Series 2022 - Wildcat Ponds
Second in a series on local water issues provided by the Huerfano County Water Conservancy District.
“Wildcat pond” is an unofficial name for an impoundment of water which has no senior water right and which is not exempt by statute. Typically, these ponds are for private fishing or aesthetic purposes. Unfortunately, even if a wildcat pond is many years old, it is not grandfathered. To maintain the pond, it either needs a senior water right or to be augmented.
The water of the Arkansas River is over-appropriated; every drop is called for. So, water lost by evaporation from even a small number of wildcat ponds has a dramatic effect downstream. Pond surface evaporation can range from around two feet per year at elevations above 9,500’ to more than five feet below 6,000’. There are currently more than 17,000 ponds in the Arkansas basin, representing about 70,000 acre feet of annual evaporation.
Consequently, the State’s Division Engineer began a “Pond Management Program” designed to reduce the ponds’ impact on Colorado water rights and on the Kansas Compact. The Engineer has “areas of focus” in Phase I of this effort. Those are areas where elimination of pond losses will directly contribute water to senior water rights and assist in Compact compliance.
In Huerfano County, there are areas of focus in both river basins. On the Huerfano (Water District 79), initial focus will be on a strip of land one mile on either side of the river and, eventually, on Muddy Creek and Sheep Creek. So far, 1,420 undecreed ponds have been found along the Huerfano and are under investigation. On the Cucharas (District 16), Bear Creek, Santa Clara Creek and Storey Creek will receive initial attention. So far, 586 ponds have been identified on Santa Clara and Bear creeks.
The Water Commissioners, not the Water Conservancy District (HCWCD), enforce state law on these ponds. Water Commissioners for both rivers are doing field investigations to rule out natural depressions and exempt ponds. They will also discuss options with the pond owners. HCWCD will help individual pond owners as much as it can. The first option is breaching, draining or backfilling the pond.
The second option is finding an exemption which excuses the pond from needing a water right. Exemptions include: use for storm water management or post-wildland fire erosion mitigation [C.R.S. §§ 37-92-602(8)(b)(I),(II)]; pre-1981 gravel mining pits [C.R.S. §37-90-137(11)(b)]; livestock tanks [C.R.S. §35-49-101 to 35-49-116]; erosion control dams [C.R.S. § 37-87-122]; or head stabilization and tailwater recovery ponds. More information is on the State Engineer’s website: https://dwr.colorado.gov/services/water-administration/pond-management.
The third option is making up for depletions by exchange of a senior water right to the pond or using a senior water right as replacement water in a temporary substitute water supply plan and eventually an augmentation plan decreed by Water Court. Pond owners who decide to make up pond depletions can consider contacting HCWCD. It has a limited amount of augmentation water available on the Huerfano and may be able to assist with making exchanges on the Cucharas. The District email is firstname.lastname@example.org, phone for Administrator Carol Dunn is (719)742-5581.
For ponds in the Huerfano River basin, contact Water Commissioner Lenna Rauber, email email@example.com, phone (719)568-0489. For ponds in the Cucharas basin, contact Water Commissioner Doug Brgoch, email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone (719)859-0122.