Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

It’s upon us now, the continuation of the drought, against all wishes to the contrary. Fires are cropping up around us, smoke is stinging the sensitive tissues of our breathing apparatuses, and one wonders where we go from here.

So far, lawns are green and there is water in the creeks, but drought is a malignancy that spreads with insidious impunity; it doesn’t much care whether you notice, and it marches forward with infallible energy and unerring accuracy, foiled only by the simplest of things, natural moisture.

This is the year that senior water rights get put to the test. How many properties have you seen listed for sale lately with the description, “includes senior water rights”? Senior, when used in conjunction with water rights, has to be viewed in terms of watersheds and their interrelationships. A very old water right might be thought of as “senior,” if you get my drift, but senior to what? Your neighbor might have plenty of irrigation water, but you might not, depending on the downstream claims and prior water rights far from the Roaring Fork Valley.

It’s an easy concept to understand – up front at least. “First in time, first in right,” is the general definition of water right seniority. Another way to put it: “A right filed in any year is junior to all rights filed in the previous year.” As always, there are legal nuances and case law that must be considered, ever more clever ways of thinking that murk the water, so to speak.

And don’t forget, water rights do not run with the land. They are a separate possession entirely, so be sure you have the proper documentation of your ownership rights.

One of my Emma properties, with water rights predating 1900, got off to a slow start this spring. The excavator hired to clean the ditch was a tad dilatory, but after he finished his work (around the first of May), we loaded the ditch with our legally prescribed share, eager to flood a drying and burning pasture. The next day, the water commissioner turned our ditch off, because of demand from more senior water rights downvalley. This doesn’t usually happen on this particular ditch until late August – if at all. The water you so cherish today may be irrigating peaches tomorrow.

It’s a serious situation for all of us, not just farmers and ranchers. Without irrigation water flooding the hayfields, without the turbulent replenishment of spring runoff and without regular rainfall, all water sources begin drying up, including wells. Castle and Maroon creeks (and some wells) provide municipal water to the city of Aspen. Nettle Creek does the same for Carbondale, and Mid-Valley Metropolitan District provides its customers with water from underground wells.

Droughts are less spectacular than other weather catastrophes, such as hurricanes, floods and severe hailstorms, but they are usually more devastating to more people. They take a long time to develop and are not easily cured, particularly the devastation to the soil. One sunny day turns into another and before you know it, drought is upon the land. We don’t see it coming, not really, but we know we have an uneasy feeling. Unlike the changing of the seasons, it is impossible to predict the beginning or the end of a drought.

Generally speaking, the press gives the Salvation Ditch Co. a hard time for leaving little water in the Roaring Fork during drought years. This completely ignores the fact that if not for Salvation Ditch, there would be little to no water in the river below the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, which steals the Western Slope blind when it comes to water. Salvation Ditch has 59 cubic feet per second of decreed water; the Independence water diversion systems have at least 1400 cfs of decreed water, junior to the Salvation Ditch and all sent to the Eastern Slope.

Of this you can be sure – greedy Denver water interests watch the Salvation Ditch Co. head gate like vultures on a rail, ready to pounce at the slightest sign of nonuse.

At this point, the best we can do is hope for rain. And take one day at a time.

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