Conejos County District Manages Water Efficiently
Water is like money...Someone will manage it! You can’t expect gravity alone to equalize the flows of water. A progressive “hands-on “approach is the best method of management that gives consistent and satisfactory results.
In the 1850-70’s when the railroads were carving out rights-of-way through Northern New Mexico and the San Luis Valley, the US military was expatriating hostiles, and farmers and ranchers were focusing on water. This was the era of the canal building and ditch digging. Land was being cleared and the essential element- water was being acquired. In this high desert, the ranchers and farmers were quick to learn the importance of this life-giving substance.
Settlers to the Conejos River area, which rivals the San Luis area for antiquity of civilization and establishment, were not any different. These water users filed for and received their adjudicated decrees. In fact about 10 of the oldest priority dates in the Rio Grande system belong to the Conejos River. Early on these pioneer/settlers were legally and progressively seeking and putting to beneficial use water. With their shoulders bowed to the work they kept their vision focused on the future.
The southern end of the San Luis Valley has always had strong developmental ties to the rivers. The oldest communities in the area were established along the waterways and dependant on the rivers for their success. Ditches like the Guadalupe and the Headsmill (priorities 1&2 respectively) were developed for 1,000’s of acres of land and industry, with examples like the Finley Ranch and the Antonito grist mill and the Town of Antonito’s drinkable water supply developed from their priority on the Conejos River. Although these structures had to be hand built to divert the water, the area developed and progressed.
The people of the Conejos did not sit back and expect gravity to do the work. They looked up, up stream, 10,000 feet up in fact. In the early 1940’s The Conejos Water Conservancy District was formed to be the local vehicle that would seek partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation in building a reservoir. The San Luis Valley Project study identified the Platoro site at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level as the most feasible. As soon as WWII ended and funding became available construction began. This $3 million project was completed one year ahead of schedule and under budget. (Where have those days gone?)
Because of Compact compliance issues across the entire valley, Platoro Reservoir was not able to be used to its potential until 1985 when Elephant Butte reservoir spilled releasing Colorado from its compact debt.
The Conejos Water Conservancy District’s board was as forward thinking as their ancestors and went through years of negotiations and deals and finally in 1992 got exclusive operation of Platoro reservoir for its 88,000 acres. The board didn’t stop there. In the meantime to acquire ownership of the reservoir the district went to water court for a very progressive and innovative idea... their Direct Flow storage program. This decree allows the participants to forego diverting 100 percent of their water right during the high water, store that non diverted portion in the reservoir and then later in that season withdraw the water for the crops. This was a very novel thought for the decree. Normally water storage requires an absolute decree which in some years could have violated the conditions of the Rio Grande Compact.
With intentions for a positive future, the Conejos Water Conservancy District has applied for funding to install equipment and have near live data for the majority of diversions on the Conejos’ system. Now beginning in the summer of 2012 the Conejos Water Conservancy District will hopefully install their “first-in-the-valley” remote gauging stations project. This is an un-paralleled approach to water management.
In this time of changing agricultural practices, changing weather patterns, and diminishing budgets the Conejos River’s compact obligation will be more accurately accounted for with automated gates, updated structures, and a more efficient approach by the Division of Water Resources River Commissioners. These automated gates on some of the biggest diversions will help offset the fluctuations of river flows due to timing of the snowmelt. These naturally occurring variable flows will stay in the river, not be absorbed into the head gates.
With the belief that water is money and “If you won’t manage your money, someone else will through charges and interest,” the water users along the Conejos system seem well adapted to look forward and take innovative steps to help future generations with their water needs.
Nathan, his wife Charlotte and their four children have a small alfalfa, cattle, and grain operation northwest of Manassa. He has managed the Conejos Water Conservancy District since 2010. The district may be reached at PO Box 550, Manassa 81141.