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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.

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Water Education Colorado

The Dolores Project and Water for Everyone

Abundant snows making Telluride a ski mecca, melt into the headwaters of the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers and begin their westward journey. Yet once these waters reach the lower mesas and rolling hills of the Colorado Plateau, they are quickly in short supply.

It is said that in 1776 while blazing a trail from Santa Fe to California, Spanish Fathers Dominguez and Escalante saw promise in this arid region when they camped at what is known today as the Escalante Ruins, a village abandoned by ancestral Puebloan people three miles west of the present-day Town of Dolores. Standing atop this slight divide separating the Dolores and San Juan river basins, it is believed that the two priests were the first to envision the area's prospects for irrigated agriculture if the waters of the Rio de Nuestra Senora de Dolores, or the River of Our Lady of Sorrows, could be diverted into the Montezuma Valley. Many years after, their vision would take shape in the form of a major transbasin diversion, and later the Dolores Project.

In the mid-1880s, private developers wasted no time constructing two transbasin diversions, a tunnel and canal to bring water from the Dolores River into the Montezuma Valley. But by 1920, these private ditch companies were bankrupt and their systems in disrepair. The following year, the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company (MVIC) was formed to continue to operate and maintain the ditches that supply some 33,000 acres of farmland surrounding the Town of Cortez.

Transbasin diversion water allowed agriculture to function as the center of the economy in the so-called ‘Montelores’ (Montezuma/Dolores) area. Yet without a place to store the water rushing out of the San Juan mountains in the spring, irrigators often ran out of water late in the year, local municipalities had limited water supply options for future growth, and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe had no way of providing water to their reservation.

On the advice of Congressman Wayne Aspinall, Cortez Bootstraps, the area's economic development council, formed the Dolores Water Conservancy District in November of 1961. By 1968, the District had successfully obtained federal authorization for the Dolores Project under the Colorado River Storage Project Act. The project—centered on construction of McPhee dam and reservoir—was proposed in part to resolve Indian water right claims, to supplement existing irrigation systems, open new lands to cultivation, provide drinking water, and increase instream flows for fish and wildlife in the lower Dolores River.

Project construction started in 1980, and water was delivered to the town of Cortez and the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company six years later. Additional deliveries to 280 non-Indian customers with previously unirrigated lands in what is known as the ‘full-service’ area northwest of Cortez, were fully available by 1996. The Ute Mountain Utes received domestic water from the project in 1990, and took over their full share of agricultural irrigation water in 1999.

As the most recently completed federally-funded water storage and development project in Colorado, the Dolores Project is also one of the most efficient. All irrigation water provided to its full-service area is metered through pressurized pipelines and applied by sprinklers. Individual meters allow irrigators to pay only for what they use—a strong incentive for conservation that breaks the efficiency-defeating attitude, ‘I paid for it and I'm going to use it.’

Without the evaporation and seepage losses associated with open canals, ‘Our delivery system is as much as 96 percent efficient,’ notes Philip Saletta, Dolores Conservancy District general manager. And although it costs considerably more to deliver water by pressurized pipeline than ditch, Saletta says that when coupled with high-efficiency sprinkler irrigation systems, farmers can still come out ahead financially and save water.

Still, charged with management of a project that serves diverse and sometime divergent water needs, the district cannot afford to sit on its laurels.

According to Don Schwindt, president of the conservancy's board of directors, one of the district's main challenges in coming years will be to balance desires to expand irrigated acreage, with desires to allocate more water for fish and wildlife habitat in the lower Dolores River. Long-terms plans have taken shape in what they call the ‘Water for Everyone Tomorrow Package’ or WETPACK.

John Porter, former manager of the district for 22 years and still a consultant, said he coined the catchy acronym partly in jest. ‘You never get enough water for everyone,’ Porter acknowledges with a laugh.

Unlike many other areas of the state and nation, where farmers are selling their water to the highest bidder, Porter says Montezuma irrigators are actually looking for more water to expand their operations. To support this economic development, this fall, the first phase of WETPACK will begin installation of the pipes and pumps necessary to deliver water to approximately 3,000 previously unirrigated acres. To accomplish this, 6,000 acre-feet of water was recently purchased from the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company. It was a popular move. Owners of more than 13,000 acres, Porter notes, expressed interest in the first phase of WETPACK. ‘That is a phenomenal testament to the success of the Dolores Project and the benefit that transbasin diversion of water means to the economy of the area,’ he says.

‘That's one of the stories of the Dolores Project that's so important,’ agrees Schwindt, a Stanford-educated farmer who grows alfalfa near his native Cortez. According to Schwindt, this project has kept water in agriculture, opened up new lands for cultivation, and substantially boosted the economy of this remote rural area.

But what about the fish? After the first transbasin diversion from the Dolores River more than 100 years ago, few fish survived in what little water the river had left, especially in late summer. ‘From the time of the first diversion in 1886, the Dolores was a dry, dead river below that diversion during irrigation season,’ acknowledges Porter.

Yet when cold water was first released from McPhee Dam in the mid-1980s, the Dolores quickly began to develop a reputation as one of the West's finest tailwater fisheries, featuring good-sized brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. However, a decade later, full use of the reservoir and prolonged drought dropped river flows drastically and downstream fisheries declined by more than 50 percent. In 2002-2003, the reservoir was releasing only 14 cubic feet per second at certain critical times of the year—barely a trickle.

In an effort to regain the fisheries, initial re-operation of the reservoir allowed for lower winter flows in exchange for larger releases for instream flows in the summer months. But concern continues that additional water is needed to guard against dry years and maintain the health of the ecosystem.

To help address this concern, in its second phase WETPACK in looking at the potential to provide an additional 3,300 acre-feet, increasing the amount of water available for fish and wildlife from 29,200 to 36,500 acre-feet. To provide the additional water, a new reservoir call Plateau Creek has been proposed. As part of this planning, the district is also participating in a stakeholder discussion group known as the Dolores Dialog.

In Colorado today, the Dolores Project is a high-tech leader in efficient agricultural water deliveries, also incorporating service to local municipalities, fisheries, and the tribes. By making the most efficient and best use if its water, Schwindt is convinced that in future years the conservancy district will continue to be a pioneer in reconciling competing water uses that contribute to both the region's economy and quality of life. And the results may provide a prototype for how other water storage projects must function in the future. ‘It's the first of what the West needs to do in the future,’ he insists.

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