A blow for flows

Before there was a state water plan emphasizing the need for collaboration to develop innovative strategies to meet the state’s water challenges, Mesa County’s newest reservoir was already in the works and on its way to serving as a precursor to the suite of actions the plan would embody.

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

A water project like this doesn’t just magically appear. It took years of interagency cooperation and a leap of faith to make it happen. But in the end, it delivered exactly what the state water plan prescribes — new water solutions that make finite supplies go further.

The reservoir, modeled after one in use by the Grand Valley Water Users Association, is designed to prove a more reliable supply of water throughout the throughout the district’s canal system, helping to conserve up to 17,000 acre-feet of water a year.

The reservoir will help keep water in the ditches, thereby reducing “runs” on water when people are anxious about drought conditions. As the Sentinel’s Charles Ashby explained, peak usage can trigger a panic among water users. Fearful that water is running low, they up their consumption instead of conserving.

Such a phenomenon occurred about a decade ago, prompting the district’s water manager to enlist the cooperation of 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 keep it from happening again.

The CWCB and the Colorado River Water Conservation District purchased the land where the reservoir now sits before permits were finalized because it was the last piece of property large enough to handle that much water. The land was deeded to the Bureau of Reclamation, which largely reimbursed the river district for the purchase and that money is being used to maintain the new reservoir.

As one river district official explained: “You’ve got an $8 million project that’s leveraged 17,000 acre-feet of water. That’s the cheapest water out there.”

The project is a reminder that managing water isn’t cheap. All the collaboration in the world won’t matter a lick if there’s no funding for local communities to innovate and implement stream management plans.

And that’s essentially what the reservoir is — a tool to manage river flows. The more water that’s in the state’s rivers, the better for everyone involved. Conservation means better flows, which ensures that the recovery of protected species of fish won’t interfere with the right to develop water.

The Orchard Mesa project delivered benefits to all parties involved, even the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. And it all stemmed from local water users making their own decisions about how to best manage water. Hopefully, the Legislature can supply the funds to let other communities follow suit.


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