Text Size

Site Search

Public Lands

HW Winter2018 FINAL2cover

Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

connectingdropslogo4.1Bringing you the reporting you crave over the radio airways with extras and archives on our website. Visit the audio archives or listen to the latest story on the connection between Colorado's forests, watersheds, and forest fires:

IMG 20180402 101801web

Water Education Colorado

Southwest Basin Roundtable

By Jayla Poppleton


In Colorado's southwest, beyond the rugged San Juans, the mountains give way to canyons and arroyos, and elevations drop low enough that the Ute Mountain Ute tribe can grow corn south of Cortez, or farmers can raise pinto beans and sunflowers in Dove Creek. From a 10,000 square-mile area comprised of three major river basins -- the San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel -- the Southwest Basin Roundtable brings together a diverse group.

The roundtable joins not only those major river basins, but also seven or eight sub-basins whose rivers leave the state in different directions. The Dolores and San Miguel flow west to Utah. The San Juan, Mancos, Piedra, Los Pinos, Animas and La Plata flow south to New Mexico. The sub-basins are woven together by numerous transbasin diversions that supplement the region's biggest water uses, which are agricultural -- mostly ranching and hay farming with some recent diversification to organic vegetable farms.

Though geographically removed from the rest of the state, the region is attracting retirees and second-home owners as well as rafters, fishermen and other outdoorsy types. Many of the southwest's rivers are rafted, including a substantial industry on the Dolores, Animas, Piedra and San Miguel rivers.

The shifting influence of recreation and tourism on the historically agriculturally-predominant economy is one of the bigger challenges facing the basin; the jump in municipal demand is another. Water is available in most of the Southwest's basins and sub-basins, though sufficient infrastructure to deliver it to increasingly municipal users is not. Many of the applications the roundtable has received for Water Supply Reserve Account funds are for projects to address that void.

Pagosa Springs, at the foot of Wolf Creek Pass, is the only incorporated town in Archuleta County. Between 1990 and 2000, Pagosa nearly doubled in size from roughly 5,000 to 10,000 people. ‘It's really pretty country,’ says Mike Preston, the roundtable's chair, about Pagosa. It sits at roughly 7,000 feet, and borders the nation's largest contiguous wilderness area, the Weminuche.

To assist the town in accommodating its growing population, the roundtable approved two $1 million WSRA grants — one for development of additional water storage in Pagosa and another for the formation of a new water district for La Plata and Archuleta Counties that will work to fund, source and deliver water for domestic uses, says Preston, who is also general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

According to John Porter, president of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, some people from Pagosa requested the grant for the reservoir be denied, believing the project would encourage more growth. But the roundtable approved the grants anyway. ‘The majority of our roundtable's agenda is not to stop development but to help entities who need more water plan for it,’ says Porter, who is also a representative to the Interbasin Compact Committee.

Many of the other projects that have come before the roundtable for WSRA funds are an attempt to address municipal demands without diminishing water available for agriculture. Preston says it had gotten to the point where people were going to be buying up blocks of agricultural water and converting it. ‘It's a highly debated issue,’ he says. ‘Some folks feel being able to provide an increment of municipal water is a good idea. It could create a revenue source to support ongoing operations and maintenance for some of these aging systems. Others in ag think it's risky — the beginning of a conversion that's going to affect them in the long-term.’

The roundtable also recommended approval of $1 million from the state's WSRA account to construct an outlet works from the Animas-La Plata Project's Ridges Basin Reservoir. The Animas La-Plata, which has been in the works since the 1960s, was downsized twice. ‘What was built is the ultra-mini version,’ says Porter.

Agricultural water from the project was dropped, including water for the La Plata River Basin, which desperately needs it. The La Plata, whose irrigators only get about 20 days of water a season, is over-appropriated. In addition, half of any given day's flow as measured in Hesperus, 40 river miles north of the state line, must cross into New Mexico. The project's outlet works, pumping structure, and distribution system to get the water to the La Plata Basin could cost as much as $96 million, says Porter.

