by Bill Knowles
WALSENBURG- This is a year when drought is eating into the livelihood of area ranchers and water flows are so low that Eastern Huerfano County wells are producing just 50 percent to 60 percent of a normal year. In such a year, offers by competing entities for water rights along the Huerfano River could leave Gardner and Malachite Springs dry.
The Huerfano County Water Conservancy District Enterprise (HCWCD) must either lease or purchase water rights along the Huerfano River in order to augment the depletion caused by usage at both Malachite Springs and Gardner. If they fail to secure augmentation water, they will fall out of compliance with a plan filed nearly three years ago under Rule 14 of Colorado water law. This would invalidate the special water supply plan that undergirds their use of Rule 14 bringing them into noncompliance along with Gardner and Malachite Springs and causing the state to intervene and shut down the town’s water.
Along the Huerfano River, water right number 1 is owned by Two Rivers Water Company, along with 9 , 19 and 111. However according to John Vucetich, a fourth generation rancher living on the river in Eastern Huerfano County, only the first five decrees are flowing into the eastern part of the county. “Number one is flowing about a foot and a half with numbers two and five running. There’s only about a foot running under the Huerfano Bridge.” The bridge crosses the river at I-25 near the Huerfano Butte.
“Right now the ranchers are talking about selling their cattle. They’ve been hoping it would rain and stall the sale, but I don’t think anyone will wait,” Vucetich said. “The wells that are pumping are the ones that are pulling from the river bottom. This drought is as bad as the one in 2002.”
The drought is causing the county’s aging ranchers to sell their cattle to feed lots and to sell water and mineral rights across the county. In some cases, these rights are sold to companies such as Shell Oil and Two Rivers.
The HCWCD hopes to procure a right that would allow them to establish a permanent augmentation district for the Gardner area. Water rights number three, six and eight are being courted by the district and other operators in the area with the bidding reaching into the millions of dollars. Details of the bidding are at best sketchy.
If the HCWCD is unable to reach an agreement on a lease for water, Gardner doesn’t have a way out, according to one water conservancy board member. “Right now we are into the third year of a five-year plan to purchase water for an augmentation plan,” Kent Mace said.
Near the end of the meeting, board member Erin Jerant said, “Since we are a protection service of water we should maybe write a letter asking the COGCC to put more controls for baseline testing. It wouldn’t hurt. It would be one more conservancy they’ve heard from.” Mace noted, “If they hit gas, the way the county looks now will change.”
Jerant made the motion to send the letter. Board Chair Dawson Jordan then refused to go along with the idea. Raymond Harriman asked Jordan why. Jordan replied that after all the talk still no documentation has been produced to back it up or change his mind about the drilling. “If the current regulations aren’t right, we shouldn’t be spending all this time flapping our mouths. We should be doing something with our congressmen and our senators to get the regulations changed. That’s the only way things are going to change.”
“Did they approach you about drilling on your property?” Harriman asked. “I sold my mineral rights,” Jordan replied. “The biggest source of contamination in this area are feed-lots and dairies.”
Members Mace, Harriman, Ray Ryan and Jerant all voted yes. Jordan voted no.
All can agree however, that demand on a scarce resource in Huerfano County is increasing, and the entities whose mission it is to see that there is enough to water to go around are finding their budgets stretched in an effort to provide a basic source of life to all who have need of it, from ranchers to towns to energy extraction companies.
And because of the drought and decreased flows along the Huerfano River, water is becoming more valuable with each day that rain fails to fall. “I’m 87 years old now,” Vucetich said. “And often I wonder what’s going to happen here in Huerfano County in the future. It’s kind of frightening.”