Visualizing water inequality–from space ~ The Land Desk

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Jonathan P. ThompsonJul 23

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You know that water inequality—and drought—have gotten out of hand when you can see them from space. And this year, satellite imagery that highlights vegetation tells a harrowing story of fallowed fields a stone’s throw from emerald-green ones, of empty ditches next to ones with at least some water in them. And it shows how, during dry years, the abyss between the water-rich and the water-poor widens, a phenomenon most apparent this year in Montezuma County, Colorado. 

Exhibit one includes two views of a section of Montezuma County in the far Southwestern corner of the state, one from July 2019 (top) and the other from a few days ago.

Montezuma County in July 2019 and July 2021. Red is an indicator of leafy vegetation. Source: Sentinel-hub.com

The Montezuma Valley north of Cortez looks about the same in both images—a big swath of red, which is an indicator of leafy vegetation (piñon, juniper, and sage don’t seem to register). But the area northwest of there, heading towards Dove Creek, is clearly a lot drier now than it was two years ago. Meanwhile, McPhee Reservoir has not only shrunk considerably—by about 10 billion gallons—but its shape also changed dramatically as a result. 

So what gives? Seniority, that’s what. 

Western water law is based on a simple foundation: First in time, first in court, first in right. Which is to say, whoever files for a portion of the water in a stream first gets priority. When the stream starts shrinking, the junior water rights holders must shut off their ditches so that the senior rights holders can continue to get their share of water. 

That’s what happened in Montezuma County. When the flow of the area’s main source of water—the Dolores River—waned after a string of dry winters, and McPhee Reservoir began shrinking, it became clear that there wouldn’t be enough water to go around to all the users. 

The river, itself—and the fish and other aquatic life that depend on it—were the first to get cut off, as the McPhee Dam operators decreased downstream releases to about 10 cubic feet per second or less, a mere trickle that does not make it as far as Slickrock, where the riverbed is dry. Next to go were the Towoac Canal (which I’ll get to in a moment) and the Dove Creek Canal, which carries water from McPhee west to the town of Dove Creek. The canal serves Dolores Water Conservation District irrigators from Yellowjacket up to Dove Creek and provides drinking water to the town. During the first part of the irrigating season, flows in the Dove Creek Canal 50 to 75 percent below normal. Then, in early July, they stopped altogether. 

The meagre flows in the Dove Creek Canal are manifested in the image above. In 2019, the fields west of McPhee Reservoir were mostly bright red—which is to say the alfalfa, corn, sunflowers and other crops were well-watered and healthy. In 2021, however, many of those same fields show no vegetation at all, indicating that they were fallowed or simply shriveled up due to lack of water. The few fields that did get a little water produced far less. Some Montezuma County alfalfa farmers told the Cortez Journal they expected a 95% decrease in yield this year—which amounts to an equivalent decrease in revenue, more or less (with some help from rising hay prices—up to $300/ton—resulting from scarcity). 

Even worse off are the irrigators on the Towaoc Canal, most significantly the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s extensive agricultural operations located south of Ute Mountain. Most years, the canal’s flow ranges from 60 to 70 cfs throughout the summer, enough water for multiple alfalfa cuttings and a strong corn crop to feed the operation’s mill. This year flows ranged from 10 to 20 cfs until June, when they plummeted to the single digits, forcing the operation to fallow most of its fields. The results are apparent below.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise in July 2019—following a wet winter—and in July 2021 (right). The operations received about 10 percent of their usual water allocation this year. Source: Sentinel-hub.com

Now, keeping that image in your brain, go back up to the first image and notice all the red north of Cortez. The Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company was able to keep its ditches about half full this summer, and have yet to be cut off entirely, which should allow them to get more than one cutting of hay and a relatively decent yield from their other crops, assuming the grasshopper plague (of Biblical proportions, I’ve been told) doesn’t devour them. They got more water than other users because they have the most senior rights on the Dolores River, having filed for them back in 1885, a century before construction of McPhee Dam was completed. 

If you’re having trouble wrapping your mind around the concept of the Ute Tribe’s farms getting cut off from water before the Montezuma Valley irrigators, you’re not alone. The Ute people were here, relying on the water in the Dolores River, for centuries prior to the arrival of the white settlers who built a tunnel from the Dolores River to a network of canals in the Montezuma Valley. And under the Winters Doctrine, the tribe is entitled to all of the water they need and then some, with an appropriation date of 1868, meaning the tribe should get all the water. 

But when negotiating to get their water delivered to them, the Ute Tribe made some concessions. They didn’t give up their 1868 priority date, but they did accept a later priority date for the delivery of that water—at least that’s how I understand this language from the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement of 1986:

(Dear Land Desk water expert readers: Please feel free to correct my understanding of Dolores River water rights or to further elucidate the issue in the comments section or via email to me.)

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To be sure, all farmers are having a tougher time of it this year, even the ones whose ditches are running full. If they aren’t suffering from lack of water, they’re dealing with grasshoppers, which are more prevalent this year due to the lack of precipitation and the relatively warm winter. If they’re lucky enough to be outside the grasshopper zone, then they’re grappling with heat, which damages the health of crops and the people who tend to them. And if they’re wannabe farmers trying to help supply the burgeoning, pandemic-induced demand for local produce, they’re running into skyrocketing land prices. And guess which land is most expensive and most out of reach of folks on a farmer income? The land with the good water. 

And so, wealth inequality leads to water inequality—and round and round we go. 

The “Dryside” of La Plata County in July 2019 and 2021. Source: Sentinel-hub.com

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