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Rabbitbrush Rambler: Who manages our water? Part I

Posted: Tuesday, May 7th, 2013




With my appreciation of the leaders of our water community, I am going to attempt to write about who manages water resources of the state and of San Luis Valley, a subject about which I myself know too little and want to know more, but the subject is both too broad and too intricate for me to delve very deeply.

I shall not attempt to include federal agencies other than the Bureau of Reclamation, nor most of the federal legislation and environmental organizations. Sources of information about Colorado’s water are numerous websites, publications by the League of Women Voters and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, the book “Water: Colorado’s Real Gold” by Stenzel and Cech, and many individuals in the San Luis Valley.

In the 1860s the legislative branch of the Territory of Colorado had already made provisions about water use in the relatively small ditches by appropriation. The first ones created in the early 1850s were soon followed in the 1860s and 1870s by ditches that diverted water from the main stem of the Rio Grande River itself. In 1876 the constitution of the State of Colorado established appropriation of water rights in the order of priority, the doctrine of prior appropriation, and by the 1880s Colorado was making considerable headway in organizing the state government. The filing of ditch rights began in 1881.

In 1881, the Judicial Branch of the State of Colorado was granted final authority over priority, amount, location, and use of water rights. The judicial branch of Colorado’s government still has the authority over water matters relating to water, from district courts up to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Much later, in 1969, seven judicial districts would be established, overlapping with the seven major river basins of Colorado. The Colorado Twelfth Judicial District is in the Third Water District, the same geographical area as the San Luis Valley. Besides being a water court, the district court deals with many other types of cases, of course, so district judges get assistance of water referees, attorneys who examine cases related to water and make recommendation to the district judge. In Colorado Judicial District 3, District Judge Pattie M. Swift is the water judge.

Since 1881 also, the state has had an Office of the Water Engineer, our Colorado water pooh bah. Beginning as a one-man office, it was responsible for such activities as records of surface and ground water rights, decrees, stream flow and water use, and dam safety. The state engineer also serves as Colorado’s commissioner on the Rio Grande Compact Commission. The Division of Water Resources (DWR) is currently headed by Director Dick Wolfe.

Division 3 of the Division of Water Resources (DWR) was established in 1969, whereby the state designated seven divisions, one for each of Colorado’s major water basins. Division 3 occupies the San Luis Valley, the drainage of the Rio Grande River in Colorado and the same geographical area that is served by the judicial District Court, District 3.

In the DWR’s Division 3, Rio Grande Basin Division, the division engineer is Craig Cotten, with his office at 301 Mullins, Alamosa. He oversees monitoring stream flow, water use, well permits, ditch repair, and dam repair, and files reports with the Denver office. Local water commissioners’ offices are located at present at Monte Vista (District 20), Antonito (22), and Saguache (25, 26, 27). Water commissioners measure stream flows at gaging stations, coordinate calls for users with senior and junior rights, and send reports to the division engineer. Ditch riders are hired by ditch companies to maintain ditches and headgates, open headgates, and other on-the-ground jobs, some of which may get touchy.

Municipalities must comply with DWR regulations, water quality policies of the Colorado Water Quality Commission, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, the Colorado Water and Wastewater Facility Operators Board Certification, and the local code of ordinances, and federal laws. In a large town such as the City of Alamosa, the contact is the Director of Public Works, whereas smaller towns may have a water and sewer department. Residents of rural areas and small villages use domestic wells.

Not until 1957 and 1965 was legislation passed regarding wells, ground water, and augmentation. Permits for ground water wells were then required and are administered by DWR. Statutes also were passed that included tributary water in wells that were affecting surface water rights. Since 1972, DWR has administered domestic well permits on property of less than 35 acres. Restrictions on permits may differ from one county to another, but they still must comply with DWR’s state regulations.

Over all, then, administration of the Colorado Division of Water Resources (DWR) for the entire, diverse state is a large responsibility. And this is just one division within the present Colorado Department of Natural Resources (CDNR), where some other divisions are also related to water. Mike King is director of CDNR.












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