“Don’t let that water get off the hill,” was the only instruction Marc Catlin’s father, Keith, gave Marc and his brother, Greg, when he sent them out to water the crops on the Catlin farm on the Spring Creek plateau back in the 1950s.
Little did Marc know then that those words would pretty much be the underlying theme of much of his life. At 67, this Montrose farm native is a kind of renaissance man of the Western Slope. His varied career and lifestyle have included farmer, gas station attendant, real estate entrepreneur, farm credit lender, water district manager and Colorado State Representative from the 58th district. He and Sen. Don Coram share the job of representing the southwest corner of Colorado in the state legislature.
“Don was my first boss when I went to work at the gas station,” says Catlin, an energetic man with the voice of a documentary narrator. He tells stories and talks about things like water in smooth, quickly understood sentences.
“Dad told me as much as you like people you need to go get a job in town and meet more people,” Catlin says. “Don worked at the Phillps 66 station, he was the guy handling all the fuel oil farm deliveries and other things.”
Marc says he enjoyed the job and getting to know Coram who is five years older and another farm kid working in the “city.” The two of them had anything but politics on the minds then — Don took Marc to his first bar. Even though he had an in-town job, there was still a farm to run. In fact you won’t talk to the assemblyman very long without talking about water and farming.
The Catlin Farms in the ’50s and ’60s were where the family grew sugar beets and what was called Coors Barley. The barley was a special high protein strain that grew well in the Uncompahgre Valley. It apparently was one of the things besides the Rocky Mountain spring water that made the beer special. The Golden operation bought everything the locals could grow. Times were good. Then the Holly Sugar company closed the beet processing plant in Delta. Half a dozen years later Coors pulled out, telling the farmers, which included the Catlins, that soil conditions had changed and the quality of the grain had dropped below Coor’s standards.
“We weren’t happy about it, but you know primary crops change for some areas because of water, soil, labor costs, transportation, or marketing,” says Catlin. Originally, orchards were the top crop, then the simple cost of caring for orchards and getting the fruit to market made tree farming unprofitable.
“You know for a long time this Valley was also known for its potatoes. There were a lot of potatoes grown here. The potato co-op was a big business,” says Catlin. Again, market conditions changed when the smaller red potatoes planted in Western Colorado grew out of favor. The fragility of the marketplace is demonstrated by the fact that the single large eye on the red spuds was enough to drop the demand by housewives who found them harder to peel than the smoother skinned Russets.
Catlin also says the orchards and some of the previous hot crops were degraded because more and more people were jumping into the fray. “There was more and more competition and that drove the prices down,” said Catlin. Dropping prices, changes in the transportation system, and labor costs hounded the Montrose and Delta County farmers every day.
The one relative constant in their lives was the availability of water at the rate of 1,100 cubic feet per second every spring and summer.
“When the Gunnison Tunnel was opened, there were 88,000 acres of land to be watered,” says Catlin. “It was the biggest and longest irrigation tunnel in the world from 1909 until 1979.”
Taken for granted now and by most folks, the Gunnison tunnel was a big deal. The ribbon cutting was done by President William Taft. Of course, the presence of the POTUS brought newspapers from all over the world. The Uncompahgre River Valley became one of the best known ag communities in the world. Marc was born 43 years later and the tunnel water is part of his life breath.
The water on the hill
What the senior Catlin was trying to impress on his boys back in the ’60s was that once the water gets loose and flows downhill to wherever it is going, it is lost. Be careful how you use it, use it effectively, was always on his mind.
“My brother and I figured out the best way to route the water through our ditches. By the time we got done each day, we would have a place where we could put siphons and water the last field in the chain. Nothing ran down the hill,” says Catlin. Running off the hill was an easy thing for loose water, the sprawling farm sets right on the edge of the mesa just north of Spring Creek Road.
Those teaching days on the Catlin Farm would serve Marc and his homeland valley well as time went on.
When he was 19, he got his real estate license. At 21 he was the youngest broker in the state. He learned the land and its value. With what he learned in real estate, he went into banking as a farm credit lender.
“That went bad in the late ’70s and early ’80s with the recession and high interest rates. We always loaned on collateral, but nobody had any,” recalled Marc.
No stranger to difficult times, what with disappearing sugar and barley markets to real estate busts, Marc hung in and weathered the times, then came the job that he was destined to take on. In 1996 he started as the assistant manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. After six years at that, he became the manager of the association, perhaps, the most important organization in town. It was the purveyor of the water that built and sustained the great agrarian economy in Montrose and Delta counties. He did that job for nine more years.
“I knew the system and how it worked and all I had to do was keep the water flowing,” recalled Marc with a grin, like he knows the rest of the story. And he does.
“I took the job on March 28, 2002, and on April 2, the Governor announced that we were in the worst drought we had ever had,” said Catlin. The announcement came as the tunnel was moving the first water of the season. Catlin’s first job was to tell the community of farmers and ranchers that they would have only 60% of their normal water available.
