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McElmo Residents Urge Water Managers Not to Leave Their Canyon High and Dry

Austin Cope
Dolores Water Conservancy District Chief Engineer Ken Curtis speaks to a crowd of McElmo Canyon residents, water managers, and interested community members at Monday's meeting

About 75 residents of McElmo Canyon filled the Dolores Water Conservancy District meeting room Monday night to encourage water managers to consider the canyon’s welfare when planning for the next drought. 

One of the main concerns raised at the meeting was Dolores Water Conservancy District’s draft Drought Contingency Plan. It suggests ways to improve efficiency of irrigation systems in Montezuma Valley by reducing runoff from farms and ditches. But much of that runoff goes to McElmo Creek, which supplies water to farms, ranches, and ecosystems in the scenic canyon. McElmo residents at the meeting worried that by encouraging efficiency in the Montezuma Valley, water managers would drastically reduce creek flows. But water experts from Montezuma Valley Irrigation, which operates much of the irrigation infrastructure in the area, explained that while they hope to increase efficiency of their infrastructure, they won’t dictate how farmers will improve water efficiency on their farms.


A second issue with the plan involved a suggestion, called the McElmo Pumpback, that would pump water out of McElmo Canyon into Totten Lake. McElmo residents feared the proposal would limit their access to their own adjudicated water. Their concerns appeared to be somewhat dispelled when a state water official explained that the right to pump water from McElmo was junior to Montezuma Valley Irrigation’s water, so there would still be runoff from farms. Furthermore, once that runoff leaves MVI's control, it is subject to the senior rights of McElmo Canyon irrigators. Also, DWCD engineer Ken Curtis said the cost of a pump would be quite high, so the district’s board would likely prioritize other projects.


DWCD General Manager Mike Preston tells KSJD he hopes to address McElmo residents’ concerns more specifically in the next stages of the plan. McElmo resident Bernard Karwick says he hopes the managers heard his and his neighbors’ concerns, but there are still some unanswered questions. He hopes McElmo residents can organize themselves as the plan moves forward, and make sure their concerns are heard. A public comment period for the drought contingency plan ends on Friday.


Clarification: an earlier version of this story stated that a water right to pump water from McElmo Canyon into Totten Lake was junior to MVI's water, so there would still be runoff from farms. We have updated the story to clarify that after the water leaves MVI's control, the rights then go to McElmo Canyon irrigators.

Austin Cope is a former Morning Edition host for KSJD and now produces work on a freelance basis for the station. He grew up in Cortez and hosted a show on KSJD when he was 10 years old. After graduating from Montezuma-Cortez High School in 2010, he lived in Belgium, Ohio, Spain, northern Wyoming, and Himachal Pradesh, India before returning to the Cortez area. He has a degree in Politics from Oberlin College in Ohio.
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