Every spring for the last four years, John Crawford has walked the Robinson Ditch and has noticed that people are stealing water.
Crawford, whose family has ranched on land near El Jebel for more than 50 years, takes the walk along the canal that conveys water from the Roaring Fork River near Emma through Willits and into El Jebel. His primary goal is to look for rocks, branches or other natural obstructions that can impede the ditch’s flow during spring runoff. Along the way, though, he often finds man-made impedances of a different sort: hoses, pipes and other ad hoc modes of diversion that people use to pull water from the ditch and irrigate their yards.
“We’ve run into a problem with people running hoses and pipes into the ditch and just siphoning it over the hill,” said Crawford, as he walked along the banks of the Robinson on a recent morning. “Normally what I do is just throw the hoses out of the ditch, but they will definitely re-appear, so I just throw them out of the ditch again and just keep up with it.”
Technically, such diversions are illegal, since the residents who make them haven’t purchased water rights on the ditch. Yet state law isn’t set up to penalize such small-scale water theft, meaning that it often goes unpunished.
And while “small straw” diversions like these may be individually insignificant, state water officials say that on a statewide basis they can take a sizable chunk out of available water supplies.
“I think it’s probably pretty common for people to dip into the river,” said Jake DeWolfe, the state water commissioner for District 38, which includes the lower Roaring Fork and Crystal River watersheds. “The little pumps add up, and suddenly it can be a larger problem.”
Currently, though, no one has the authority to address the problem through sanctions or other punitive measures. Because of the size of his territory, DeWolfe only monitors the head gates of ditches, where they branch off from the Roaring Fork or Crystal rivers.
DeWolfe spends his days worrying about the large-scale water users, like the group of farmers and ranchers in the Grand Junction area who can force Roaring Fork Valley irrigators to draw less water each summer when they invoke a large agricultural right called the Cameo Call.
And although he sometimes sanctions people for pumping water illegally from the Roaring Fork River, DeWolfe rarely ventures down the myriad ditches that it feeds.
“We basically just know what water can be taken at the head gate,” said DeWolfe, of himself and other water commissioners. “Since we don’t know who owns what on the ditch, it’s hard for us to enforce whose allowed to have a pump in there.”
This lack of oversight on small-scale waterways was raised last week at a meeting of the Roaring Fork Watershed Collaborative, a group of nonprofits and government agencies now in the process of drafting a management plan for the Roaring Fork River and its tributaries.
The rancher who raised the problem didn’t wish to be named, but said he depends on water from the Robinson Ditch to irrigate his fields near El Jebel.
“Many people irrigate [out of that ditch] who don’t have water rights and they’re basically stealing water,” he told the assembled group of water experts. “It’s a lot of small straws and I just wanted to see if this was on anybody’s radar.”
Peter Nichols, a Boulder-based water lawyer who works with agricultural and municipal users throughout the state, responded that while the problem is large enough to matter, it’s likely too small for the state to address.
“This is a growing problem that the state is not going to do anything about,” he said at an Aug. 8 meeting. “I was floating the Roaring Fork earlier today and I saw tons of pumps dangling into the river. But the amount of water being diverted is too small,” for a meaningful state response.
That could change in the coming years, Nichols said, as water demand in Colorado continues to outstrip supply. If that happens, the state will be looking for every possible tool to stretch existing water resources, and cracking down on small diversions could be one of them.
State law does contain a list of sanctions for people caught diverting water illegally, but for now water commissioners only impose those sanctions on larger waterways like the Roaring Fork River.
If DeWolfe sees an illegal pump in the Roaring Fork, he tags it and cautions the user to remove it or turn it off.
“That’s where it usually stops,” he said. “If they keep using it, we issue a cease and desist order; from there it can go to the attorney general, and we can start to fine them around $500 per day.”
Deputizing ditch walkers or other administrators with the right to issue similar fines, DeWolfe said, could perhaps lead to fewer illegal diversions.
“Maybe we could give them some kind of tool to be able to better enforce the rules on the ditch,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, as Crawford checked the flows of the Robinson Ditch at a gauge near the Roaring Fork River, the river was running at about 75 percent of its average for that date, according to the Roaring Fork Conservancy. The flow in the ditch was low as a result.
“That chip in the paint is where we’re supposed to be at this time of year,” said Crawford, gesturing at a dry spot on the gauge, a few inches above the water level.
Water theft on the ditch, Crawford said, isn’t pervasive enough yet to make a measurable difference to its water level, meaning that even if someone is stealing water, they probably won’t get caught.
“It’s hard to tell when someone’s taking more than their share,” Crawford said.