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Drought triggers penalties for overuse of water

Dolores Water Conservancy District enacts fines to deter overuse of water
Farmers have had to rely on irrigation water during a dry spring and early summer, but as irrigation reserves begin to dwindle, growers will be relying on monsoonal rain for water. (The Journal file)

Frequent water shortages at McPhee Reservoir have led the Dolores Water Conservancy District board to implement a penalty system for farmers who exceed their water allocation.

Runoff from a weak winter snowpack left the reservoir at a record low this season, and irrigators received just 5% to 10% of the normal water supply.

Overuse issues have been rare in the district, said Ken Curtis, general manager for DWCD.

Irrigators work off the “honor system,” he said, and have kept within their allocations over the years with very few violations.

But as the pressure from a persistent drought intensifies year to year, the DWCD board moved toward a penalty system for overuse to establish a deterrent.

In May, the board unanimously voted to create fines for exceeding water allocations, a first for the district.

The fines for going over allowable amounts are $800 for the first acre-foot, $1,600 for the second acre-foot, and $2,400 for the third acre-foot, with an escalation at the same rate. One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons.

If the overuse is a portion of an acre-foot, the fine would be applied as a proportional percentage of the other fines.

There is no “error buffer,” meaning the fine will be applied for any overuse, Curtis said. The farmer also would be charged for the extra water used.

“Acts of God” that cause an overage, such as an irrigation system malfunction, will be brought to the board case by case for consideration of a fine exemption.

The board considered allowing a 2% overage buffer before the fines kicked in, but decided against it.

DWCD board member Oliver Godwin said a 2% error buffer might give a person the idea that they have more water than they really do, according to DWCD’s May meeting minutes.

The board agreed and decided to set the fines high so that there was no incentive for someone to use more water and pay the penalty in order to increase crop profit.

This season, one irrigator is suspected of exceeding an allowed water amount, Curtis said. The meter record and circumstances will be analyzed to determine the fine.

Dolores Project canals began to shut down this week as farmers used up their limited amount of water. Supply in McPhee Reservoir will shrink to the inactive pool by August. In normal years, the Dove Creek canal runs into October.

Dredging of silt at the Great Cut Dike will be performed in July to allow full access to the active supply in the reservoir.

The canal to the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise is at a trickle of normal flows, Curtis said. The limited supply is being delivered at a low and slow rate to sustain a corn crop relied on by the tribe’s corn mill.

The tribe’s alfalfa fields, like everywhere else in the McPhee service area, mostly lie fallow.

Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. also stores water in McPhee, and faces shortages this year. Customers will receive half their normal allocation, and canals are expected to be shut off in August.

The irrigation company has the most senior water rights on the Dolores River; therefore, the impact of the water shortage is somewhat less.

MVIC has storage rights in McPhee Reservoir, owns Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs, and leases Totten Reservoir for irrigation service to McElmo Canyon.

Groundhog Reservoir is being released to boost supplies in McPhee and Narraguinnep. Groundhog water is delivered via the Dolores River, and has temporarily boosted flows.