Watered down

Commissioner follows family tradition ranchers can depend on

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When Kathy Bower was a student in a one-room schoolhouse in Browns Park, she appreciated the sandbar on Beaver Creek that provided a swimming hole for her and the other kids.

Later in life, as a water commissioner for the state, she has found a renewed appreciation for the water ranchers depend on everyday for their livelihood.

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Water commissioners don't spend hours in meetings or even much time in the office.

Their job is to get around their district and check the water flow in ditches and tributaries to make certain the water is getting where it's supposed to.

Bower is the water commissioner for District 44 in Moffat County, and the job is in her bloodlines. Her father, Jack Leonard, was water commissioner from the 1970s until his retirement in 2000.

Bower picked up where her dad left off. She already had experience with the job in the 1990s and was familiar with many of the local ranchers.

Thursday morning, Bower was checking the head gate and flow-measuring flume of the Wisconsin Ditch, the most senior ditch on Fortification Creek along with the Little Bear Ditch.

"We've been pretty busy, and we put in quite a few miles," Bower said, opening a gate on her way to check the irrigation ditch. "I go clear to the top of Fortification Creek and look at all the tributaries coming in, too."

She covers the area south to Milk Creek as well, with responsibility for the Yampa River drainage.

Co-worker Roberta Hume is the commissioner responsible for water in the Little Snake River drainage in northern Moffat and Routt counties.

Both are state employees working for the Colorado Division of Water Resources under the Department of Natural Resources.

Water rights around the state are dictated by seniority. The first homesteaders to file on their water became the senior water rights holder on that creek or river.

"In the northwest corner of the state, we haven't had to administrate as much as the rest of the state," Bower said. "This area just didn't have the people. But the noose is tightening now. The drought has made water a bigger issue recently."

When a "call," or demand from a senior water-rights holder, is made on the river or creek, junior rights holders will be shut down or cut off from the water flowing through the area.

Water commissioners can close head gates and shut off the water flow, and if a controversy arises, gates can be tagged with a warning from the state of Colorado.

"We don't like to put tags on," Bower said. "I always give them a courtesy call. It's better to get a call than let them think they have a beaver dam and then they get up there and find a tag and get upset."

On the Tipton Ditch north of Craig on Thursday, Bower came across a tag from last year showing the water had been shut off June 14. She said that was a good sign of more moisture this year because it already is more than a week later in 2007 and a call has still not been placed on Dry Fork Creek.

Bower said it's the landowner's responsibility to "prove-up" their property with water-measuring devices to protect their water rights.

Having records of water flow amounts may become important to the landowner if a dispute arises, and courts are involved.

Although Bower feels the state should have put in measuring devices years ago, some people are still resisting the devices and say the cost is keeping them from complying.

"The Colorado River Conservation District was putting out grants to help pay for measuring devices after Elkhead Reservoir was enlarged," she said. "You get a measuring device or you don't get water."

Some flumes have no measurement indicators on them, in which case Bower breaks out her tape measure and measures the water and the throat of the flume. After finding the flume in her chart, she will know the amount of water flowing through the structure and enter it into her log.

Bower said when it comes to her job, she had the advantage of growing up on a ranch that was irrigated, and she understands the importance of water to the area.

"Ranchers understand they bought the land for the water rights," she said. "There's a state statute that you need to have a measuring device and keep records. That's what makes water rights valuable."

Ranchers also are responsible for insuring no water can get past their head gate when it's shut.

It wouldn't be fair for ranchers to get water downstream, when the ranchers higher up with senior water rights are cut off, Bower said.

Water also has its own way of finding its way back to the creek, she pointed out.

Fortification Creek can be totally diverted into Wisconsin Ditch, and it still flows pretty well through town thanks to recharging from irrigated fields and pumps closer to town.

Bower admires the men who built the ditches almost a century ago. She appreciates the names of pioneers that carved into the earth until water would flow where they needed it.

She's trying to find time to get to the Williams Fork River and check the flows there, but she is again at the mercy of the water.

"If Fortification goes on call, I'm back up here tomorrow," she said.

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext.207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com

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