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Students learn not to take water for granted

Fifth graders from around the region had primo weather for the annual Kids' Water Festival Wednesday at Fort Lewis College. The event is organized by the Southwestern Water Conservation District to educate kids about where their water comes from when they turn on the tap, and the logistics and legalities involved in that.

Classes rotated through a series of fun and educational activities, some of which inevitably involved water being thrown at someone.

Durango firefighters showed students the portable water tank used to supply water to fight a rural fire where there are no hydrants. Tankers shuttle water from a central supply to the portable tank, while a pumper truck pulls water from the tank to put on the fire. In the old days, community members had to use a bucket brigade, students were told.

Libby DeHaan's class from Ignacio lined up to compete with kids from another school in a bucket brigade to see which group could be first to fill a five gallon bucket to overflowing. Not all the water ended up in the five gallon bucket. The Ignacio kids won at least two rounds.

Another session introduced kids to the intricacies of Colorado water law, which determines who gets water when there isn't enough for everyone to have all they want. Presenters were water commissioners Marty Robbins, who oversees water from McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River, Jeff Titus who oversees water from the Animas River, and Tom Fiddler who is in charge of water from the Florida River. They are the front line enforcers of Colorado's priority system, "first in time, first in right."

Students from Ryan Blundell's class in Bayfield gathered around a table top three dimensional landscape with a reservoir at the top end, several little stream channels, and markers showing senior and junior water rights with their priority dates.

Robbins asked students if they know where their water comes from, for household use or irrigation, and how it gets to them. He asked them to describe the water cycle and then led into the priority system. He stressed that water is a private property right. "Today everyone but the La Plata River has plenty of water," he said. "Everybody is happy. What happens when the snow goes away?"

The water commissioners opened or closed tiny barriers on the mock landscape to shut off junior water rights in favor of senior rights. There is a way for those with junior rights to keep getting water, by having storage rights in a reservoir, they said. Reservoirs hold water for use later in the year when stream flows drop. A reservoir is man-made, while a lake is natural.

Titus advised that Emerald Lake above Vallecito is one of the largest natural lakes in Colorado. He said the oldest ditch in Colorado that's still in use is the People's Ditch on the Culebra River in the San Luis Valley. It dates from 1852 (Colorado became a state in 1876) and was constructed by Spanish settlers.

What happens if dams aren't properly inspected and maintained, Robbins asked. The dam could break and all your houses below get wet, he said, splashing water across the tabletop landscape and students.

Students learned about a quantity of water called an acre foot. That is one acre, about the size of a football field, covered with water one foot deep. Vallecito holds 125,000 AF.

Titus said an average household uses around 100,000 gallons per year, or about half that with no outside watering. People who have to haul water use much less, he said. Water is used and re-used as it flows through Bayfield and Ignacio to Navajo Reservoir and the San Juan River to join the Colorado River in Lake Powell, then to Lake Mead, then south to Mexico.