Series 2022 - Huerfano Augmentation Project
First in a series on local water issues provided by the Huerfano County Water Conservancy District
Fifteen years ago, the Huerfano River was in crisis. Unlawful diversions of water had multiplied and made a serious impact to the river. Five of those diverters were Malachite Spring, Paradise Acres Homeowners Association, CO61 Water Association, Huerfano County (road and bridge), and the school and community of Gardner.
In January and February of 2009, the State’s Division Engineer and the County Commissioners held a series of meetings on the issue. Attended by about 30 water users on the Huerfano, the meetings decided that an augmentation plan was needed and that the Huerfano County Water Conservancy District was the only entity able to develop and operate that plan. The District agreed to do so “provided the costs are paid by the participants and the administration and maintenance of the plan are paid annually by the participants.”
For several years, the District operated annual Substitute Water Supply Plans. They replaced the illegal depletions with water temporarily retired from legal diversions from senior water rights. Each year the District scrambled to find a senior water right to lease or borrow. Then, in 2014, with cash from voter-approved increases to its mill levy and to its debt limit, as well as a grant and a loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the District bought a senior water right and built necessary augmentation facilities. A permanent augmentation plan was decreed by the Water Court in 2016. The final augmentation facility, including Sheep Mountain Reservoir near Gardner, was completed in September 2021 and is used to store and release augmentation water.
Rather than augment only the original five unlawful diversions, to promote economic development the District created a regional augmentation plan. Under that plan, the District can now provide augmentation water throughout the Huerfano River basin. As a result, the District plan now also serves a campground and four commercial marijuana growers. It has several applications in process to meet depletions of a gravel quarry and several wildcat ponds.
The District provides augmentation water by contract with three types of reliability: Tier 1, available every year; Tier 2, projected to be available seven out of ten years; Tier 3, available on a casual “as available” basis. Purchase cost of the contract augmentation water was calculated to recoup taxpayer investment for the project cost. The rate structure provides the lowest cost (subsidized) water to traditional water users and higher priced (unsubsidized) water to new users, such as commercial marijuana growers. Complete information on the rates and costs for replacement water can be found on the District website, https://www.hcwcd.net/. One-time cost of Tier 1 depletion water ranges from $51,100 to $79,500 per acre-foot (af), depending on the amount of subsidy provided by the District.
Leases and lease-to-purchase options are available. Tier 2 water costs $10,000 per acre-foot of depletion. As it becomes available, Tier 3 water is put out to bid.
Currently, the District provides augmentation water in the total amount of 20 annual acre-feet: six to domestic users, one to commercial use, three to industrial users, and ten to marijuana growers. About 25 af of Tier 1 water remain for distribution. Interestingly, applications have been received for about 47 af. The applications will be honored in the order in which they have been received and fully paid for. The District’s next augmentation efforts will be in the Cucharas River basin, where it is already laying the groundwork for a similar augmentation program.