The system contains Uncompahgre River and Gunnison River water. The water from the tunnel flows into the Uncompahgre 12 miles south of Montrose. The combined flow is then tapped into canals, such as the Montrose/Delta Canal. Further branches, called laterals, tap the canals. Then the users take it in ditches and pipes that are metered through head gates off the laterals. The flow of water to the crops can be raised or lowered at any of the gates. The concept is to wisely use the water so that none is wasted at the end of the line. Any unused water is water than runs off the hill. In the Valley system such water goes back to the Uncompahgre, Gunnison, or North Fork watershed. It eventually flows into the Colorado River and is lost downstream to the Southwest desert communities.
In the good, wet years when there was a smaller population and plenty of water, the water bosses job is not so hard, just make sure the system works. In 2002 not so much.
“You have really be careful with your irrigation times. At 50%, instead of four hours on a field, you go two. For every percentage point you have to adjust the time,” Marc explained. Basically, what happens is if everybody does the normal longer period, you dry up the resources quickly and nothing flows. By running shorter times the sources are able to keep up.
“When you run your sources (canals) half full, sometimes you lose your grade and water doesn’t flow. So we have to drop rocks into the canals to change grade and keep the water going. Then before the full flow is restored, we had to take the rocks out.” Meanwhile, the farmers do the best they can with the water they get.
Farm kids to the rescue
Marc said he has never seen a crew of people in the office or in the field as dedicated as the UVWUA people.
“They are the finest I have ever been associated with,” he said. “Most of them were farm people who knew what to do, when to do it and how important the job is.”
After the drought of 2002-2003, the association received a grant that allowed them to replace open ditch laterals on the system with pipe. That was a big step in the conservation of water in the UVWUA system. The only time it could be done was late fall and winter.
“The team really stepped up and got it done. They even had competitions between crews for which one could run the most pipe in a day or week. They laid 62 miles of pipe over several winters. It was amazing.”
Mr. Catlin goes to Denver
It is a pretty good bet that Marc and Coram never talked about being in the Colorado legislature together when they were working at a Montrose gas station 50 years ago.
“Being in the legislature was not on my bucket list,” Marc said. But in 2017 the idea came to light when Senator Ellen Roberts had decided to retire. Don Coram was appointed to fill her spot. Then the committee came to me and said I should replace Coram, who had been the District 58 representative. It got very complicated,” said Marc.
“I decided that this was a way to give back to my community (so I agreed to do it),” he said. Appointed in 2017, he has since won an election and spends at least six months of his year at the capital.
“I went up there thinking that I would be on the Ag committee and the Water committee,” said Marc. “But I ended up on Health and Finance. So I had to make a choice, I could walk around irritated and get nothing done or I could pitch in. So I learned about finance and health issues. I learned a lot and was able to contribute.”
Eventually the leadership came around and he now resides on the Rural Affairs and Agriculture and Transportation and Local Government committees. Even so, his ability to represent the home district is a challenge every day.
“They don’t talk about ag over there,” he said. “To most of the people in assembly, ag is a tourism thing. The idea of anybody living on a farm (or ranch) income doesn’t ever cross their minds.”
Is there one thing that Mr. Catlin would like to do in the upcoming session?
“The best thing I can do is make sure the Drought Management Plan and the Demand Management Plan get reviewed by the people in the basins,” Marc said slowly and emphatically. “One of the problems is that most of Colorado looks at agriculture as a living reservoir (of water).”
The mind set of those who think ag water use is a waste makes them say things like, “just close your head gate,” meaning don’t farm your land. We will even pay you.
“They don’t understand that for every acre of land that is not farmed in this district, the community loses economic activity,” said Marc. “So I think it is important that not only agriculture but the whole community has a say in these plans.”
Marc intends to hold a series of public meetings in all the towns in his district to get the input from the people whose lives are affected by Denver decisions.
Marc recognizes the right of the farmer to use his water rights as he wishes. The caveat is that the rest of the community must understand the true cost of water.
While the western slope does have tourism and some manufacturing, farming and ranching are still numero uno. Catlin says that for every acre that goes unproductive, it is a loss that ripples through the economy of the community.
To simply say that Marc Catlin is an advocate for agriculture and water users on the Western Slope is a gross understatement. Besides being part of the state assembly, he is also on the board of directors of the Colorado River District. The district is a group that has been fighting for the Colorado people and their water rights for 82 years.
“There are a lot of folks who want our water. Over the years Colorado has joined in compacts to share what we have with folks downstream,” said Marc. The system has reached a point where sharing more and more proves detrimental to the people of Southwestern Colorado. We may have reached the point where the Catlin family motto is more apprapo than ever.
Like Keith Catlin told his boys, “Don’t let that water off the hill.”
Michael A. Cox is a Montrose-based content provider. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org