Adapting to change is essential as water bodies evolve
“Water is life,” said Selwyn Whiteskunk, elder of Ute Mountain Ute, tribal councilor and longtime water expert. He spoke at the September 21 workshop “Water Connections: Adaptation from our forest to our deserts”, organized by the Southwestern Water Conservation District and the Four Corners Water Center at Fort Lewis College.
“Water is for fighting” seems to sum up the Anglo-American approach to this precious resource. The institutional response to mitigate such a conflict is the system of prior appropriation: “First in use, first in right”. Native Americans, of course, were first used on this land, but the first treaties that codified these rights were ignored for a century.
To settle water rights for the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute tribes here, Congress funded the Animas La-Plata project that created Nighthorse Lake. A-LP has a complex history almost as long as that of the adage “fighter”. He eventually allocated most of the stored water for the use of the two Ute tribes, but no funding for delivering water to either. This has created a significant access challenge for the Mountain Utes, whose center of the reserve is beyond Mesa Verde. A-LP water has also been purchased by the City of Durango, the La Plata Archuleta River Basin District, the La Plata West Water Authority and the Lake Durango Water Authority.
For Durango, accessing water from Nighthorse Lake would be essential drought protection. Therefore, the city has included the development of its “available water supply resources” in the 2018 update of the La Plata County Local Risk Mitigation Plan. (Having such a plan in place is a prerequisite for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)
The infrastructure to access this water is a highlight of the city’s new water system master plan, which will be reviewed by Durango City Council over the coming weeks. The plan calls for delivery of water from Nighthorse Lake to the College Mesa Water Treatment Plant, among other system upgrades. A technical study in 2022 to refine cost estimates for delivering water from Lake Nighthorse to College Mesa is the next logical step.
To save money on these costly infrastructure investments, the city and LAPLAWD are discussing possible joint funding. Additionally, LPWWA, in partnership with LDWA, began providing residential water via Lake Durango to the dry part of the county in 2020.
Such collaboration must also occur within the larger context of the Colorado River Basin. The current declining river flow allocation regime expires in 2026. Unfortunately, the underlying Colorado River Compact of 1922 allocates more than the 20th century average; the flows projected under climate change are even less. Falling water levels in Lake Mead during the current drought prompted the declaration in August of the very first downstream water rights reduction, starting in 2022. Few doubts the future holds any news restrictions that will affect everyone.
A collaborative interstate deal to reallocate the declining Colorado River bounty beyond 2026 will surely include increased conservation. Contributions are to come from the 40 million inhabitants of the basin (including those outside the basin who receive water through transmontane diversions) and its 3.5 million acres of cultivated land. As discussed at the FLC meeting, improving forest management can help protect the water that Mother Nature delivers to “water towers” in the mountains each year.
Climate change and prolonged drought are the backdrop for all of these actions in the 21st century West. The theme of the FLC meeting on water was adaptation. Whiteskunk emphasized that adaptation is what his people have always done. He also underlined the understanding that in our region today, the path to successful adaptation is collaboration, so that we all have sufficient access to water that supports life.