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Making It Through Hard Times

By Dan MacArthur

In a good year, you can stand on the bridge just north of the town of Meeker and watch the clear cold waters of the White River gurgle downstream. Originating in the pristine high country of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, the river flows through the White River National Forest and meanders through Meeker as it makes its way west into Utah. Like many small Colorado communities, this close-knit town of 2,600 relies heavily on agriculture and recreation to support its rural economy. White River flows provide the irrigation diversions and high-quality fisheries to keep the community thriving.

In the midst of several dry years, the intensely dry summer of 2002 reduced the White River to a trickle in some stretches. Local ranchers watched hay fields turn brown as yields plummeted by a third and prices doubled to over $150 a ton. At the same time, state wildlife officials feared for the survival of the rainbow and cutthroat trout prevalent through that stretch of river, and threatened by lack of water and rising temperatures in what little water remained.

The trouble started early. As spring approached, state water officials were already sounding the alarm that unless the skies opened up, empty reservoirs were going to make this a record dry summer. The citizens of Meeker braced themselves for what was looking like a parched and dusty year.

In mid-May, things went from bad to worse when a quarter-mile section of the Miller Creek Ditch, one of the main irrigation diversion ditches in the area, collapsed — blocking the channel and creating an unstable slope prone to further landslides. Costly and complex repairs prevented the ditch from delivering water until June. Having missed the drought's half-hearted version of spring runoff, and holding water rights junior (lower in priority) to their downstream neighbors, Miller Creek Ditch irrigators were looking at the potential of little or no water available for their fields.

That's when David Smith and officers of the two other major ditch companies intervened. Meeting with water commissioner Bill Dunham, they agreed to reduce their more senior downstream diversions long enough for Miller Creek shareholders to start slaking the thirst of their failing fields.
‘None of us knew how little water there would be,’ said Smith, a third-generation rancher who serves as president of the White River Highland Ditch Company. ‘Cooperation was the main theme, and we tried to get everybody to survive,’ Smith explained while shepherding his well-worn Jeep on a whirlwind tour of the irrigation system west of town. Strong and compact, he remains surprisingly scrappy for a 72-year-old who just endured quintuple heart bypass surgery. His modest manner also disguises his encyclopedic understanding of water. Smith has been a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board for more than two decades and the Colorado River Water Conservation District Board for a dozen years.

‘The whole idea was to cut back our diversions together, and not get into a water rights fight,’ said Oak Ridge Ditch Company president Dave McGraw. He and his family ranch and raise purebred Angus and Gelbvieh cattle on 1,500 acres. ‘We were trying to get everyone to give a little bit.’

In doing so, they avoided placing a river call that would have seriously disrupted irrigation all along the river. A river call is the process whereby a senior water right holder asks the local water commissioner to find enough water to fulfill his or her decreed diversion amount by reducing or shutting down all other junior diversions.

‘When a call comes on the river, everything comes apart. It's a pretty major undertaking,’ explained McGraw. ‘We did it (reduced diversions) by mutual agreement and kept the call off for a month.’

‘We just all got together and shared the water without any hard feelings,’ said Miller Creek Ditch Company president Don Hilkey. ‘It was just out of the goodness of their hearts that they (the other ditch companies) helped.’

Although some fields were still badly burned, ‘Most of these guys got irrigated before it got real touchy,’ explained Rio Blanco County Commissioner Forest Nelson, who is also a paint horse breeder and president of the Old Agency Ditch Company. His is one of the oldest ditches with the most senior water rights in the valley dating from the creation of the original White River Ute Indian Agency in the late 1870s.

As the summer progressed with high temperatures and no rain, the White River was slowly drying up. Nelson estimated two to three miles of the White River below the ditch diversions were on the verge of going dry. Flows plummeted to 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) from a 100 cfs average.
Under such extreme conditions, the area's normally healthy trout population was struggling to survive. Nelson leases part of his property to the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) for public fishing access; he and others in the community benefit from the revenue anglers and other recreationists introduce into the local economy.

‘There was basically no water,’ recalled McGraw, a former school board member who still coaches high school football and basketball. ‘We could see the fish dying.’

The shallow water had dangerously warmed to nearly 70 degrees, well above the 50-55 degrees trout need to flourish. Dan Prenzlow, area wildlife manager for the Division of Wildlife, said it became obvious the fish would die unless there was some way of getting more water into the river.

One possible solution involved release of reservoir water owned by the DOW and stored 10 miles upstream in Lake Avery, which borders the White River National Forest. But the problem was getting it down to the fish.

That's because under Colorado water law, in times of shortage, senior water right holders can divert water before their juniors. Simply put, the local ditch companies with their more senior rights could have legally slurped up the water intended for the fish before it ever reached the threatened trout.

The Division could have attempted legal action, but Prenzlow knew the fish would be dead before the process was complete — if it was even successful. Instead he chose the bold move of asking the ranchers to help the fish by allowing water to flow past their headgates — the same water they so badly needed to keep their operations productive.

Prenzlow first ran the idea by Smith. When Smith expressed his support, they called a meeting with the water commissioner and other ditch company officers to see if they'd agree. ‘To a man, they said 'It's your water, we'll let it pass,'’ said Prenzlow.

Getting the water to the failing fish was perhaps the community's greatest test at collaboration. White River flows had to be carefully monitored to assure the ditch companies were getting every available drop while still assuring the fish were getting sufficient water. ‘We worked very hard to get the water down the creek where it could be used,’ said Smith.

That's an understatement. An electric blue glow illuminated Smith's home every day before daybreak as he monitored stream gauge readings on his computer. Gathered by satellite and posted on a government web site by 4 a.m., the numbers showed how much water was flowing down the White River.

Within an hour he was calling his colleagues to determine how to divide the water between the ditch companies and the fish. The ditch companies in turn contacted their irrigators with the information needed to set their diversions.

Coordinating the whole effort was probably the most difficult and important part, according to McGraw. He and the others made countless phone calls each day letting irrigators know how much water was in the river so they could adjust their headgates accordingly. Those beyond the reach of a phone often were intercepted on the road or out in the field. While it was tough maintaining contact with so many folks, McGraw considered it essential that all understood what was happening.

‘They worked pretty diligently and that water did get down the river. It worked wonderfully,’ said Prenzlow. ‘Dave Smith and all those guys were extremely helpful. I can't stress it enough.’

The increased flows continued for three weeks from mid-July to early August, when the river recovered enough to once again support the fish.

‘Any one of those ditches could have intercepted that water and this whole effort would have been for naught,’ said Smith. ‘But if you get them together and agree to do it, their word is good.’

Smith believes people were so willing in part because of the exceptional sense of cooperation already established while assisting the Miller Creek irrigators. ‘Ranchers are probably the best ecologists alive. They wanted to see those fish survive.’

Reaching the agreement was no small feat in this community where water is serious business. ‘When it comes to water, there's no more hard-nosed people than in this country,’ said Smith. Nelson agreed, noting that, ‘When you take somebody's water, you're taking money out of their pocket.’

How people deal with controversy and hardship says a lot about their attitudes toward community and their place in it. Choosing common sense over legal fights, Meeker residents managed to look beyond the confines of the state's strict water allocation system, to put together short-term solutions benefiting the whole. ‘Agriculture always puts things together with baling wire,’ said Smith. That same innovative spirit allowed diverse interests to cobble together a solution that worked to help both fish and ranchers.

Acknowledging these time-tested values of ingenuity and integrity served the Meeker community well during the drought of 2002, proving once again that even under the most adverse conditions, solutions don't always come in legal packages or inch-thick reports.

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