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Spreading the water

Cliff Thompson

It all depends on which side of the irrigation ditch your property lies.

McEwan serves the local area as Eagle River Water Commissioner, making sure water users get the water they are due. That also means he has to close irrigation head gates for water users with junior rights.

McEwan figures this year will be the toughest in the 12 years he’s held the job. Because of the drought – it’s the driest year in a quarter century – there simply won’t be enough water to go around, and he’ll be spending a lot of time making sure what water there is will be going to those ditches with the most senior rights. There are hundreds of ditches and thousands of water rights in the Eagle River Valley, and he has to make sure water is flowing to the right places and in the right proportions.



The biggest problem, says the slim, sandy-haired 41-year old, is that many new residents in the area don’t fully understand Colorado water laws.

“It’s first in time, first in right,” he says, explaining the first person securing a claim on a waterway and using the water has the most senior right and has first use of the water.



Some of the claims on the Eagle River and its tributaries date back to the 1880s. His travels take him to every corner of the county, including private properties.

In a typical year, the 977-square-mile Eagle River drainage produces a flow of 415,000 acre-feet, or about what 1.6 million people use in a year. Only a portion of that flow, however, is used in Eagle County.

As water commissioner, McEwan has the right to access any property.



“Water commissioners can’t read posted signs,” he quips.

Ditches divert a portion of a waterway and bring it to areas needing irrigation. They operate like arteries in a body, getting smaller and smaller as they get farther from the source.

“The water sure makes the place green and pretty,” he says, looking out over Brush Creek.

Arbitrator and adjudicator

Half McEwan’s job is resolving conflicts over water use; the rest is administering water, or making sure it’s going to the users with the proper water rights.

Friday was typical day, says McEwan, who visited a tributary to Brush Creek on which a water user had made a water call, or a request for more water, meaning a senior water right was exerting its claim to water. But when McEwan visited the headgate for the ditch on which more water was requested he found another headgate on one of the junior ditches had been improperly closed by the senior water user. Water in the stream was still flowing past the senior water user’s diversion structure.

McEwan caught up with the water claimant and patiently explained that in order to exert a call for water, “you’ve got to take all the available water.”

He gently cautioned the water user not to close other people’s headgates. “I’m supposed to do that,” he says.

McEwan’s territory stretches from the Wolcott Divide to Tennessee Pass and from Vail Pass to Dotsero.

“The biggest problem this year is the drought,” he says. “When there’s enough water, everyone’s happy.”

The changing use of the land has created some more issues for water administration. As agricultural land is gobbled up by subdivisions, it makes for more squabbles, McEwan says.

“Water rights are subdivided, and there are more people who aren’t familiar with the priority system,” he explains. “There are more people out there (using water) than ever.”

McEwan got his start administering water during summer vacations from Colorado State University when he operated transmountain diversions on Cameron Pass for the city of Ft. Collins. By 1987 he was a water commissioner in North Park, then Glenwood Springs. In 1990, he came to Eagle County.

Most of his training in water diversions has occurred on the job, he says.

Spreading the word … and the water

“Most of my job is providing information to people,” he says. “It’s a year-round job.”

The other part is keeping statistics on flow in ditches, wells and pumps for his employer, the state Division of Water Resources.

His duties aren’t always pleasant. He says he’s been physically threatened by water users – but not lately.

“A rancher familiar with water law, getting water to half his land shut off might not say a thing,” he says. “New water users won’t accept it that easily.”

The latest incident, says McEwan, was a large bear that kept approaching him as he inspected a mountain headgate.

For users McEwan has had to shut off, he leaves a notice on the headgate noting the change. If he returns and the gate has been reopened, out of order to its right, he can chain and lock it closed.

On the question of golf courses and their highly visible sprinkler systems using up valuable water, McEwan says they probably are using less water than some of the agricultural lands they usurped.

Right now, he says, water users in Brush Creek are getting their water because the creek is seeing its peak flow. On Gypsum Creek, however, many users haven’t yet seen irrigation water. McEwan says Gypsum Creek typically peaks later in the year.

So, do most people like to see McEwan drive up?

“Some do and some don’t. It depends on whether they made the (water) call or not,” he says.

Could he get elected if he ran for office?

He’s silent for a moment, then quietly answers:

“Probably not this year.”


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