Cow Creek

Ouray County and partners have applied for conditional water rights for augmentation of water supply through proposed projects on Cow Creek, a major creek that flows from southeast to northwest of the east side of the county. The projects include the building of a reservoir and a pipeline to feed Cow Creek water into Ridgway Reservoir for use during drought years. (Ouray County Road Map by Ouray County GIS 2009)

Ouray County is hoping to develop new and existing water rights on a major tributary of the Uncompahgre River, so water can be stored in a proposed reservoir and transported through a ditch or pipeline for temporary storage in Ridgway Reservoir. The county partnered with the Ouray County Water Users Association, a group representing ranchers with water rights, and Tri-County Water Conservancy District, the operator of Ridgway Reservoir and Dam, to apply for new and augmented water rights Dec. 30, 2019.

The three partners are jointly seeking the right to divert surface water from Cow Creek up to 20 cubic feet per second and store 25,349.15 acre feet, which is equal to 8.26 billion gallons, in a yet-to-be-built reservoir. The water rights application also requested the right to exchange up to 30 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek for water from other locations within Tri-County’s water rights holdings around Ouray County.

The water rights application was made after the completion of a water supply study commissioned by the Ouray County Stream Management & Planning Steering Committee, a group including the three partners and other local stakeholders that was organized as an effort to understand local water supply conditions after the droughts of 2012 and 2018.

“Our challenge is that during dry years the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association with its members’ senior rights puts a call on water from the Uncompahgre River (UVWUA), which means a lot of our users in Ouray County don’t have the water they need. This water rights application is essentially an augmentation plan, to alleviate the results of a call from UVWUA. It would help us add some water supplies where we don’t have them by retiming flows and releases, moving water and storing it in years when we have lots of water, and using it in years without water,” said Marti Whitmore, attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association, who was formerly the attorney for the county and has long been involved in water rights law.

The plan is to take water from Cow Creek without impacting the water that belongs to current water rights holders. Beyond that basic premise, much about the proposed projects is yet to be determined. The exact location of the pipeline or ditch, as well as the design and management of the reservoir, still need to be researched and negotiated with various stakeholders, including private and public property owners.

The main use for the water rights would be to supplement irrigation of 100,300 acres of mostly hay pastures, but the water rights application also lists other prior uses as domestic, municipal, industrial and flood control, and new uses as storage, flow stabilization, augmentation, exchange, aquifer recharge, reuse, commercial, piscatorial, streamflow enhancement, aquatic life, and hydropower generation and augmentation.

The water storage is a right owned by Tri-County, which was approved sometime in the 1950s as Ram’s Horn Reservoir, and decreed to be located in the vicinity of Ramshorn Gulch and Ramshorn Ridge northwest of Courthouse Mountain in the Cimarron Range. The Ridgway Reservoir was selected as the preferred alternative, and the smaller reservoir was never developed.

The proposed reservoir is on Uncompahgre National Forest land, but not within the wilderness area. Though on public land, the reservoir would not be publicly accessible for any uses such as recreation due to a stipulation made during a previous water rights case about the project. The pipeline or ditch would be located somewhere north of the reservoir, connecting flow from a point on Cow Creek to the Ridgway Reservoir to the west.

The cost and funding for the projects had not been determined yet, Whitmore said.

While no timeline has been set for the projects, the partners hope to have the water rights application successfully completed in 2020, after which other steps in the process from design to funding and federal permitting will begin, she added.

The water rights application will be reviewed by the Colorado District Court Water Division 4 in Montrose, which handles cases in the Gunnison River Basin. Division 4 Water Court Specialist Darleen Cappannokeep said it generally takes six months for applications to be approved, sometimes as short as four months with no opposition, or up to a year or longer when there is opposition. The approval time can be lengthened for applications filed in the winter when water engineers can’t easily get to water sources for their research.

People or organizations can file a statement of opposition to water rights applications up to 60 days after the date of application, which in this case, would be the end of February.

Cappannokeep said when a water rights application related to reservoir construction was filed by Tri-County in 2014, several statements of opposition were received from nearby ranch owners and the Ouray County Water Users Association. The association could not be reached in time for this article to share why they changed from opposing the reservoir to filing for water rights for it.

During the application review process, staff from the Division 4 engineering office will go to the sites outlined in the application to do inspections of water availability, use and rights to ensure the rights in the application would not “injure” existing water users. They then recommend whether to approve, and a water referee will issue a ruling that could include amendments to the requested rights and stipulations in response to any opposition.

“We have reviewed the application in an effort to evaluate the potential effects that the proposed claims may have on the fisheries resources in Cow Creek, Dallas Creek and the Uncompahgre River. The application lacks sufficient detail related to the implementation of the claims to allow us to answer questions (about it) at this time,” said Eric Gardunio, aquatic biologist for the Montrose office of Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

Ken Lipton has been a member of the Ouray County Stream Management and Planning Steering Committee, as well as a local rancher and former board member of the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, a nonprofit with a purpose of protecting the watershed in the county.

“The projects are necessary to prevent total loss of irrigation and stock water during extreme drought,” he said. “The bottom line is a reduced chance that there will be calls on our ditches during extreme droughts. However, I don’t think this will totally guarantee that no calls will occur.”