Water by the District

Article by Ed Quillen

Water Conservancy Districts – April 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

OUR MYTHOLOGY about “the winning of the West” celebrates the individual homesteader and the resulting family farm or ranch, but the truths of history and geography extend well past the individual.

This is a desert. Very little that is edible will grow here without supplemental water. Cattle, sheep, and goats can graze on rangeland, but they generally need hay to get through the winter, and having enough hay to put up usually means irrigated meadows.

Beyond that, the creeks and rivers run highest in May and June with snowmelt. By August, when the fields really need water, the rivers are low. Thus storage — a way to keep some of that spring run-off so it can be used in late summer — is also a necessity.

A homestead family next to a creek could build its own ditch. But beyond that point, water development required more capital and energy than any farm family was likely to have at hand. Coöperation was a necessity.

These combined efforts took many forms, both private and public, in the development of Colorado’s water.

Private corporations, for instance, raised money from stockholders to buy land and divide it into farms. Then they built reservoirs and delivery systems with the idea of making a profit on the land sales. But most of these ventures went broke, for a variety of reasons (including drought, poor location, problems with capital, and failure to provide adequate maintenance and improvements).

At that point, though, the farmers often picked up the pieces by forming mutual irrigation companies to take over the corporation’s assets. In a mutual company, the owners are also the customers.

And then there’s the governmental way. Some water projects looked as though they might benefit the entire nation, but they were unattractive to private investors, and the farmers didn’t have the resources to build them. So the federal government began taking a significant role in water development. In 1902, it passed the Reclamation Act (sponsored by Nevada Sen. Francis G. Newlands, and therefore also called the Newlands Act). This legislation authorized the Secretary of the Interior to build reservoirs in the West, using money derived from sales of public lands, and later, electric sales.

The federal government would build the reservoirs, but it wouldn’t allocate the water, since that fell under state law. Thus local entities had to be organized to administer and distribute the water collected in federal reservoirs.

TO CREATE THESE LOCAL ENTITIES, the Colorado General Assembly passed a law in 1905 that allowed farmers in a given area to form “irrigation districts.” They had the right of eminent domain so they could condemn rights of way for canals and reservoirs, and they could levy property taxes and assessments on users. That law, however, was only for irrigated farms; it was not for the towns and cities that might be surrounded by those farms, and which might also need to develop water supplies.

But it didn’t seem to make sense to have both cities and farmers building their own reservoirs and canals when the same facilities could serve both. So in 1937, the legislature expanded the irrigation-district concept with the “water conservancy district,” which could include municipalities and non-irrigated land. According to that 1937 law, conservancy districts can also levy taxes and they have the right of eminent domain.

The first one formed was the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. It was organized to administer water from the Bureau of Reclamation’s immense Colorado-Big Thompson project, which was approved by Congress that year.

There are at least two other kinds of water districts in Colorado. Many are relatively small entities like the Round Mountain Water District in Westcliffe. These are special districts, similar to school districts or fire districts, and they operate much like a municipal water department — they operate treatment plants and delivery systems primarily for households and businesses.

Then there are the Water Conservation Districts, as opposed to Water Conservancy Districts. There are only three Conservation Districts: Colorado River, Southwestern Colorado, and Rio Grande. Like conservancy districts, they can also levy taxes and build and operate water projects. Based in Alamosa, Rio Grande administers the Closed Basin project, which moves water from the Closed Basin of the San Luis Valley to the Rio Grande so that Colorado can meet its water commitments to New Mexico and Texas.

So, what are the differences between a Conservancy District and a Conservation District, since they can do almost the same things?

— Conservation Districts are established by the state legislature, and there are only three. Conservancy Districts are established by petitions from people in an area, and there were 50 of them in Colorado at last count.

— Conservation District boards are appointed by county commissioners. Conservancy District boards are appointed by district judges, although it is possible to petition for an election (about which I’ve got plenty more elsewhere).

— Conservation Districts are supposed to look at the bigger picture (i.e., is Colorado meeting its commitments to downstream states?), while Conservancy Districts focus more on specific local needs (i.e., do the irrigators in a certain valley need more storage to exercise the water rights they have?)

Or, to quote from one reference: Conservation “districts promote, plan, and develop water resource projects, conduct necessary background studies, and represent the interests of the residents in [interstate] compact matters… They are primarily project planning and development entities and leave the construction and operation of projects to the water conservancy districts.”

Colorado water districts come in many forms, and they can overlap. But the main movers are the conservation districts and the conservancy districts, and now it should be possible to tell the difference. ¤