By Travis Smith

Colorado’s history is written in water. Colorado’s water history also involves the development of reservoirs. It was quickly recognized by irrigators and municipal users that having the ability to capture and control available water during times of plenty for a reliable water supply during times of shortage was very important.

The Colorado high country provides the best natural reservoir storage in the form of snow pack. The state’s snow pack accumulates during late fall and continues thru early spring, waiting for warm temperatures. As the spring runoff begins, the available water supply to rivers and creeks continues to increase. Approximately 70% of the annual water supply runs off during May, June and early July. Irrigators quickly recognized that the water supply from the natural reservoir did not provide a reliable water supply in late summer, which is much needed to finish their crops. Flooding and drought also became a concern in the arid west. The worst flood ever experienced in Alamosa took place in 1884, with approximately 20,000 CFS recorded. The Valley also endured a severe drought between 1890 and 1902.

The water development era in the San Luis Valley began in the late 1880’s to early 1990’s. Major canal systems had been developed and began diverting all available water. The Rio Grande was quickly over appropriated by the late 1880’s. The discussion began around approved suitable reservoir sites and the ability to finance a storage project caused much concern with Valley neighbors to the South, New Mexico and Texas.

San Luis Valley water users were prevented from developing any further depletion to the Rio Grande by an order from the Secretary of the Interior in 1896. This Federal Embargo meant no reservoir construction in Colorado and was viewed as “arbitrary and unjust” (an excerpt from the valley water attorney George Corlett). In the meantime, the people of New Mexico and Texas decided to build the Elephant Butte Dam. The Federal Embargo was partially lifted in 1907, which allowed storage projects on the upper Rio Grande. Reservoir sites had been selected and funding services were secured for Rio Grande Reservoir and Santa Maria Reservoir. With the construction of these reservoirs, the irrigators would have a late season water supply to finish crops. These reservoirs were primary used for agriculture, and at times for flood control. The Rio Grande Compact negotiations contemplated additional storage projects that never came to be due to a variety issues.

The Valleys’ Rio Grande Reservoir, Santa Maria, Terrace, and Sanchez were all constructed around the same time period. Rio Grande Reservoir, also known as the Farmers Union Reservoir, was primarily built for irrigation use but was used many times for flood control. In October of 1914 water levels at the river at Del Norte recorded 18,000 CFS.

During the last 100 years, the Valley’s reservoirs were constructed and maintained by private parties. In 1952 Platoro Reservoir on the Conejos River was completed. The Colorado Water Conservation Board’s 2004 Statewide Water Initiative identified the need to rehabilitate existing reservoirs, and where possible investigate the opportunity for multi use or multipurpose reservoirs. This concept of multipurpose projects is developing for the San Luis Valley’s reservoirs. By rethinking, retiming and reoperation of the Valley’s reservoirs multiple needs could be met. By timing reservoir releases and storage when possible, wet water is available to the Rio Grande for irrigation, municipal augmentation, stream health, recreation and environmental uses. This multi use idea is built around cooperation and partnership opportunities to meet multiple wet water needs with the same amount of water.

The Rio Grande Cooperative Project is the model of the multiuse project concept; a public/private partnership with the rehabilitation of Beaver Park Reservoir, owned by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the Rio Grande Reservoir. The Cooperative Project’s primary objectives are to store and regulate water rights to better meet water demands in the San Luis Valley.
The developing Colorado Water Plan and Basin Water Plan encourage multiuse projects that address the needs of irrigation, municipal, management, augmentation, recreation, and environmental needs. The Colorado Water Plan and the Colorado Water Conservation’s strategic framework recognize the need for multiuse projects, policies and partnerships.

The Rio Grande Basin Water Plan is being developed by members of the Rio Grande Roundtable and other interested citizens. This basin plan supports the continued rehabilitation of the Valleys reservoirs and encourages the multipurpose objective thru partnerships and cooperation. The Basin Water Plan also recognizes the need for groundwater regulation to manage and sustain the Valley’s aquifers and agriculture economy, as well as the tenant to remain compliant with the Rio Grande Compact. The Valley’s reservoirs offer a bucket in times of plenty and a source of water in times of need.

San Luis Valley residents are encouraged to get involved in the water plan by attending the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable monthly meetings held the second Tuesday of each month at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 Fourth Street in Alamosa. The lead consultant and local liaison from DiNatale Water Consultants is Tom Spezze. Tom can be contacted at [email protected]. More information and the opportunity to comment is available at