pipeline, structural beams and wing wall.”
Last year, the City of Ouray filed in water court in Durango (the headquarters of Water District 7 of which the Animas River Watershed is a part) for a change of water right on the Red Mountain Ditch from its traditional agricultural/irrigation use to municipal use. This change of right would have entitled the city to actually use the ditch water for municipal purposes.
However, “There was opposition from the south side,” for the change of use, Rondinelli said.
Adding to this complication, the prior owners of the ditch incorrectly represented that they were the 100 percent owners, but last year Ouray County disclosed that it also has a small percentage of ownership in the water right. In order to keep things simple, the city decided to withdraw its application for a change of use.
In effect, the water in the ditch, which eventually makes its way into the Uncompahgre River, will simply represent a “drip for drop,” replacing a portion of the city’s consumptive use while retaining its agricultural/irrigation designation. When it is not subject to a call, the city will actually be in the position to lease that right to downstream agricultural users on the Uncompahgre River, should it elect to do so.
For over a decade, the City of Ouray has been a black sheep in the eyes of the CDWR.
“In 2002, during a severe drought, they [the City of Ouray] were out of priority, and we sent a letter saying ‘You need to come up with an augmentation source,’” recounted Weig. “They ignored us until a couple years ago.” That’s when the city finally started the process of acquiring the Red Mountain Ditch.
Last year, after the UVWUA placed its call on Ouray’s municipal water supply, the CDWR ordered the city to submit an emergency substitute water supply plan outlining how the municipality intended to comply with the call. The one-season plan, submitted in July, included water that the City was already getting out of the Red Mountain Ditch as well as an unused water right which it leased from the M&D Canal for the season, and water that was released into the Uncompahgre River from Crystal Lake when the U.S. Forest Service drained the lake to conduct dam infrastructure repair work.
Now, the city is working on renewing that plan for the coming year. While the Red Mountain Ditch will play an important role in the city’s water rights augmentation efforts, Rondinelli said the city has “a toolkit of different options,” that are currently under negotiation.
“We wanted to outline what our strategy is; to prepare for a worst-case scenario so they are aware of what we are pursuing in the event there is a water call,” Rondinelli said.
Last year’s emergency substitute water supply plan presented a short term solution to cover the city’s out of priority depletions. Now, the city is finally making strides toward coming into compliance on a more permanent basis, Weig said.