County finalizes future water plan

‘Everybody wins’ with newly approved code amendment

Six years after the city of Durango’s plan for a whitewater park spurred the creation of a multi-governmental water-use arrangement on the Animas River, La Plata County’s portion of that work is coming to fruition.

A settlement negotiated in 2007 that included the city’s Recreational In-Stream Diversion carved out two large water rights that the county manages and co-manages with the Southwest Water Conservation District.

Since then, the county has spent five years crafting a program to dole out to residents portions of the water right it manages.

On Tuesday, the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners approved a code amendment that lays out exactly how residents can apply for and receive that water.

“Everybody wins” with the new program, said Adam Smith, an assistant county attorney who helped craft the code. Both water rights aim to make water available for current and future development.

The amount of water delegated to the county is measured by the amount depleted from the river, or the amount that never flows back after use, rather than the amount diverted. The amount is hard to measure but it is enough to support development in the county for at least 50 years, Smith said.

The county’s program is aimed at residents, businesses or developers who would normally go through the water court system to obtain a water right.

An important aspect of the county-managed water rights are their seniority to the city’s Recreational In-Channel Diversion, Smith said.

Water rights haven’t yet become a pressing issue on the Animas River because all of the river’s water hasn’t been claimed. But when the river eventually becomes over appropriated, and a low-flow year forces some water rights to be shut off, water rights and their priorities will become critically important, Smith said.

The county’s program won accolades from commissioners Bobby Lieb and Wally White. Commissioner Kellie Hotter was not present.

Lieb called the code amendment “a good long-term standing document.”

The arrangement also has the support of the city, said Cathy Metz, Durango’s Parks and Recreation Director. It was a “great solution” that protects the interests of the city and the county, she said.

Such an arrangement – where a local government body holds a water right and divvies it out to individual residents – hasn’t been done before in Colorado as far as he can tell, Smith said.

“This was all created from scratch. There is no model for us to go off of,” he said.

The county will begin accepting applications for the water program in October, after commissioners decide on fee amounts.

The water rights managed solely by the county do include several regulations, cost a fee and are limited in how and where they can be used. Generally, users must be upstream of the city of Durango. They also are one day senior to the fairly regulation-free water right the county co-manages with the water district, which could become crucial as demand on the river grows, Smith said.

Under the new program, the county will distribute portions of the water right based on landowners’ uses of their property. The water is considered a conditional water right until the user applies for and receives an absolute water right from the local Division 7 Water Court.