A recently acquired water right in the north end of the Gunnison Valley should have lasting benefits for more than simply the entity that will put it to use.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) approved the acquisition of 5.45 cubic feet per second of water — under the Breem Ditch water right — for instream flow use in Washington Gulch and the Slate River. Both are highly visible water-short streams in Gunnison County.

The Breem Ditch water acquisition is the result of a unique, collaborative approach by the CWCB, the Colorado Water Trust, the Skyland Metropolitan District (SMD) and Verzuh Ranch, Inc., a local development company owned by Billy Joe Lacy and Dan Dow.

The CWCB approved the transaction at its January meeting in Denver. Local CWCB member John McClow explained that the board engages in transactions to acquire instream flow rights for two reasons: preserving the natural environment or enhancing it.

“This one will serve both to a certain extent,” he added. Despite sometimes waterplentiful summers, irrigation demand from the Breem Ditch would often dry up Washington Gulch completely by the middle of July and significantly deplete Slate River flows as well.

The Breem Ditch has historically taken water from Washington Gulch before its confluence with the Slate River. This transaction, however, will allow Washington Gulch to flow year-round, even during dry summers, and will help fix flow shortages to the Slate.

SMD will ultimately put the water acquired under the right to use, by pumping it out of the Slate River into the district’s domestic water supply system, which from 2002 to 2004 — Colorado’s most severe recent drought period — was in danger of impairment. But instead of diverting at the Breem Ditch headgate on Washington Gulch, the water will remain in that waterway and flow into Slate River until it gets to SMD’s point of diversion.

“That preserves the environment in that stretch of the river by keeping the water there,” McClow explained. “In exchange for that (CWCB) is paying part of the cost of acquiring the water right.” The CWCB will protect the water decreed to the Breem Ditch through the state’s instream flow program on Washington Gulch and about two miles of the Slate River below the confluence with Washington Gulch.

McClow further explained that the pasture that was previously irrigated by the Breem Ditch — due west of the confluence of the Slate River and Washington Gulch — is lowlying and within the Slate’s stream alluvium. “It won’t turn a pasture brown,” he said. “But it will improve significantly the flows in the Slate River.”

Gunnison Country Times
Staff Writer