Paonia, a small town in western Colorado with 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.
But this is comparatively minor stuff, says North Fork Water Commissioner Luke Reschke, as stealing ditchwater is a civil offense. Stealing water from a natural waterway, however, is a crime that can bring fines of $500 per day and jail time. That’s why what was happening to people who depend on the Minnesota Canal company for their fields or gardens was serious: Water was being taken from Minnesota Creek before it could be legally diverted for irrigation to paying customers.
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 it 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, he told me, because “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 locals say 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 the high desert it truly is.
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 said the diversion is legal, and that they only take early-season water when the creek water isn’t on call. That early water, however, is what begins to fill the Minnesota ditch’s reservoir.
In other ways, the mine has damaged the watershed by building a sprawling network of roads in the Sunset Roadless Area. A cease and desist order from the State Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety on June 10, sought by environmental groups, halted the building of an additional 1.6 miles of new roads this spring. Satellite images of the road network resemble a vast KOA Campground: Where trees once held back water and shaded snowpack from early melting, their replacement – gravel roads – shed water and add to early runoff.
For all of Minnesota Ditch’s challenges, warming temperatures brought about by climate change could be the real challenge. Kendall said that this spring, when he plowed out the Minnesota Reservoir road, dust covered the parched ground beneath the snow.
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, (writersontherange.com), a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives part-time in Colorado.