OURAY – As summer monsoons drench the City of Ouray and its surrounding mountains, it’s hard to think in terms of future water shortages. But city staff, water consultants and legal counsel have spent much of their summer doing everything they can to continue to shore up the city’s water supply, with an eye toward growing demands on what will likely be a shrinking water supply across Colorado and the West.
One key piece of the city’s water augmentation plan is its recent purchase of water rights in the Red Mountain Ditch, a historic trans-basin diversion that starts in the Animas River Watershed near the top of Red Mountain Pass and is piped into the Uncompahgre River Watershed.
“It’s really a great asset to have for us,” City Administrator Patrick Rondinelli said. “I’m glad to have it up and operational.”
Last summer, after purchasing a 6 cfs right to the water in the ditch for $70,000 from previous owners William and Carolina Alexander (a ranching couple in Colona), the city installed a new head gate on the ditch at its diversion point along Mineral Creek (not far from the base of Black Bear Pass), and conducted numerous improvements to shore up the ditch’s capacity to deliver water.
“It hadn’t been operational for a number of years, and on top of that, the maintenance was subpar,” Rondinelli said. “We had to do significant improvements on it to get it fully operational.”
Now that that task has been accomplished, the next phase of work on the ditch will entail expanding its capacity to maintain the city’s full allotted amount of water. Currently the ditch is only delivering around 2 cfs of water. “Obviously there will be times we will run at 6 cfs, but it is also dependent on what’s available,” Rondinelli said.
The ditch is a little over a quarter mile long. It starts at Mineral Creek, runs under Black Bear Pass road and eventually filters into a natural drainage. From there, the water is channeled into culverts that deliver it to two storage ponds on the opposite side of US 550, from which it then flows freely into the Uncompahgre River watershed.
The city has also applied for a junior water right for an additional 3 cfs from Mineral Creek in San Juan County, for trans-basin diversion via the Red Mountain Ditch to offset the city’s potential out-of-priority depletion of the Uncompahgre River in the event of call by senior water rights holders downstream during a drought year.
“It’s taking work, because we are dealing with two different water divisions, which means double the amount of work,” Rondinelli said. “We are going through the process of meeting with opposers, addressing their needs and seeking solutions.”
Opposers on the Animas side include the Southwest Water Conservation District.
Meanwhile, agreements between the City, Ouray County and the U.S. Forest Service, currently in draft and under review, will outline uses of water from the Red Mountain Ditch, as well as Crystal Lake Reservoir.
Perched in a scenic setting in Ironton Park at the foot of the Red Mountains along US Highway 550, Crystal Lake Reservoir holds 31 acre feet of water. Its water comes from Fullmoon Creek, a tributary to Red Mountain Creek and the Uncompahgre River.
The USFS acquired Crystal Lake from private owners in the 1990s, and has indicated an interest in developing an agreement that will allow the City of Ouray to utilize released water from the lake in a future water shortage scenario, such as it did when the city faced a call in 2012.
Water can be spilled into the Uncompahgre Watershed on the city’s behalf to satisfy a number of ditch users above Ridgway Reservoir who have senior water rights, should they make a priority call on the city’s municipal water supply.
The city is also poised to adopt a new Water Efficiency Plan in September. Once the plan is adopted, it will pave the way for the city to acquire grant funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to begin implementing monitoring programs of the City’s water system, geothermal resources and wastewater treatment plant, Rondinelli said.
The city is still continuing to explore opportunities to acquire other water rights in the area as well – either via purchase or some other type of agreement.
Along with the newly acquired senior and pending junior water rights on the Red Mountain Ditch, the state’s recent agreement to retabulate the City of Ouray’s primary water rights on its municipal water supply to make them senior to most downstream users has “taken care of the majority of the city’s previous issues in regard to calls on our water,” Rondinelli said. “That action eliminated calls on our water except for calls on the Hot Springs Pool, and the [Red Mountain] ditch covers that.”
“What we are doing right now is planning out what our future needs might be, and trying to balance that with how effectively we are managing the resources on our end,” Rondinelli added. “That’s what’s driving our water efficiency plan.”
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