“Whiskey is for drinkin’; water is for fightin’” is Western cliché, but it becomes more of a hard truth during a drought.
The Montezuma County sheriff’s office is reporting an increase in the number of disputes over irrigation water this spring and summer. Police scanners crackle with calls from irate landowners frustrated with neighbors taking more than their share from communal ditches.
As water supplies dwindle, there has been more theft and misuse of water, causing tempers to flare and raising the specter of violence.
“It is a lot of mitigation work, a lot of calls,” said Deputy Dave Huhn, a water law specialist handling irrigation issues for the sheriff’s office.
“The lack of water has escalated the tension and fright. People’s livelihood is dependent on water.”
In normal years Huhn fields four to eight calls per day. These days the volume is more like 20-30 per day, “so I’m responding every day, including weekends.”
McPhee Reservoir is at historic lows, and project users will get just 20 percent of a normal year’s amount, with complete cutoff expected for August.
The other major water source, Montezuma Valley Irrigation District (with its senior water rights) is reporting a drop in availability of 25 percent. MVI has not announced a cutoff date yet.
Many factors converge during an extreme drought on water use: less supply, less sharing, increased vigilance of irrigators, outright theft, misunderstanding of water rights and economic panic.
It’s an issue of denial for some, Deputy Huhn says, and he has a unique prop to educate water hoggers.
“I bring a simple yard sprinkler and a garden hose, and set it up to demonstrate the amount of water they actually have rights to, versus what they are using,” he says.
One MVI share equals 5.61 gallons per minute, and a garden hose and simple lawn sprinkler is about 4-5 gallons per minute.
“If they have two shares, they can have two small sprinklers going for a certain amount of time,” Huhn said. “It’s a fraction of the water they’re pushing through the large-nozzle water cannons. They’re using someone else’s water.”
Armed with individual water-rights data, water law documents, a calm but firm demeanor, a badge and a ticket book, Huhn makes the rounds.
“Once they understand their mistake, people make adjustments,” he said. “But we are writing tickets for repeat offenders for theft or wasted water, for instance, onto a roadway. If the theft goes far enough, it jumps to a Class 5 felony, and it has been close in some cases.”
Fines are $250 for wasting water and $500 - $1,000 for theft.
Some of the offenses have been tampering with a ditch, changing the position of a weir or flume (just an inch makes a substantial difference), and stealthily located portable pumps in a ditch or canal.
Newcomers tend to be perplexed by Colorado’s “first in time, first in right” water laws. A system of senior and junior priority rights dating to the late 1800s dictates who gets how much and when.
Often a ditch flush with refreshing water will flow through private property whose landowner has no rights to it. By law, he or she must grant access to the ditch for owners or their agents for maintenance.
“The ditch easement is a surprise for newcomers, because they are not used to strangers walking across their property. But they have to realize people have a legal right to clean out ditches carrying their water, and they do not need permission to do so,” Huhn explained.
Still, they should use common sense — for example, contacting neighbors before bringing a backhoe to clean ditches.
Even old-timers can be misinformed about their rights and draw more than is allocated to them.
“They claim the rights have been in their family since forever, but I have to inform them that their grandpa sold off 17 shares in the 1970s and they don’t have as much as they thought,” Huhn said.
Communication is key, and neighbors who meet and discuss issues have far less conflicts. When it becomes beyond civil, Huhn says call dispatch (565-8441) to avoid escalation.
“If you feel like you cannot talk to your neighbor without losing your temper, then don’t,” he said. “I’m here to negotiate and resolve these situations.”
Huhn said there is a statewide trend to more aggressively enforce laws regulating adequate measuring devices for irrigators. Replacing ditches with pipe is the ultimate solution. Metered pipe is the most ideal, and is used for Dolores Project users.
“We have had a smooth year considering,” said Ken Curtis, DWCD engineer. “The meters show users exactly the amount they are getting.”
Rural water districts have less pipe and less metered technology, which can lead to problems.
“You and I might stand on a ditch. You say it is your three shares, and I say it is five — over the limit. Proper measuring provides the real answer,” said Less Nunn, general manager for MVIC.
“Other times people don’t realize they have been getting extra for years, and now the actual owners are diverting that amount.”
Working together to improve diversion structures and resolve disputes makes the most sense. But when push comes to shove, call in some help, Nunn said.
“Dave (Huhn) is really excellent at mediation and problem solving on these difficult situations. As an officer, he has jurisdiction to walk up onto private property. People react to that more calmly than a neighbor you’re fighting with approaching.”