Water laws can be very clear | VailDaily.com

Water laws can be very clear

Cliff Thompson

That’s when the Squaw Creek residents received an eye-opening letter from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and learned they could lose the right to pump from their 120 foot-deep domestic well because there wasn’t enough water in Summit County’s Green Mountain Reservoir, more than 50 miles away, to meet their right to an acre-foot of water.

They also received a refund of their $250 annual water payment from the bureau.

Since then, the Forbes have become pretty familiar with water law – with its water exchanges, augmentations and priority rights – and are now conserving water in a big way. The family of four, with dogs and horses, is using less than 100 gallons per day, according to their water meter. They’re flushing toilets once a day and taking short showers. Their brown lawn has not been irrigated since July 5, and their flowers just twice. They’re afraid their well may go dry.

“If it gets worse, we’ll have to truck water in,” says Bambi Forbes. “We’ll have to store it in the garage.”

The Forbes are among a list of Eagle County water users and others on the Western Slope who purchased nearly 20,000 acre-feet of “augmentation water” from Green Mountain Reservoir under contract. This year, however, they will not be getting it because of the drought.

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Augmentation water is used to augment flows in rivers impacted by other water diversions. But these water users won’t be without water, thanks to a timely donation of stored water by an energy giant and a few water exchanges.

This year is the driest year on record, with river flows hitting unprecedented levels just 20 percent of their historic average. The previous low flows were even 40 percent of normal during a 20-year drought that began in 1579.

Ironically, Green Mountain’s reservoir doesn’t have the water needed to augment the flows of the Eagle River, which is fed by the same aquifer depleted by pumping from wells.

Colorado law requires non-surface irrigators replace the water they use outside of their homes. Domestic use returns up to 95 percent of the water used through wastewater treatment plants

Meanwhile, the Forbes, along with 50 other water users who rely on the Green Mountain contract pool to meet their augmentation needs, won’t have to worry this year because of a donation by Exxon-Mobil of 5,500 acre-feet of water from Reudi Reservoir east of Basalt by Exon-Mobil.

An acre-foot is 326,800 gallons of water.

The donation allowed the Colorado River Water Conservation District to exchange that release – plus an additional 2,000 acre-feet cobbled together by the district – for water upstream from Wolford Reservoir, on the Colorado River, to meet needs of senior water rights holders downstream.

Bambi Forbes’ parents purchased 66 acres on Squaw Creek in 1977, exchanging surface irrigation rights for three wells to serve a three-house subdivision. She says she’s frustrated, however, because she doesn’t see others conserving as much as she has been forced to. Countywide conservation measures have been largely voluntary, yet she and her family have to struggle.

“No one will be shut off this year,” says the River District’s Dave Chief Engineer, Dave Merritt.

Unsaid is what will happen if the drought continues.

Ironically again, water use in the area actually increased last week when upvalley water districts limplemented shorter watering schedules but did not impose volume restrictions. Preliminary figures for this week show some decreased use, however, water officials say.

“I’m concerned because I’m practicing all these conservation measures and not everyone else is. All that water is flowing past my well and being used by someone else,” Bambi Forbes says. “If it goes dry, will I be able to get another well permit?”

Merritt says many of the water users with contracts for augmentation water in Green Mountain have been conserving – and it has made a difference.

Cordillera is another water user holding augmentation water in Green Mountain. Most of its domestic water comes from a well field, while golf courses are irrigated with raw water pumped from the Eagle River.

“We are not going to rely on the wells,” says Cordillera attorney Michael Gilliland. “We’ve been looking for water rights to make sure we have enough water upstream of the water plant.”

Some of that water will likely come from Eagle Park Reservoir.

Gilliland says there are approximately 450 residents at Cordillera. At buildout, there will be nearly 900, he adds.

American Gypsum, which operates a mine and a wallboard plant in Gypsum, had augmentation water stored in Green Mountain, too. The company also is looking for augmentation water, says plant manager Steve Wetzel. This year, however, the plant, which employs 125 people, is relying the the Exxon-Mobil water for its river augmentation.

Plans exist, meanwhile, to expand Eagle Park to 11,700 acre-feet in the next few years, says engineer Linn Schorr of Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. That will require doubling the height of the existing 75-foot dam.

Before that happens, however, a $1.1 million expansion of the water supply being built this fall should bring an additional 455 acre-feet to Eagle Park Reservoir. It will tap water from the east fork of the Eagle River and pump it from the base of the East Fork dam l,700 feet uphill to the reservoir.

Tapping next spring’s snowmelt, Schorr says, that should increase reservoir capacity by 15 percent, to 3,600 acre-feet.

The major expansion of the reservoir will require new state permits, and estimates of construction time place completion several years in the future, Schorr said.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com

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