A valley of juniors and seniors
“See that field,” he says, motioning to a stubbly horse pasture. The field in places looks like an old playground, the part under the swing set where the grass has been beaten down to hard dirt. “It didn’t get any water this year.”
McEwen is the water commissioner for the Eagle Valley, a state-appointed position, and as such he periodically inspects ditches from Camp Hale to Dotsero.
Even in this year of historically unprecedented drought, when the soil seemed to cough dust, the Eagle’s other main tributary valleys – Gore Creek, Lake Creek and Brush Creek – delivered sufficient water for all in early summer.
But Gypsum Creek is another story. Originating in a smaller basin sandwiched between Hardscrabble Mountain and Red Table Mountain, the creek never truly gushes and by August only whimpers. This year, even in spring runoff, it never rose far beyond a whimper.
A whimper is enough for the ranches that homesteaded hard along the creek in 1882. Their water rights are senior in the valley. Those ranchers use the water to irrigate alfalfa, which is dried out and fed to cattle through winter. The oldest and hence most senior water rights allow them to get two cuttings, first in July and then, after more irrigation, again in August.
Farmers with water rights filed more recently, which makes them junior, sometimes don’t get enough water for the second cutting. This year it was worse. Some land had too little water for even the first cutting of hay.
Delivering bad news
Informing ranchers and others that their water is being cut off is the part of McEwen’s job that he likes least.
“If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter,” says McEwen matter of factly as he strides through waist-high grass, a notebook in his shirt pocket for recording measurements. “But if somebody’s livelihood depends upon it, that’s not a good feeling.”
Even the Gypsum Valley has hundreds of water rights, all ranked by date of appropriation and for specified amounts, as measured by cubic feet per second.
These rights, which in Colorado are considered private property, also specify where the diversions occur. As of mid-July only those with the oldest water rights, dating to the 1880s, were still irrigating.
It’s like a cafeteria line, with all customers having an assigned order that does not change. Only after the No. 1 gets water can No. 2 get water, and so on down the line. By late August of most years, only the 40 most senior rights are being satisfied. This year, the cutoff was 35 a month earlier.
Water users on Gypsum Creek, with its history of too little, understand the sequence. If angry when told to cut off their intake, they don’t express it to McEwen.
On other creeks, the story was different. There, when owners of senior rights found they were not getting their adjudicated amounts, they “put a call” on their creek. That expression, familiar in the Old West of ranches and farmers, sounds vaguely foreign in the New West of horse pastures, kayaks, and the wildland-urban interface.
Putting a call on the creek sets in motion a ripple. It’s McEwen’s job to inform owners of junior rights upstream that they will have to cease their diversions. Many users, generally newer residents on small acreages, had never known such a decree. Reactions have varied.
“With some people it’s, “I’m going to sue you.’ Or, “I’m going to talk to your supervisor,'” says McEwen, a quietly friendly man. “A lot of times they’re more upset with the person who is doing the calling and not me.”
The notion of average
The Gypsum Valley has changed substantially since McEwen began as water commissioner in 1990. First a golf course, then boxy, pastel-colored houses and now a pair of schools have arrived. Yellow backhoes and bulldozers spewing black diesel smoke suggest much more to come as they begin the construction work at the new Chatfield Corners subdivision.
Hay bales continue to sprinkle many fields like giant brown balls of gauze, but McEwen muses that such scenes will soon disappear. Given the deals being struck, he expects to see the Gypsum Valley entirely developed for suburban living within the next decade. Kentucky bluegrass will replace alfalfa. Instead of ranchers, McEwen will be talking almost exclusively with town officials. His job will be easier, but perhaps less satisfying.
For the time being, though, McEwen and other water commissioners make their daily travels to monitor flows. Although he carries tablets thick with names, dates and water volumes, he acknowledges that this system is as much art as science. The art is borne from experience, knowing the intricate web of creeks and rivers, how much they carry, and when.
This year has been different, by some calculations the most water-short year since 1851, well before miners, ranchers and all the rest flooded into these mountains. For example, this summer’s Fourth of July creek flows were the same as those usually recorded at Halloween. And some climatologists predict continued drought.
All of this scarcity has had McEwen thinking.
“Across this whole state, there is this whole notion of what’s average, what’s normal. But it doesn’t matter in a year like this. The whole notion of average depends upon it raining and snowing.” he says. “A couple more years like this and the whole system will collapse.”