Vail Valley’s oldest water rights ensure stable supplies all year
Who’s providing our water?
• Eagle River Water & Sanitation District: This is the water provider for virtually all of the upper valley, including Vail, Minturn, Avon, Edwards and parts of Wolcott.
• Town of Eagle: The water provider for the town, Eby Creek Mesa and other outlying areas.
• Town of Gypsum: The water provider for all of the town, including areas up Gypsum Creek.
EAGLE COUNTY — In Colorado, the difference between who can use water and who can’t is as simple as seniority.
Colorado’s water law is a complex set of rules and regulations, but Rule No. 1 is simple: First in time, first in line. Water rights on the state’s streams and reservoirs have been adjudicated and allocated since about the turn of the 20th century. People who have those oldest water rights have first claim on water. That’s crucial in dry years.
In drought years, holders of the most senior water rights can “call” on those with junior rights. That means junior rights holders have to stop diverting water.
The town of Gypsum was in that situation not long ago.
Town water manager Matt Franklin said senior rights holders taking their allocated water put a significant strain on the town’s ability to provide water to residents.
“Nothing’s more stressful than trying to meet demand when there’s a call on the river and you can only put out a quarter of what you need,” Franklin said.
Gypsum, over the past 20 years or so, has acquired some of the most senior water rights on Gypsum Creek. The most senior rights came from the former Albertson Ranch, now the moribund Brightwater development. Other senior rights came from Cotton Ranch closer to town.
Still, Franklin said, there are some rights senior to the Albertson Ranch rights that can take precedence in April. That month in 2013 — a historic drought year — was tough to cover, Franklin said.
In those dry years, the town has to pull water from farther downstream, and the quality isn’t as good. Treating that water requires more chemicals, more electricity, more manpower … more of just about everything, Franklin said.
Good rights, good supplies
Still, that town is in good shape today regarding its water inventory. So is most of the rest of the Vail Valley.
Front Range water attorney Glenn Porzac knows more than just about anyone about mountain water. He said local water providers have worked over the years to ensure steady water supplies.
The town of Eagle is a good example, Porzak said. Town officials there “have been very aggressive,” Porzak said. “They approve annexations and developments only with all the water rights. Over time, they’ve really cornered that market.”
Farther east, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, along with the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, has also put in a lot of effort to ensure steady, stable supplies of water.
Those two entities have separate elected boards, but share staff and other resources. The district and the authority have an integrated system, Porzak said, which allows water to move as needed from roughly Edwards to East Vail.
The third major player in the upper valley is Vail Resorts, which requires water for snowmaking between November and January.
Most of that water supply comes from the Eagle River, but there are a few reservoirs that play crucial roles as streamflows drop between late summer and late winter.
Aurora and Colorado Springs control most of the water from Homestake Reservoir roughly between Red Cliff and Camp Hale. From there, water is pumped to Turquoise Lake near Leadville. Then, water is pumped either into the Arkansas River for Colorado Springs or into the South Platte for Aurora.
But there’s some local water sitting in Homestake, used to ensure streamflows in the Eagle River.
More local supplies
Near the Climax Mine atop Fremont Pass is the Eagle Park Reservoir, which is used by local providers for streamflows and some supply. Black Lakes, atop Vail Pass, is also used for local supply.
Still, local streams can run almost dry. Porzak said he has 2013 pictures of Gore Creek running at just a trickle. Portions of Brush Creek near Eagle have run almost dry in other drought years.
That’s why the water-pumping systems used by the upper valley water and sanitation district and water authority are crucial to ensuring adequate supplies for everyone.
Another player in the mix of who controls local water is the Colorado River District, which oversees use of the Colorado River from its origin in Rocky Mountain National Park to the Colorado/Utah state line.
Porzak said the river district has contracts to provide water to a number of small developments between Wolcott and Dotsero. The river district also provides some reservoir water to back up systems in Eagle and Gypsum.
Then there’s the most-senior water right in the valley. That one, the only one in the valley that dates to the 1800s, came off the Nottingham Ranch at Avon and serves Beaver Creek.
The Vail Valley’s water supplies are more stable than they were even a few years ago. Starting in about the middle of the 20th century, Front Range cities came to the mountains looking for water to feed their growing communities.
Part of those efforts included buying ranches for their water. Park County — the Fairplay area — is among the most-affected high-mountain areas, since it’s on the eastern side of the Continental Divide.
Denver Water, which bought thousands of acre-feet of mountain water over the years, also purchased water rights at 4 Eagle Ranch north of Wolcott and on the upper Eagle River. There was at one time talk of building a large reservoir near Wolcott.
A few years ago, thanks to an agreement with local providers, Denver gave up those rights, stabilizing the water supplies for local providers.
That cooperation is starting to show up in other parts of the mountains, Porzak said.
“Denver Water and the Western Slope get along pretty well now,” he said. “You’re seeing more cooperation in Summit and Grand counties now.”
Still, Porzak said, “Eagle County is fortunate.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @scottnmiller.