The roundtable would like to see additional projects to benefit agriculture and non-consumptive uses. Recently, it approved its first grant for a non-consumptive use project: restoring the Rio Blanco. A tributary of the San Juan, the Rio Blanco's flows have been depleted by an old diversion to the Rio Grande River — up to 110,000 acre feet per year to benefit New Mexico. The project will work to improve habitat for fish.

Over in the Dolores River Basin, a group called the Dolores River Dialogue has waged a campaign for the past five years to restore the river's integrity and protect native fish. The group seeks opportunities to improve management of McPhee Reservoir, which largely regulates the river. The science coordinator for the group is Jim Siscoe, an at-large member of the roundtable and manager of Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company.

Siscoe, who is also the tech-advisor to the roundtable's non-consumptive needs subcommittee, believes protecting native fish throughout the region and providing water for the rafting industry will be the two biggest demands for maintaining adequate instream flows. But, for its non-consumptive needs assessment, the roundtable wants to be sure it has the full picture; in February it headed into the community to solicit input.

In Pagosa Springs, Cortez, Durango and Telluride, they put maps on the wall and invited people to mark areas they use. ‘What do you use it for? Why is it important to you? That's what we went to find out,’ says Chuck Wanner, the roundtable's environmental representative, formerly with the San Juan Citizen's Alliance.

Siscoe says quantifying the data is the most pressing issue. ‘We need to find out what are the actual drops of water we need and when, which is debatable. Then add temperature to the mix, and it's very complicated.’

Not to mention, the data gap is tremendous. ‘There is no substantial preliminary work done on quantification. You don't have a formula to know off the top of your head what you need to sustain a certain fish population,’ explains Wanner.

Siscoe is working to bring the separate data sets for consumptive and non-consumptive needs together. The roundtable feels it should do what it can to align projects that have benefits for both. ‘We're looking at areas where you could address needs of communities and benefit recreation and the environment as well,’ says Preston. ‘It will be a better bang for the buck, and for everyone's time.’

Though Siscoe believes some of the conflicts between consumptive and non-consumptive uses are perceived rather than real, he is convinced their resolution will require continuing to bring local communities together. ‘The roundtable process, in the end, will be the key solution to solving a lot of these problems. I absolutely believe that,’ he says.

It has also been a way for the Southwest roundtable to dialogue with the other West Slope roundtables, who they've met with annually, about issues that may affect them all — like the Colorado River Compact. All of the basins' rivers are part of the Upper Colorado River system and are governed by that compact.

The San Juan River's management is already complicated by the compact. The river serves New Mexico as the sole source of its apportionment under the agreement. The region's distance from the Front Range makes diversions across the divide unlikely, but the roundtable says New Mexico is its transbasin diverter. ‘We pay as much attention to the state of New Mexico as the Colorado Basin Roundtable would pay to Denver,’ says Porter.

‘We're constantly trying to protect our ability to use the water so New Mexico doesn't tie it all up,’ agrees Steve Harris, engineering consultant and IBCC representative for the roundtable.

In addition, the San Juan River must be managed to provide for endangered fish under the San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program. ‘It's always an issue of how much water is left for the fish versus for Colorado and New Mexico to develop for their own uses,’ says Harris. ‘Our uses are pretty small, but we want to make sure the opportunity is there for those uses to develop their water in the future.’

As for staying on top of other issues that could affect them down the road, Preston says being tied to the larger IBCC effort gives them a way to understand what they should be looking at and how larger trends affecting basins statewide could impact them.

‘There's plenty to chew on,’ he says.








Social Media

Stay in touch and connect through:

FB-fLogo-Blue-broadcast-2 Twitter Logo White On Blue instagram    

Sign Up for our e-newsletter

learn more3learn more

 And view the latest issue of Headwaters Pulse, Water Education Colorado's monthly e-newsletter, here.


Click the icons below for videos about climate change, ranching and more; or audio from Water Education Colorado's Connecting the Drops radio series.

filmicon   headphonesicon

1750 Humboldt Street, Suite 200
Denver, CO 80218