Crime, Conflict and Hot Headedness Over Diminished Irrigation Water

2013-07-12 10.07.44Water shortages this season have led to an increase in disputes and woes over irrigation water. A great article in the Denver Post says, ‘the number of disputes has gone up as fast as the midsummer thermometer’:

“There’s probably more disputes over water down here now than there is over wives. It’s been a real trying year,” Zwicker said. “When it’s 110 (degrees) out and you’re trying to get your crops wet, and you’re out of water, and you find your neighbor has it, well, you blow your stack.”

There are no statewide figures for the anecdotal spike in water disputes this year. Each county and the dozens of water districts and ditch companies in Colorado handle the trouble in different ways.

Montezuma County has had enough trouble that Sheriff Dennis Spruell has designated a water deputy to act as a mediator and an enforcer when neighbors call in accusing one another of stealing, hogging or wasting water.

That deputy has been fielding 20 to 30 calls a day lately, compared with four or five calls in the past.

He’s not the only one overburdened by water woes. On some hot mornings, the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co.’s water commissioner in Cortez has received 20 to 30 calls by coffee-break time.

Disputes range from finding suspicious shovel-built ditches to catching someone red-handed diverting water. One method of stealing water is for a water thief to open a gate in the middle of the night to divert water to his crops and to sneak back before daylight to reset the water flow and try to cover up the crime.

These aren’t the first disputes Colorado has seen over water (of course not!), but we do have a system of administration to deal with it– including those water cops. From Allen Best’s article from the Summer 2009 Headwaters magazine:

Blood has, in fact, been spilled in Colorado because of water. Whether the violence has been frequent enough to justify the large legend may be another matter. The prevailing story has been of quiet order and an attentive devotion to the efficient governance of every creek, ditch, and river—and, since the 1960s, every well.

Yes, controversies have erupted. Opinions have differed in interpretation of the law, with court decisions later rendering revisions to procedures with far-reaching consequences. In recent decades, urban growth and the emergence of new environmental values have impacted water distribution. Sustained drought in the early 21st century sobered users, administrators and policy-makers alike. Yet through these changes there has been coherence and clarity. The system has worked.

At the bottom of this pyramid, but crucial in every way, are the water commissioners. Until 1969, they were deputized sheriffs, authorized to carry weapons as they carried out their duties of fairly allocating water. When Simpson joined the agency in 1972, about half were former farmers and ranchers. Now they come from varied walks of life, although many have college educations, particularly in resource administration. More important than the degree is the skill set, says Simpson: technically competent but also peacemakers by nature, long on courage, and able to listen well and express themselves… read the full article.

Interested in water for agriculture? Check out the Fall 2012 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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