Hat Creek’s cutthroat trout get some bonus water from Vail Resorts land deal

VAIL, Colo. — An Eagle County land trade that helped Vail Resorts add a little acreage at the Vail Village base area will also end up helping fish, including rare cutthroat trout, in Hat Creek, in the Upper Brush Creek drainage.

The land and water deal involved collaboration between Vail Resorts, the Colorado Water Trust, the U.S. Forest Service, and Western Land Group, a private company that facilitates land trades between the federal government and private parties.

Once a state water court approves the change of irrigation rights in Hat Creek, instream flow water rights will be the only decreed water use in Hat Creek.

As part of the trade, Vail Resorts acquired property along Hat Creek from the Conservation Fund. The property included an irrigation water right decreed in 1917 to the Hat Creek Ditch for 2 cubic feet per second that historically irrigated about 22 acres.

In the exchange, Vail Associates conveyed the Hat Creek property to the Forest Service, but did not include the water rights in the transaction. Instead, at the Forest Service’s request, Vail conveyed the Hat Creek water rights to the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, the only entity in Colorado allowed to hold water rights for instream purposes and defend those rights against other streamflow-depleting water uses.

The water trust donated the Hat Creek water rights to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to enhance the streamflow on Hat Creek. Then it abandoned all of the conditional rights on Hat Creek as part of the transaction.

The combination of converting the Hat Creek right, a senior irrigation right, to instream flows and abandoning conditional water rights provides complete flow protection on Hat Creek.

Hat Creek contains native cutthroat trout, and has been designated as excellent quality cutthroat trout habitat by two different state agencies.

A similar transfer was used to protect a section of Hermosa Creek, near Durango, said Western Land Group’s Adam Poe, explaining that, even though the Forest Service acquired land in the deal, it doesn’t necessarily want to be in the business of administering associated water rights.

The Forest Service has a hard time managing water rights, and we’re not doing these land trades to get the water rights and hold on to them,” Poe said. “Our clients can donate the water rights to the water trust, and they have the ability to convert them to instream flow rights. I can see us doing that again, but not every property has water rights associated with it,” he said.

“This is a great example of a win-win situation,” said water trust director Amy Beatie. “CWT’s job is to help conservation-minded water rights holder place their water rights to conservation use through all available means. This land exchange and water rights donation is the perfect example of making the water-conservation-most out of a land transaction. Vail Associates was able to obtain the land it wanted, the Forest Service obtained new land in the area, and the local stream system of Hat Creek benefitted by increased stream flows for the local fishery.“

To place the water to instream flow uses, the historically irrigated land acquired by the Forest Service as part of the exchange will no longer be irrigated.E

The Vail Business Journal
Bob Berwyn