SALIDA, Colo. – The Arkansas River is known by many for its amazing views and popular rafting adventures, but the river also plays a vital role to many living in Chaffee County and beyond. One water conservancy district has made it their mission to make sure water rights are secured and everyone has enough.
Water is an important resource to Coloradans, especially to those living along the river’s banks. For many in Salida, the river helps their businesses and city thrive. The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District are the ones responsible for making sure everyone in their 3,000 square-mile district has enough to go around.
“If you don’t have the water for the river, for recreation, and for the environment…if you don’t have it for agriculture…then those industries–they can’t survive,” Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District said.
The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District protects and secures water in the Upper Arkansas Valley. They cover Chaffee County, Custer County, Fremont County and a small portion of both Saguache and El Paso counties.
Scanga said their district’s mission is the protection of all water rights including municipal, agriculture, environment, industrial and recreation.
“[Water] it’s the livelihood of everything. It’s important to drinking water, bathing for irrigation, of lawns, for agricultural activities or mostly ranching in this area,” Scanga said.
With the last few years trending more on the drier and warmer side, saving every last drop of water becomes even more important.
“I don’t worry about water. How much we have. I don’t get nervous until about April first. Then I start getting nervous,” Scanga said.
Each year roughly 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western slope. Yet 80% of Colorado’s population lives on the eastern slope.
Scanga said if water from our mountains doesn’t meet what is needed by early spring, then they have to rely on backups.
“The only deterrent we have to drought or drier years is storage. Always has been historically. A deterrent to it is trans-basin diversions. Trans-basin diversions bring water from an area that’s wetter into our area here on the eastern slope,” Scanga said.
What they and the rest of Colorado rely on each year for water is snowpack. And as of the beginning of February, Colorado’s snowpack was a little under average.
With recent storms, it has gotten better, but there is always the chance the state ends up short going into spring. The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy board has to plan for that.
“We’ve always looked at what is the worst-case scenario? What is it back-to-back-to-back drought? I’ve never seen a back-to-back-to-back drought. I’ve never seen three-in-a-row,” Scanga said.
Scanga said normally the district has to keep 2 to 3 times the demand in storage, but dry years can also affect what they already have.
“Normally, it’s one bad year and then a recovery year, and the recovery year is usually the worst because everything’s drawn down from the dry year, and now you have to recover all that storage,” Scanga said.
He said another helpful tool for their district is forecasting in order to see how much snow is coming and how much they can save after a big storm.
“Then from that, we say, how much storage do we need? How much of this do we have to carry over in those wet years in order to keep a two to three times the demand. So what’s in storage is really our backup,” Scanga said. “If we have a back-to-back-to-back dry year drought years, we have to make sure that we’re able to meet those demands.”
For more information on the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District visit their website.