Users of the Fire Mountain Canal became the latest victims of the ongoing drought in western Colorado. Water to the 34-mile long canal running from Somerset to the south end of Rogers Mesa was shut off Saturday evening.
Jeff and Kaylee Armstrong are among the nearly 500 water users affected by the shutdown. They grow fruits and vegetables at their Abundant Life Organic Farms on Highway 92, which they sell at farmers' markets in Telluride and Aspen and at their farm stand.
After an unusually dry season in 2012, the Armstrongs built a storage pond, said Kaylee Armstrong. "Otherwise, it would be over."
They're being extremely conservative with what little water they have, constantly checking for leaks in the system, and irrigating only what's absolutely necessary. They're optimistic that they can get through October when the farmers' markets close down and the growing season ends, said Armstrong. In the meantime, "We're crossing our fingers and hoping for rain."
Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Company superintendent Steve Fletcher planned to close the canal head gate below Somerset on Saturday afternoon, but heavy rain in the McClure Pass area delayed the closure until late Saturday evening. "Everybody's pretty understanding about it because it's a bad year," said Fletcher. With some irrigation water getting cut off much earlier in the summer or not being delivered at all, "People feel pretty fortunate they had water this long."
Colorado's complicated system of water rights is based on the "Appropriation Doctrine" of "first in time, first in right." Also known as the "Prior Appropriation System," it allows users with the oldest water rights decrees, or senior rights, to fill their needs ahead of junior right holders by placing calls on the water.
The Paonia Project -- the Paonia Dam and Paonia Reservoir, Fire Mountain Diversion Dam and expansion of the Fire Mountain Canal -- was completed in 1962, mainly to provide stored supplemental water for FMCRC shareholders late in the growing season when demand is high and creeks run low. Saturday's early closure marks the fourth time since 1962 that the canal was closed before the end of the growing season. It also went dry early in 1977 -- the only year the reservoir didn't fill to capacity, and in 2002 and 2012.
What little water still flowing into the reservoir will be released to meet downstream demands.
Calls on the water from the Paonia Reservoir began last spring, said Fletcher. Any additional water flowing into the reservoir is being released to meet those downstream demands.
FMCRC board president Dixie Luke said this is the worst year for water in the 100 years her family has farmed on Rogers Mesa. While they rely on at least two cuttings, Luke said they will get just one cutting this year and will use their second cut for pasture. Some growers will harvest a second cutting and gamble on getting enough rain to regenerate crops for pasture.
Luke said her family also grows several hundred acres of hay in the McClure Pass area. While they own second-decree water rights, this year there wasn't enough water in the spring to meet even the first decree, said Luke. "It looks like the Sahara Desert."
Leroux Creek Water Users Association also delivers water to the Hotchkiss and Rogers Mesa areas. Shareholders are still getting water, "But we're real tight right now," said association president Mark Smith. The LCWUA serves about 85 water users and stores water in 29 fairly small reservoirs located in the Leroux Creek drainage area. Most of those reservoirs are already dry.
The association normally provides water for shareholders to irrigate through Nov. 1, said Smith. "But that's a long ways away."