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Series 2022 - The Robert Rice Ditch

Sixth in a series on local water issues provided by the Huerfano County Water Conservancy District

In this Water Series, we’ve previously discussed

how speculators will seek to “optimize” neglected water rights with poor historical use, so as to gin up those water rights to later change their type and place of use to export water from Huerfano County. That approach was advanced by the 2020 study commissioned by the Case brothers’ Family Ranch Holdings and entitled “Phased Approach to Optimization and Integration of Huerfano and Cucharas River Water Rights.” It now seems also to have been adopted by our local political candidate, Travis Nelson.

Ditch History

One of the desiccated water rights involved in the approach is the Robert Rice Ditch. The Robert Rice was one of the earlier water rights in the County. It was appropriated in 1867 and adjudicated in 1889’s original adjudication. Located on the Huerfano River about three and a half miles east of I-25, the ditch was entitled to divert 3.0 cubic feet per second to irrigate 150 acres under priority number 19. Nevertheless, it has been only sporadically used since the early 1940s. According to state records, it has diverted some amount of water during only 17 of the last 82 years, and during only two years in the last 40 years. Not surprisingly, the water right has come to the attention of the State Engineer, who on July 1, 2020, determined the right to have been abandoned after ten years of nonuse, creating the presumption of an intent to

abandon the water right. The Robert Rice is now on the decennial abandonment list now lodged with the water court.

The Robert Rice at one time was held by an earlier exporter, the Two Rivers Water Company. In December 2011, it filed an application in the water court that included a change in the point of diversion and place of use from Huerfano County to Pueblo County. Contemporaneously with the pendency of the water court application, Two Rivers sought annual State Engineer administrative approvals of the change. The Water Conservancy District (HCWCD) and Huerfano County opposed both applications. Both applications failed.

Historical Use

The application to the State Engineer was denied because historical use of the water right was “not sufficiently documented, including years where the Water Commissioner records indicate that no water was taken….” Furthermore, the “actual land area that could physically be irrigated would be [only] approximately 5 to 10 acres,” because where the ditch passed beneath the railroad tracks the culvert “collapsed years ago.”

The water court case was likewise unsuccessful. Two Rivers tried to withdraw its application “without prejudice,“ meaning that it could be refiled later seeking the same change of water right. HCWCD and the County objected. They had spent a total of $23,000 opposing the applications and wanted them to be a dead letter. The water court agreed and, upon a revised motion by Two Rivers, ordered that the application be “withdrawn with prejudice,” meaning that the same relief could not be sought in another application.

Future Plans

Nevertheless, the Robert Rice appears again in the Cases’ “Phased Approach to Optimization and Integration of Huerfano and Cucharas River Water Rights.” According to that report, “To realize the full optimization of the water rights will require that a number of actions be taken first to make the right fully operational.” Those steps include removing it from the abandonment list (one wonders how), repairing the collapsed culvert under the railroad, and installing sprinkler irrigation to increase consumption. We will follow those developments carefully.


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