A McClave farmer who has watched a reservoir dry up during the drought of the last three years is nearing the end of a court battle with the state and downstream water users to protect a wildlife refuge, and the outlook is dim.
Unless some other source of water is found, the two reservoirs that provide habitat for migrating birds, including some endangered species, could become just so many more acres of weeds and salt cedar, said Lance Verhoeff.
“There is a real risk of the wildlife refuge disappearing,” Verhoeff said. “I think there’s a real opportunity if conservation groups could come together to find water to put in the reservoirs.”
So far, there only have been efforts to take water from the small reservoirs, located just downstream of John Martin Reservoir.
In 2011, the Division of Water Resources began enforcing water rights on seep ditches throughout the Arkansas River basin, the type that used to provide water to the Bent County reservoirs.
For Verhoeff, the decision has been perplexing. His family was encouraged by the state to build the reservoirs, one in 1946 and one in 1962, and received funding from the federal Soil Conservation Service. Using the reservoirs, the Verhoeffs were able to turn meadows into fields with the full support of state and federal agencies.
In the process, the reservoirs became prime habitat for migrating birds.
In 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service even funded a habitat improvement project.
In 2011, the state cracked down on seep ditches, the water intercepted on its way back to the river from more senior water rights diversions. Verhoeff filed a water court application in late 2011 seeking to gain storage rights, as well as shore up his claim to water on several ditches.
Verhoeff maintained that water development in the area early on separated the reservoirs from the river. The state and downstream water users such as the Amity Canal, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association argued that a ditch was needed to convey water to the river and away from the reservoirs.
Trial is set for November in water court, but Verhoeff is working with the other groups on a settlement. The likelihood is that the upper reservoir will be able to store water when it is available, while the lower one, already full of tamarisk and weeds, will remain dry unless other sources of water are found.
“The reservoirs are not under restriction for any dam safety purposes,” said Steve Witte, Water Division 2 engineer. “They could be used for storage if a way was found to put water into the reservoirs through augmentation and exchange.” ❖
Chris Woodka is an editor with The Pueblo, Colo., Chieftain