Water Resources in the Four Corners Region

A number of natural resources are required for uses in agriculture, residential, business and industry. Among these resources that are needed by communities are electricity, land, water, sewer services and natural gas. In the Four Corners region, water resource management is critical for agriculture, business, industry and communities. Rather than debate the politics of water, we will focus on the management of the resource and how it impacts the communities in southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico.

Since water is a finite resource, it is managed through a complex set of laws, water rights, storage and distribution facilities and management agencies. Early in the history of the Four Corners region, farmers began to acquire water diversion rights, create ditch (irrigation) companies and irrigate lands to increase crop yields. Cities filed on municipal water rights, developed municipal water systems and began to develop water pipeline networks to distribute water to city dwellers.

Irrigation Ditch While water law and administration is somewhat different in all the states, most western states follow the "law of prior appropriation", which can be stated as "first in time (use), first in right". In other words, water is allocated as a property right in a similar fashion to season tickets to the Denver Broncos or the Dallas Cowboys. The senior water rights belong to the senior water users, provided that they can demonstrate continued "beneficial use" of that water. This is a simplistic explanation of a very complex set of water regulations, laws and property rights, but it is important to note that the management of the water resources occurs in a very controlled framework. Most agricultural users do not own water rights directly, rather they own "ditch shares" or certain diversion rights as members of an irrigation company. Others have contracted for "project water" from a federally funded US Bureau of Reclamation sponsored water reservoir, such as McPhee Reservoir near Dolores. Agricultural water is measured on a per acre foot (one foot deep of water covering one acre) or cubic feet per second diverted. Irrigators also use the term "inches of water" or "ditch shares" of water to quantify the amount of water they are using or managing. Depending on the crop and agricultural techniques, irrigated lands generally have much higher yields and productivity per acre than dry land operations. Water for irrigation is "raw water" which is not pre-treated and is allocated on a per acre foot per cfs or other larger volume billing structure.

Municipal and industrial water resource management is much different than agricultural water resource management, even though the same river systems and water reservoirs are used by all water users for their source of water. Municipal use requires an absolute or year round water supply that is usually more expensive to acquire, develop and manage than other conditional or seasonal diversion rights. Although only 3 to 5% of the water resources are utilized by municipal (city) water users, their demand on water resources is year round and perpetual. City water utilities or rural water systems provide water on a flat charge plus cost per 1,000 gallon rate that may span a wide range of pricing structures depending on many factors. As compared to water for agriculture, municipal water is much more costly and is treated for domestic use. It is also pressurized for distribution to individual households or businesses. In addition, municipal water systems may provide raw or treated water for irrigation (golf courses, parks, aquatic facilities), public safety (fire protection and suppression) and city beautification (street washing or median strips).

Due to the cost of diversion, storage, treatment and distribution, water conservation makes sense in an urban setting, whether using xeriscape (lower water use) landscape, low flow plumbing fixtures or tiered water rate structures which increase the cost of water based on usage (and thereby encourage conservation).

Water resource management is critical for communities, agriculture, business and industry in the Four Corners region. Water districts and commissions, municipal water utilities and rural water systems comprise the types of organizations that divert, store and distribute water to both city and rural use. As one of our most essential needs, the prudent use and management of our water resources is critical for our communities and agricultural users.

Download the WIP Water Resources in the Four Corners Region brochure here.