Who’s who in water Part 2: The Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3


VALLEY — The Colorado Division of Water Resources is the authority behind daily water administration across the state. Many are not aware that this agency has been highly instrumental in shaping how water in the San Luis Valley is distributed and utilized.

The Division of Water Resources operates under the authority of the office of the State Hydraulic Engineer, an office created by the state legislature in 1881. The office was directed by governor’s appointment and the initial duties included water rights administration, streamflow and diversion measurements, and reservoir capacity, cost and location. The office was added to the Department of Natural Resources in 1969.

The first and foremost responsibility for the Division of Water Resources is the oversight of all surface and groundwater across the state. It is the only state agency that is tasked with the direct and daily administration of water. The division is required to uphold Colorado water law which operates under what is known as the Prior Appropriation Doctrine. This means that those who were first to utilize the water are the first to have access to it during periods of shortage. In 1879, water commissioners were established in order to administer this doctrine. This made Colorado the first state that provides water administration by public officials. Currently, the major responsibilities of DWR include water administration, public safety, groundwater permitting, interstate compacts, a hydrographic program, and public information services.

The Division of Water Resources also has the authority to make recommendations in water court cases. This is an operation that occurs on a regular basis. Additionally, DWR can join the opposition in a case if there is potential for an injurious outcome and it is deemed necessary. Also, DWR can issue orders to those who refuse to comply with statutes and even take the matter to court.

There are seven divisions in DWR, divided by Colorado’s major drainage basins. Each division is under the direction of a division engineer who administers ground and surface water within the division. The San Luis Valley falls within Division 3. As of 2017, there are approximately 30 DWR employees for Division 3 including 11 water commissioners and eight districts. There are also well metering technicians and hydrographers at DWR. The Division 3 Engineer is Craig Cotten. 

During his tenure, Cotten has observed that there are reasons why Division 3 is unique. The first reason is that it is arguably the most over-appropriated of all the divisions in Colorado. Secondly, it has one of the lowest storage capacities. This means that many of the other divisions have much larger reservoirs, hence much more ability to utilize and distribute water. However, Cotten attributed many challenges that occur within the division to over- appropriation. This has resulted in the need for closer monitoring of water usage in the San Luis Valley including well meters and 60 gauging stations along all of the rivers and streams of Division 3 to ensure that the correct amounts of water are delivered where they need to go.

An important aspect of Division 3 is well rules and regulations. Due to a limited amount of highly appropriated water, DWR found the need to consider long term considerations in the San Luis Valley. Also, maximum utilization was/is needed to assure that water rights are fulfilled but not inappropriately curtailed, and to maintain the economy. The replacement of injurious depletions and maintaining a sustainable aquifer system were/are also key considerations as to why the rules now exist.  The conclusion became that less pumping is necessary, particularly for the aquifer system. Thus, the result was the drafting of the rules and their submission to the court by the State Engineer in 2015. The current rules require well owners to choose one of three options. The first option is to obtain a plan for augmentation. The second option is to participate in a groundwater management subdistrict. The third option is to cease pumping. The rules are now set to be finalized by the court in January of 2018. DWR is currently working towards resolutions with objectors.

One of the most important tasks that DWR oversees is the Rio Grande Compact. Quite simply, the Rio Grande Compact is law. Signed in 1938, it is an agreement between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Reasons for this agreement include a limited water supply and over- development of surface and groundwater resources. The compact is intended/designed to equitably apportion the waters of the Rio Grande above Ft. Quitman, Texas. This law is administered by three commissioners who are the state engineers of Colorado and New Mexico and a governor’s appointee from Texas. Colorado is required to deliver water to the New Mexico state line and New Mexico has been required to deliver to Elephant Butte Reservoir since 1949.

The other compact that Division 3 administers is the Costilla Creek Compact. This is an agreement between Colorado and New Mexico. In addition, Cotten pointed out that the Costilla Creek Compact is also the only compact where Colorado is classified as the downstream state. This agreement operates under a priority system much like the Prior Appropriation Doctrine.

“These compacts are the only ones to be administered directly from our office,” said Cotten. Yet another aspect that is unique to Division 3.

This is also a time of transition at DWR due to the retirement of State Engineer Dick Wolfe. His successor is Kevin Rein. Despite the change, Cotten expressed confidence in the laws and system that are in place and that the high standard that was set by Wolfe will continue to be upheld.

There are many tasks that the Division of Water Resources is charged with and there is a great deal that happens daily to ensure that they are all accomplished.  The Division 3 office can be reached by calling 719-589-6683 or on the web at www.dwr.state.co.us.

The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month at 623 East Fourth Street in Alamosa. For more information visit us at www.rgbrt.org

Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable. Read part 1 here.