OURAY COUNTY – Irrigators and other upper Uncompahgre River water users took preliminary steps last week to form a new organization which can act as a unified voice for various Ouray County water users in local, regional and statewide water use negotiations.
Ridgway attorney Andy Mueller, a senior partner at the Tisdel Law Firm in Ouray, led the discussion, which occurred last Thursday, May 9 at the Ouray County Land Use building, with about 30 water users and other interested parties in attendance.
Mueller is a member of the Colorado River District Board of Directors representing Ouray County, and has extensive water law experience. He expressed growing concern that as water becomes ever scarcer throughout the West, Ouray County water users still do not have an organized entity through which to assert their collective interest.
This puts them at a distinct disadvantage compared to entities such as the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Tri-County Water and the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, “all of whom are very organized and very well versed in water administration and protecting their own rights and how they can best be served,” Mueller observed. “I wouldn’t suggest by any means that these folks are enemies, but just like anybody else, they are not necessarily there to look out for us. I think that’s our job as water users.”
As a case in point, Mueller pointed to the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District’s recent efforts to protect its hay growers from a potential call this summer by the UVWUA’s Montrose & Delta Canal, by pooling funds to buy a source of water rights augmentation from the Uncompahgre River. The attempt fizzled but served to underscore Ouray County water users’ current lack of organization, as they had no meaningful seat at the table during negotiations.
The UVWUA, by comparison, with its senior water rights dating back to the earliest state decrees, has some “pretty amazing operational discretion in terms of what sources it uses to feed its system,” Mueller said. Like a giant multi-pronged straw, the organization can basically call on water from all directions. It can help itself to water stored in both Ridgway Reservoir and Taylor Reservoir (between Gunnison and Crested Butte), take direct flow water out of the Gunnison River and Uncompahgre River; as well as water which has been routed to the Montrose area from the Black Canyon through the 5.8 mile Gunnison Tunnel, pretty much any time during the irrigation season.
“As you can imagine, when they pull water from one source (by means of a call), it results in a loud screaming noise,” Mueller said. Currently, however, the Upper Uncompahgre water users lack collective vocal cords with which to scream.
“We can’t even sit down at the table with these other folks in our basin until we have a seat for ourselves and that’s why this Water Users Association is a good idea,” Mueller said.
Similar entities have existed in the past. Local rancher Ralph Walchle, one of many local irrigators in attendance at last Thursday’s meeting, recalled one Ouray County ditch owners association that dated all the way back to 1888.
Mueller added a memory of a Ouray County Water Conservancy District which met its demise around the time when the Tri-County Water Conservancy District (the entity which controls most of the water in Ridgway Reservoir) came into existence.
“Times of drought create these things; then when plenty of water is available, they go away,” he said.
One of the most pressing reasons to create such an entity now is because the region is experiencing an ongoing drought of near record proportions.
“The prevailing science predicts a much drier future, with a bullseye on Ouray County as an epicenter of dryness,” Mueller warned.
Mueller and Ouray County Attorney Marti Whitmore, who also has a strong background in water law, have been discussing the problem ever since last summer’s drought caused the UVWUA to place a call with its Montrose & Delta Canal on upstream junior water rights holders starting on May 2, 2012.
The call was costly to both irrigators and municipalities. According to Mueller, irrigators in Ouray County saw a 50 percent reduction in their hay crops last summer due to the call. The City of Ouray, meanwhile, with municipal water rights that are junior to many downstream users including the M&D Canal, had to spend thousands of dollars preparing an emergency substitute water supply plan for the Colorado Division of Water Resources and purchasing extra water rights to satisfy the thirsty downstream users who had demanded the “immediate curtailment” of the City of Ouray’s water supply.
(Ridgway, which has three municipal water sources, saw its less-senior rights called out, but the town was able to get by on a senior right that is only impacted during extreme drought.)
“So far this year we have been okay, but recent meetings with the Water Division engineer indicate that another call could come out any day,” Mueller warned. “Despite the cool weather, the threat is out there that another call could hit our county.”
In light of this, Mueller proposed the immediate formation of a Ouray County Water Users Association.
The association would take the form of a nonprofit corporation whose members use water from the Upper Uncompahgre River for any number of beneficial uses that are recognized by the state constitution. The entity would be self-governed and independent of county government.
And, Mueller stressed, the organization first and foremost would respect the ownership and control of water rights as utilized within Colorado’s prior appropriation system – the “first in time, first in right” doctrine which in times of water shortage, permits a senior right to place a “call” on a stream to obtain a full supply.
“This is not an effort to subvert water appropriation,” Mueller said. “It’s more to understand it and work within that system to the benefit of the water users.”
Unlike groups such as UVWUA, the Ouray association in and of itself would not own or administer any water rights or ditches. It would act primarilly as a voice for various Ouray County water users in local, regional and statewide water use negotiations.
“There is an awful lot going on on a lot of levels that will impact our future water here in Ouray County,” Mueller warned.
The group could also focus on flushing out the “big picture” of water usage in the county, studying when and where shortages occur, and focusing on various solutions to address those shortages.
Ultimately, the association could propose the formation of a new Water Conservancy District, the formation and funding of which would need to be put to a vote in Ouray County. Such an entity would have the authority to construct and acquire upstream reservoirs for county-wide water rights augmentation purposes that could be operated for the benefit of the county’s municipalities and irrigators alike, as well as for other water users, Mueller said.
“It takes a lot of planning and a lot of money,” he said. “There are significant pools of money at the state and federal level for this kind of work and if we are organized, we can apply for and get those funds.”
A stakeholders group comprised of local ranchers Daris Jutten, Ken Lipton, Jack Flowers and Ken Orvis, and representatives from the Town of Ridgway and the City of Ouray, agreed to meet again in the near future to further explore the concept of forming a Ouray County Water Users Association. The next community-wide meeting on the topic is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, June 13 at 7 p.m. at the County Land Use building north of Ridgway.
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