Water is the lifeblood of Colorado. I grew up on the La Plata River on a farm that straddled the Colorado-New Mexico line. The agreement between Colorado and New Mexico that governs how water on the La Plata is shared is the La Plata River Compact. It was established in 1922 and is the oldest compact in the state.
Simply stated, the compact requires Colorado to deliver to the New Mexico state line one half of the water measured at Hesperus. My family was paid to report the water measurement at the state line to the authorities every morning and many times it was my responsibility to do so. Today, the measurements are reported automatically by satellite. Water was a common theme around the Brown family breakfast table.
In both Colorado and New Mexico, the prior appropriation doctrine has been used to establish water rights. This means that the first person who filed on and put water to beneficial use has a higher priority or water right than the next person who filed on the water. The priorities are numbered with the No. 1 priority being the best water right. My family had pretty good water rights in New Mexico with Nos. 3 and 7 priorities and in Colorado a No. 14 priority.
If Colorado is not delivering half of the water to New Mexico, the Colorado water commissioner will start shutting off ditches beginning with the lower priorities until New Mexico is getting its share. Conversely, if Colorado is delivering more than one half of the water measured at Hesperus to New Mexico then the commissioner turns on ditches to take more.
The Long Hollow project, a water-storage project on the La Plata drainage that has been on the drawing board since 1945, finally is about to become a reality. This is a project located in the mouth of the Long Hollow Drainage about three miles from the New Mexico state line. It will allow Colorado to store winter runoff and floodwater in the off irrigation season to be used to satisfy the New Mexico water at critical times. One of the big problems in managing the delivery of water to New Mexico under the compact is when there is very little water at Hesperus, all of it can be released and because of seepage and evaporation, nothing is delivered to the state line. The idea of the Long Hollow project is to store water so that New Mexico’s portion can be delivered out of the dam and Colorado can use more water that is in the river. It is a great project, and it is too bad that it has taken 67 years to become a reality.
I try to attend as many meetings about water as I possibly can because I always either learn something new or reinforce my water knowledge. The Colorado Water Congress, a group of individuals and organizations interested in water legislation, meets almost every Monday morning in Denver when the Legislature is in session. Water is important to Colorado, and we must never take it for granted.
J. Paul Brown represents House District 59 in Colorado’s General Assembly. The district encompasses San Juan, Archuleta and La Plata counties and parts of Montezuma County. Contact Brown by phone at (303) 866-2914 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.