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GMWUA manages complex water issues

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Photo submitted A cabin on a creek in Surface Creek Valley experienced some flooding Friday. Water commissioners are watching the natural flow and rise of the water filling the reservoirs this year extra close to avoid catastrophes such as overtopping.

Nearly 70 years ago shareholders united, putting their trust in a board of directors to manage and administer privately-owned reservoir water. Because of this effort, the Grand Mesa Water Users Association exists and is responsible for more than 100 privately-owned reservoirs with over 1,500 shareholders.

"The water world is full of complexities and it literally takes a village with the water office being a crucial and central hub," said GMWUA office manager Denise Jackson, who has worked with irrigation water since 2007.

Water is utilized in the following order: runoff (available to everyone, but must contact the Department of Water Resources prior to opening headgate); decree (specific ownership associated with ditches, most commonly found listed on warranty deed and delivered by DWR according to prior appropriation doctrine of "first in time, first in right"); reservoir (privately owned and administered via GMWUA).

Managing water is no easy task. GMWUA has one full-time employee, Jackson, and three part-time employees. Helpers are hired in the spring to assist state water commissioners.

In the spring these helpers assist commissioners by blowing out spillways and digging out gauge rods. According to Jackson, this spring process is imperative. The spillways need to be open and free from jams so snowmelt doesn't overload the dam. Gauge rods measure water in the reservoirs so appropriations can be set.

Commissioners monitor conditions on the Grand Mesa, especially this year. With the heavy snow pack a few days of warm weather can quickly change conditions from safe to hazardous.

"The eyes of the water commissioners diligently watching the natural flow and rise of the water filling the reservoirs is essential to avoiding catastrophes such as overtopping," said Jackson.

Setting appropriations is a joint effort. According to Jackson, commissioners record the amount of water held in each reservoir. GMWUA then deducts 10% for evaporation, with the remaining amount divided by shares (incorporated company) or by fractional ownership (unincorporated reservoir).

The amount of water available for appropriation depends on three criteria: carryover (the amount of water remaining as of Nov. 1), winter snowpack, and whether the reservoir has a restriction on the amount of water it can store.

When it comes to managing the water at the office Jackson thankfully has a computer program that records information in a detailed account system similar to a checking account. Prior to that, everything was recorded on paper. "Many owners have ownership in multiple reservoirs. Can you imagine that record-keeping nightmare? We have come a long way," said Jackson.

Once reservoir appropriations are set, the water office opens and begins taking orders. Then the commissioners receive their orders from GMWUA.

"We give them the gross amount needed by users. Their job is to turn the appropriate amount from the reservoir(s) into the different drainages," said Jackson. "Water is then turned into the various ditches (there are over 150 in the database) where it is captured and distributed by ditch riders or private users."

Water is turned on or off in the early morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Shareholders can also lease or rent excess reservoir water to other shareholders within the Surface Creek Valley. GMWUA posts a list of users who wish to sell or lease their water; these lists and forms are available at the office.

During water season GMWUA employee Hans Reusch monitors the seep from various reservoirs. Each week his reports aid dam safety engineer Jason Ward.

"If seep numbers increase, this could be an indicator of issues potentially leading to dam failure. Hans is yet another set of eyes constantly watching reservoir conditions," said Jackson.

On Grand Mesa, cell service is usually non-existent. As commissioners, helpers, GMWUA field employees like Reusch carry satellite GPS tracking devices known as SPOTs. These are crucial to allowing communication even from the most remote areas. Throughout the year, water commissioners work alone, in inclement conditions, under cover of darkness, surrounded by wild animals, and steep terrain. "The SPOT is invaluable," emphasized Jackson.

Even when not spring or summer the water world stays active.

Annual meetings for all incorporated companies are held in winter. During this time shareholders are informed of repairs needed, provided an overview of the year, set assessments, elect officers and are given an explanation of finances.

Once assessments are set, invoices are billed. Maintenance and repairs are the biggest expense for an incorporated reservoir, since the GMWUA is not responsible for these. Ditch riders are also an expense.

GMWUA assessments enable upkeep of assets, general office operations, provide for employee and helper wages and purchase of new equipment (snowblowers, SPOTs, general office equipment). Located in Cedaredge, the GMWUA building is at 980 W. Main St. Four cabins are also owned by the association and used by commissioners during the summer.

For more information, or to view the frequently asked questions on GMWUA, their website is www.gmwua.org.

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Surface Creek
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Cedaredge, Grand Mesa Water Users Association, water
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