"The water is our life blood that feeds all of us," Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Clement Frost told participants in the 34th annual Water Seminar on April 1 in Durango.
The seminar is organized by the Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWWCD). This year's event celebrated the district's 75th anniversary.
"The Creator gave us that water," Frost said, "made it available to all of us. The tribe had to believe we were put here to be stewards of the water and the land. The tribe didn't own the land. The people were part of the land. The land, water, resources, all belong to the man above. ... We will continue to work with other organizations to protect the water."
The Animas/ La Plata Project and the now completed Lake Nighthorse were mentioned by Frost and other speakers as examples of choosing collaboration over litigation. They settle Ute water rights claims going back to 1868, senior to any other rights.
"The tribes and water users have a relationship that's quite unique" versus other places where entities end up in court fights that can last for decades, explained Christine Arbogast with the lobbying firm of Kogovsek and Associates. "Here the tribes and non-Indian community decided in the early 1980s to negotiate and not litigate."
The negotiations started in 1984 and concluded in 1986, she said, but they still needed congressional approval, which came in 1988 with bipartisan support from the Colorado delegation. But an irrigation water delivery system to the Dry Side had to be eliminated as part of that.
Arbogast called that a painful compromise, "that we all looked at the stewardship of water together and the preciousness of water together."
Frost said, "I have the most admiration for the ranchers who gave up their rights to irrigation water. They understood it was necessary for Animas/ La Plata to move ahead."
He commended the help of SWWCD "in helping us get things done. We all march together to take care of a problem, and not march apart to continue a problem."
Speakers through the day cited the water district's financial and other help in their various missions.
The district was formed in 1941 by the state legislature and is one of four such districts around the state, district Director Bruce Whitehead said. The district covers all of six counties and parts of three others. The district's directive is to protect and develop all waters in the basin that the state is entitled to, he said.
District Board President John Porter noted there are nine river systems within the district, and they all flow out of state.
"Indian water rights cases couldn't have been solved without storage," he said. "Without that, non-Indians wouldn't have much water after July 1" each year, when rivers tend to go on call.
The district is funded with property taxes. It has a $1.5 million annual budget and over the past 30 years has awarded almost $9 million in grants, Porter said.
Longtime Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina said $50,000 from SWWCD and $25,000 from the Southwest Water Roundtable helped the 18-lot Palo Verde subdivision near Three Springs install a water line to get Durango water when residents' domestic wells started failing.
Travis Custer with the High Desert and Mancos Conservation Districts said education efforts on more efficient irrigation methods are part of "the idea that we are responsible for our resources. Water saved on the farm benefits everyone... It's mitigation rather than emergency response. It doesn't have to come at the cost of an ag operation." Instead, it can be an enhancement, he said.
"We're looking at ways to replicate efficiencies in the larger area," Custer said. "We have to work together, agencies with agencies and with producers to build trust. In the West, these situations aren't going to get any better. No new water will be created."
Asked how more efficient irrigation might have consequences with the doctrine of "use it or lose it," Custer said that doctrine has a lot of gray areas. "We have to look at opportunities to adjust our thought process and legislate to address the current situation. We want to keep land in ag. Legislation that prohibits conservation needs to be addressed," he said.
The keynote speakers were water attorney and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs and Bill McDonald, a former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and a lead negotiator on the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Agreement and the implementing legislation.
"Remember your history is lesson 1," McDonald said. He gave a brief history of water issues in Colorado and called water "the state's liquid gold."
Debates over trans-mountain water diversions started in the 1930s with the Colorado/ Big Thompson water project to bring water to northeastern Colorado. In 1937, a Governor's Water Defense Association was created to defend against downstream states. In-stream flow rights became an issue in the 1970s.
Hobbs said about two-thirds of the water that originates in Colorado flows out of state to 18 downstream states. In the 1980s, he and fellow attorney David Robbins won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to keep Ute water rights cases in state rather than federal courts. They also defended the constitutionality of in-stream flow rights.
"In-stream flow has been our safety valve to show we can preserve the environment in the name of the people," Hobbs said. "It was a great day when that was upheld."
The seminar finished with Peter Butler from the Animas River Stakeholders Group and discussion of toxic mine drainage from above Silverton. SWWCD helped with funding for four stream gauges near Silverton. The one on Cement Creek is how it was determined that the Gold King mine spill last August was 3 million gallons, he said. SWWCD also helped them get in-stream flow rights and has supported "Good Samaritan" legislation, he said and thanked the district for its support over the years.
The day included a tribute to Fred Kroeger, who was on the SWWCD board for 55 years and served as board president for 33 years. He died last year at age 97. He also served on various other state and local water-related boards and community service groups. He and buddy Sam Maynes Sr. were known for the lame jokes they told at the water seminars as well as for their water project advocacy including A/LP and McPhee on the Dolores.
"He set the standard by which we behave in the water business," water engineer Steve Harris said of Kroeger. "Be a diplomat, dignified, a gentleman. Be willing to compromise. Don't be a wimp. Don't give up. Be involved."
Arbogast added: "You never heard him call anybody a name. In today's political environment, that would be pretty refreshing, wouldn't it?"