May 10, 2012--Water call threatens Ouray’s municipal supply (Telluride Watch)

City officials are scrambling to augment municipal water rights in response to a recent call requiring the “immediate curtailment” of the city’s water supply. The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which operates the Montrose & Delta Canal, placed a call on the Upper Uncompahgre last Wednesday, May 2, because sub-average snow pack and early run-off have resulted in excessively low seasonal flows. The call affects not only the City of Ouray but other junior upstream water users including the Tri County Water Conservancy District which controls the water in Ridgway Reservoir; the reservoir must release its inflows downstream while the call is in effect. Ouray may be much further upstream than the M&D Canal’s multiple users, but proximity to a watershed’s headwaters does not factor into the complicated calculus of Colorado water law. What matters is who filed and adjudicated their water rights first. As the Colorado Division of Water Resources puts it: “The essence of a water right is its place in the priority system.” And when it comes to senior water rights on the Upper Uncompahgre River, the M&D Canal is the biggest dog in the fight. Its most senior rights were filed from 1883-1885 and were adjudicated (established in court) in 1897, said Jason Ullmann, Assistant Division Engineer for Water Division 4 (of which the Uncompahgre River is a part). While the City of Ouray’s water rights on Weehawken Spring (its sole municipal water source, and a tributary to the Uncompahgre River) have appropriation dates as early as 1881, the rights were not adjudicated until 1904, thus forever saddling the city with junior water rights compared to thirsty downstream irrigators.
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