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If the water goes, the desert moves in

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Paonia, a small town in western Colorado, with a handful of mesas rising above it, wouldn’t green-up without water diverted from a river or mountain springs. The lively water travels through irrigation ditches for miles to gardens and small farms below. But this summer, irrigation ditches were going dry, and one, the Minnesota Canal and Reservoir Company, stopped sending water down to its 100-plus customers as early as July 13. 

Drought was hitting the state and much of the West hard, but a local cause was surprising: Water theft. 

Longtime residents who gather inside Paonia’s hub of information trading, Reedy’s Service Station, have a fund of stories about water theft. It’s not unusual, they say, that a rock just happens to dam a ditch, steering water toward a homeowner’s field. Sometimes, says farmer Jim Gillespie, 89, that rock even develops feet and crosses a road.

Once the ditch company “called” for its water as of June 8, only holders of patented water rights could legally touch the creek. Yet during three trips to the creek’s beginning, starting in mid-June, and then in mid-July, I noticed that two ranches—without water rights—were harvesting bumper crops of hay. How could that have happened unless they’d illegally diverted water to their fields? 

At first, no one would talk about the early-drying ditch except to hint broadly that this wasn’t normal. Then one man stepped up: Dick Kendall, a longtime board member of the Minnesota canal company, and manager of its reservoir. “On July 5,” he told me, “I saw water diverted from the creek onto one of the rancher’s land. And I wasn’t quiet about it.”

Kendall reported what he saw to Commissioner Luke Reschke, who oversees the area’s 600 springs, ditches, and canals.  Reschke dismissed it saying, “The rumor mill is something else on Minnesota Creek.  The only people who give me trouble are the new people who don’t know how the system works.”  But people pointed out that four years back, Reschke’s predecessor, Steve Tuck, investigated when locals complained.

Though it may not be neighborly, stopping any illegal diversion is important, said Bob Reedy, owner of Reedy’s Station: “Without water, you’ve got nothing around here.” Annual rainfall is just 15 inches per year, and without water flowing into irrigation canals from the 10,000-foot mountains around town, much of the land would look like what it truly is—high desert.

But it’s not just a couple of high-elevation ranchers dipping into the creek. The West Elk Coal Mine runs large pumps that supply water for its methane drilling and venting operations in the Minnesota Creek watershed. 

Mine spokesperson Kathy Welt, says the diversion is legal, and that they only take early-season water when the creek water isn’t on call.  That flood water, however, is what begins to fill the Minnesota ditch’s reservoir.  

There are about 400 ditch companies in Colorado like the one managing Paonia’s water.  Add another 386 in Idaho,  700 in New Mexico and more than 1100 in Utah and you get an idea of how testy things can get in time of drought.

The town of Jal, New Mexico is in a fight with Denver-based Intrepid Potash and Tulsa’s NGL Energy Partners.  The two companies spent $146 million to buy ranchland to set up a fracking operation.  

The city argues that if fracking operations are allowed to dramatically increase their supply of fresh water, it would totally deplete the town’s only source of water.  It also points out that the “state closed the Jal Basin to new permits years ago.”

In Nevada, litigation between farmers, ranchers, mining companies is in court. Ranchers downstream have senior rights, but the water is first depleted by the gold mining operations. The lawyers for Nevada Gold Mines warn that if the ranchers with senior rights get their way, it “could impact mining in the Humboldt River Basin.

For the entire west, warming temperatures brought about by climate change could be the real challenge. What we are seeing now is almost certain to get worse.

Water—so precious to grow grapes, hay, organic vegetables, and grass-fed beef, and to keep the desert at bay—had vanished early on Lamborn Mesa above Paonia. Farmer Gillespie summed it up, “there’s just no low-snow anymore, and it’s not coming back.”

David Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, (, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives part-time in Paonia.

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