New reservoir a hedge against drought, greed

Max Schmidt, manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, shows off the new Orchard Mesa Reservoir near A 1/2 and 29 3/4 roads on Wednesday. The reservoir came about through a multi-agency effort after a statewide drought about a decade ago caused people to actually use more water instead of conserving it. “Everyone went home and pushed the button on their half-horse pump that averages pumping probably four to five times their water shares,” Schmidt said. “They literally just sucked the canal dry.”

It all began about a decade ago when someone went on local television and said there was a drought.

All of a sudden, water users in the Grand Valley turned on their valves and sprinklers to make sure they had their water before none was left.

The problem was, while there was a drought in the state that year, it wouldn’t have impacted local users without all the publicity, said Max Schmidt, district manager of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District.

“Everyone went home and pushed the button on their half-horse pump that averages pumping probably four to five times their water shares,” Schmidt said. “They literally just sucked the canal dry. The year before was a flood year. I had the same amount of water during the drought as I had during the flood. I call it a media-induced drought.”

Still, the incident convinced Schmidt that something needed to be done, and he reached out to others to find a solution.

In the end, it took that district, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to build a regulating reservoir to prevent it from happening again.

“You can depend on two things in water — gravity and greed,” Schmidt said. “They are always there. When somebody thinks it’s going to dry up, they start watering like crazy. It can be safe and secure, but all of a sudden they think there’s a shortage, they want theirs now.”

The 74-acre-foot reservoir located near U.S. Highway 50 and 29 1/2 Road on Orchard Mesa is designed to allow users of the water district to access water during peak times, while at the same time minimizing reductions in ditch and river flows.

It’s designed to provide a more reliable water supply throughout the district’s canal system, helping to conserve up to 17,000 acre-feet of water a year. An acre-foot is the amount of water that covers an acre of land at a depth of one foot. It’s equal to 325,851 gallons of water.

Mark Wernke, design and construction manager for the bureau that actually owns the new reservoir, calls it a “shock absorber” that helps even out water flows along the district’s canals.

“This is more for efficiencies and how the flows work,” Wernke said. “You get to the tail end of a canal, you get more fluctuations. It evens out the flows from (the reservoir) to the end.”

The $8.9 million project started with money from the water conservation board, which first purchased the 14 acres on which the reservoir now sits. It is modeled after a similar regulating reservoir operated by the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

“This project we felt was pretty important because we had been looking at other options to keep a little more water within a 15-mile reach” downstream of Palisade, where the irrigation ditch connects to the Colorado River, said Michelle Garrison, water resources specialist for the CWCB. “We’re doing a lot of little projects, but bigger ones like this are less common.”

Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the Colorado River district, said the district shelled out the cash to purchase the land long before the project’s approval was assured because it was the last piece of property large enough to handle such a reservoir.

“At times you have to take risks because there was no certainty the project would happen, but the bureau recognized there was a need,” Birch said. “You’ve got an $8 million project that’s leveraged 17,000 acre-feet of water, that’s the cheapest water out there. Our board stepped in to purchase it, and we deeded it to the United States. They paid us back ... but it was a little bit less.”

That money is being used to maintain the new reservoir.

Since the reservoir has no fish, it’s understandable to question why the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would be involved in such a project.

Tom Chart, director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, says that’s an easy question to answer. The more water that is kept in the state’s rivers, the better for the fish they are trying to protect, and the new reservoir will help do that.

Chart’s program is designed to help protect four endangered fish in the state: the humpback chub, the ponytail, the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker.

“We’re trying to recover these fish, but respect people’s ability and right to develop water from these rivers,” Chart said. “We’re trying to manage flows in the rivers, and that’s something we’ve been focused on since 1988. There’s always opportunities to manage flows better.”

In addition to the new reservoir, the project also included upgrading check structures in the canal, installing remote monitoring systems, new canal interconnection pipeline, improved operational procedures and the ability to more easily replace open earth lateral ditches with pressurized pipeline.


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