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Kevin Moloney

Shoshone hydropower plant has the most senior, large-volume water right on the Colorado mainstem. The bonus for other users is that the water returns to the river after producing electricity.

level of trust has been built up, creating a highly functional group that I think manages the river pretty darned well.” Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine of prior appropriation still provides the basic bones for administration. By that system, the oldest water right in the Colorado River Basin was in French Gulch, near Breckenridge, dated 1860—for goldmining purposes, although now abandoned. Now the oldest water right is on Maryland Creek, north of Silverthorne, a decree for 5 cubic feet per second for meadow irrigation. It has a seniority of July 1, 1869. Not that it matters all that much. There aren’t any upstream users on Maryland Creek. In fact, it’s a measure of how water-rich the Blue River Valley is that no full-time water commissioner was assigned there until 1990. The single most important water right in understanding management of the Colorado River, however, is far from the oldest. It belongs to the Shoshone hydroelectric plant in Glenwood Canyon. Driving through the canyon since the completion of Interstate 70, it’s easy to miss the pumpkin pie-colored buildings now located below road grade. Water people don’t. They understand the influence of the water rights there, which affect the distribution of water both east to Denver and west to Fruita. Owned by Xcel Energy, Shoshone’s 1902 water right is for 1,250 cubic feet per second, enough to suck the river nearly dry for about three miles during the winter, making a substantial dent even in summer. When Shoshone is running, it creates certainty for river users. Those with upstream water rights more recent than 1902—which includes most transmountain and other diversions of any size— cannot remove or hold back water from the river if Shoshone has not received its full share. For downstream users, regardless of seniority, the water that returns to the river after being used to produce electricity is guaranteed to be coming their way. Any interruption of Shoshone’s call for water is an upset of the apple cart. It is so unsettling to all users that they have at times agreed to a protocol that assumes the Shoshone call is “on” even if the plant experiences an outage.

Cooperating to sustain adequate flows The crux of the weekly conversation is about flows farther downstream and the effect upon endangered fish. Three major ditches withdraw water from the lower Colorado River upstream of the critical 15-Mile Reach for the fish. Often these diversions are collectively referred to as the Cameo call, after a former coal mining community located nearby. Together, they draw about 80 percent 14

of the river’s flow there to irrigate 70,000 acres of peaches, pears and corn, but also alfalfa, winter wheat and exurban lawns, and in recent years, vineyards. Representatives of the irrigators, working out of Palisade and the Grand Junction area, are wont to remind those on the Phone Call that it’s hot and dry in their valley. The Grand Valley water infrastructure begins in DeBeque Canyon, 23 miles northeast of Grand Junction. There, the picturesque roller dam, marked by sentinels with fire truck-red tiles, raises the water level, prodding water into the Government Highline Canal. This large ditch, part of the Grand Valley Project, was created in a partnership between Reclamation and a local nonprofit now called the Grand Valley Water Users Association. It began delivering water to farms in 1917 and now creates greenery to within five miles of the Utah border, 55 miles away. Before the river flushes out of the canyon, a portion of water from the Government Highline Canal is diverted to a pipeline that burrows under the Colorado River and Interstate 70, delivering water to another canal on the opposite canyon wall. From the highway, it looks like a retaining wall. It carries the water used to irrigate the orchards and vineyards of Orchard Mesa. In Palisade, the Grand Valley Irrigation Company headgate draws more water, as it has since 1884, for distribution to Grand Junction and beyond. Like Shoshone, the Cameo water rights are for large volumes and with seniority, the oldest dating to 1884 and another with a priority date of 1914. Altogether, these ditches draw up to 2,260 cfs from the Colorado River. At times, such as in late September, that’s enough to completely drain the river, which is at the heart of this need for steady, intense oversight. If it weren’t for cooperative management, the federal Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, would have sweeping consequences for the Colorado River. This powerful but indelicate tool would have been triggered each time a federal action, for everything from a permit to an annual operating plan, was needed for a new or existing water project on the river or its tributaries, potentially resulting in the reallocation of water to provide flows for endangered fish. Under an agreement struck in 1988, however, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program provides an umbrella of mitigation for water projects’ impacts on the fish, in part by obtaining flows through cooperative agreements. So far, 443 water projects in the mainstem basin have benefitted from the program. The quid pro quo is that the fish get the water they need. Part of this is the result of greater efficiency wrung from the delivery of irrigation waters in the Grand Valley. Before, some unused water from the 150 miles of canals there returned to the Colorado River—but below the critical 15-Mile Reach—in what is called an “administrative spill.” Through both physical improvements financed by the recovery program and more savvy management, the Grand Valley Project reduced diversions from the Colorado River. The savings have been substantial, reports Brent R. Uilenberg from Reclamation’s office in Grand Junction. Before 2002, the project’s irrigators diverted 285,217 acre feet annually. Since then, they draw 240,000 acre feet annually, leaving more water in the river for the fish. “It has been quite a balancing act—and still is,” explains Tom Pitts, the principal of Water Consult, of Loveland. As a representative of water users, he helped structure the recovery program. “We have changed the paradigm from conflict to cooperation, because it’s in the best interests of all parties, including the U.S. government, to do so. Water users are protected, federal projects can continue to provide water, and the endangered fish are recovering.” And, he adds, all this is accomplished within the context of the federal law, interstate compacts and Colorado water law. By working together, Colorado has avoided the teeth-gnashing, bruised feelings and litigation-swamped situations found on the Klamath

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Headwaters Summer 2011: The Mighty Colorado  

As the Colorado River flows through its seven-state, canyon carving traverse, it is tapped and retapped-- supporting acres of irrigated agri...

Headwaters Summer 2011: The Mighty Colorado  

As the Colorado River flows through its seven-state, canyon carving traverse, it is tapped and retapped-- supporting acres of irrigated agri...

Profile for cfwe