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Growing towns deal with changing water supply needs

Allen Best
Daily file photoThe Brush Creek Valley, south of Eagle, is just part of a 977-square-mile territory in which water users, such as ranchers, are monitored by Eagle River Water Commissioner Bill McEwan. The entire Eagle River drainage produces a flow of 415,000 acre-feet, or about what 1.6 million people use in a year, he says, but only a portion of that flow is used in Eagle County.
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Indeed, that’s likely to be the major story in Colorado during future years.

At Gypsum, town officials were lackadaisical about getting water rights 20 to 30 years ago when annexing land, hence agreeing to deliver water service. When annexing land during the 1990s, though, they have aggressively demanded the water rights to the land – and then demanded some more.

The “some more” was for drought years.

Now, with that drought year arrived and 4,000 residents to serve, Gypsum has held up this summer. Voluntary restrictions dampened demand enough to keep storage tanks full even during the hottest weeks of July. A slowed building pace has also helped.

“Whether our actions can sustain us for another two or three or four years in summers like this, that’s questionable,” says Jeff Shroll, town manager.

With the town’s population expected to at least double in the next 25 years, town officials have been examining their options.

One short-term option is to lease agricultural water. Gypsum has leased water from the Albertson Ranch, which has the most senior right in the Gypsum Valley, to ensure the town survives October, the driest month. That’s the sort of arrangement environmentalists say cities elsewhere in Colorado should be examining as a way to shore up drought-year supplies.

Longer-term, officials say they are thinking about more storage. They have a water tank now, and they are are negotiating to buy a private reservoir at the headwaters of Gypsum Creek. They have also filed applications with the Forest Service to build new reservoirs within the recommended Gypsum Creek-Red Table Wilderness Area of the national forest. In addition, the town may get rights to the Albertson Ranch water if the land is annexed for a golf course and housing development.

Eagle is similar, but it appears to be more steeled against drought. It also has a population of 4,000, projected to double or triple within 25 years.

The town has studiously acquired senior water rights when annexing adjacent parcels, such as the Eagle Ranch subdivision. Many of those ranches were homesteaded in the 1880s, giving them senior water rights for Brush Creek, even older than the 1902 decree for the Shoshone power plant in Glenwood Canyon.

Because of lawns, demands for municipal water peaks in summer, similar to when those subdivisions were hay meadows. However, after subtracting streets and houses from the land mass, there’s less to irrigate. In-house domestic use, such as for dishwashers and showers, is much smaller than outdoor use.

“With the Eagle Ranch development, I think there will be less water used out of the creek than there used to be – at least during the summer irrigation season,” says Bill McEwen, Eagle County’s water commissioner.

Elsewhere in Colorado, municipalities are buying farms and ranches distant from where the subdivisions are going. In a small and localized version, Breckenridge did this in the 1980s when it purchased a ranch near Ute Pass, about 20 miles north of the town, getting water rights that are among the most senior in Summit County – and senior to the 1902 call of the Shoshone power plant.

When cities buy farms, they must go to water court. Water rights are not only ranked by amounts and dates of allocation, but also by what kind of use – agricultural, industiral, municipal, or in-stream. When the use is changed, the owner must prove that other users will not be injured.

Cities do use water differently than farms. Typically, water used to irrigate grass or hay seeps off the field, continuing to return to the creek for three to six months after it has been diverted. Towns and cities return less water to the stream.

In Summit County, there is only a third as much land used for irrigated farms as was once the case, estimates Scott Hummer, the water commissioner there. This is partly because of creation of Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs, which cover what was once prime farmland, but also because of newer developments such as Summit Cove.

But some housing projects were built on land with no previous farming use or with hay meadows that used less water than the new construction requires. Examples include Avon’s Wildridge subidivison and the Cordillera development. That brings a need for more storage or for acquisition of off-site water supplies.

While the Vail Valley bets its future on the Eagle Park Reservoir near the old Climax mine at the Eagle River headwaters, could other towns need to build storage? Probably not Red Cliff, which may have the valley’s best water rights, or Minturn, even after losing a large portion of its rights to Vail Valley interests.

In Eagle, the town has emergency storage in Sylvan Lake. But Town Manager Willie Powell doesn’t rule out a need for additional storage. The town’s well set in wet years, but it’s the drought years that all municipalities must plan for.

“Everybody’s vulnerable,” Powell says, “but some people more so than others.”


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