CORTEZ — There’s an adage among Western farmers, ranchers and outlaws that has been uttered through generations of disappointment and joy: “Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over.” And water scarcity driven by drastic climate-change along the Dolores River in southwest Colorado has been a real jaw-grinder for folks who bear a century’s worth of grudges over who gets water, how much and when.
After 22 years of drought, the river is down to a trickle this late fall and the water storage it feeds, McPhee Reservoir, has shrunk to its lowest level in decades. Even when the runoff was flowing last spring, the Dolores project was already in water shortage mode and farmers only got 10% of what they’re normally allocated, which means they were only able to grow 10% of the crops they’re used to producing.
Much of the farmland lays fallow.
“We didn’t have the water to give,” said Ben Harclerode, chief of engineering and construction engineering for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
The water that was released from McPhee Dam tells the story, said Colorado State University senior water and climate scientist Brad Udall: “The agreement is for 25 cubic feet per second minimum flow release and they were releasing 1/5 of that.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows Colorado’s Four Corners region in bright red, in the extreme drought category.
“I have said for years that the southwest portion of the state is very much at risk for these kinds of drought," Udall said. "We should expect for them to occur repeatedly throughout the 21st century.”
According National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, the period of January 2020 through Aug. 2021 had the lowest precipitation and the third average highest daily temperature for the U.S. going all the way back to 1895. Last month was the fourth warmest October on record.
At the mouth of the Dolores, one of the only things standing between a shovel to the head and civility is a Montezuma County sheriff deputy whose job it is to keep watch on water robbers.
Dave Huhn is a tall, silver-haired deputy with a bad back from 12 years of ditch riding. He sips from a Big Gulp-sized iced tea as he travels miles of county roads; a badge, a gun and a tablet of citations are his shield.
“Communication is everything and just because you’ve lived out here 100 years doesn’t mean you’re doing it right,” explains Huhn, who was given the responsibility of enforcing complicated Colorado water laws by the county commissioners in 2009. “You can’t steamroll these people. You’re not out there talking with a physicist. You’re out there talking with someone who needs to produce your food. You’ve got to listen to the problem.”
The first month on the job Huhn took 400 calls from people reporting water theft. “An 88-year-old woman phoned to tell me someone had hit her 89-year-old husband with a shovel,” said Huhn, “God Forbid they have a firearm. And everyone in this county has some sort of firearm.”
The last time Huhn remembers a shooting over water was five years ago.
And then there was the standoff down in McElmo Canyon.
“It was a long night. Three parties were involved and the entire sheriff’s department,” Huhn said. He remembers the explosive water dispute was resolved, but tensions have remained high. “These people have been arguing over land and water since the 1800’s.”
At first, Montezuma County’s ag community only tolerated him, he said.
“They thought I was stupid,” he said, but after years of him helping cool heads, they have put down their farm tools, firearms and fists.
Most of the time, they opt to call 1-800-DAVE, joked lead water commissioner Marty Robbins.
“Since he’s been here, they’re all leveling out,” said Robbins, who is happy to bring his armed compadre along when he makes his springtime rounds to adjust irrigation ditch head gates.
Robbins is the keeper of the ditch deeds, which are the official record of water rights. He opened a drawer and pulled out a thick leather-bound dossier of evidence. It is the smoking gun in the world of water crime.
“My whole world changed when Dave took over ditch issues," Robins said. "Around here, you have a whole lot of attitude and very little forgiveness.”
To catch a water thief
For Huhn, the urgency of the drought means zero tolerance for water shenanigans and hooligans. He has written thousands of citations in the last few years; those who won’t listen, get a free seat in criminal court for water theft.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin is on board with Huhn’s program, because for him, robbing people of their water, their livelihood, is no different than stealing their vehicle or anything else.
“Water is like gold. Water is life. There’s only so much water to go around,” said Nowlin, who grew up in Cortez, the son of an oil and gas engineer. “All parties believe that they’re right. Sitting them down and being in the middle to mediate does help. So, jeezo criminy, we’re in the middle of a lot of this and the number one job of a sheriff by statute is to keep the peace.”
This year, as water got even more valuable, Nowlin decided to bring in a second deputy to help Huhn enforce water laws on the 23,000 square miles of irrigation ditches which stretch from the Dolores County/Montezuma County line to Mancos to McElmo Canyon to the Utah border.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out how people are stealing water in wide open spaces, Huhn says. Thieves will put a 500 gallon tank and a generator on a flatbed, back it up to one of the upstream canals and start pumping water out of it with a hose. Then they drive off splashing liquid loot.
“People steal from whoever they can get water from. They don’t care,” said Huhn. He charges folks with anything from theft to tampering to illegal water diversion. Fines run from $25 to $750. People rarely go to jail because Huhn prefers to educate rather than incarcerate.
Diverting water involves changing the direction the water is flowing. It is easy to do and it’s easy to discover. Huhn knows when people have been fooling around in a ditch forcing the water flow toward their own fields.
“They actually wade in and stack rocks like a beaver dam. They use cinder blocks and wood planks. I’ve even seen them rip up stop signs and stick them sideways into a canal to keep the water from running its rightful path.”
Huhn remembers a late night stalking he did twelve years ago which resulted in catching one McElmo Canyon business owner red-handed. The man was four-wheeling to the property late at night, syphoning off water, leaving his neighbor’s ditch dry by sun-up. Huhn says a little water detective work goes a long way in curbing bad behavior.
Harclerode of the Dolores Water Conservancy District and his team of experts say it’s too early to predict next year’s run-off. “It’s all a guessing game,” the Cortez native told The Gazette. He balanced an armful of topographical maps, and sadly looked out at the pools of water that McPhee Reservoir has become. He referenced a tree-dotted slope in the center.
“See that mound of dirt? Families used to pull up a boat and have picnics there,” he said. A person can walk up to it today.
With the ongoing drought comes mounting desperation among farmers and ranchers who may resort to stealing to save their operations. Add that to the influx of newcomers buying land without understanding that the water on their property is not theirs and Dave Huhn’s job of enforcement becomes overwhelming. And even more necessary to keep the peace.
Outlaws and drought laws
Mid-summer 2021 monsoons kept Dick Jones’ growing season from total ruin. Still, his elementary school harvest field trips were canceled because he didn’t have enough pumpkins to show off for tours.
“I’ll tell you where I’m at is if we don’t get anything this winter, I’m looking to relocate. I’m looking to sell out. You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken s---,” said Jones, 78, who still wakes at 4:30 am for coffee and news and then a sun-up tending to his pumpkin, winter squash and lambs.
He is incredulous at city folk who don’t know where their food comes from. “They go to the damn supermarket and they say well it’s never gonna run off of the shelves. Well, it’s not going to be there. Look at the toilet paper deal. I mean Jesus criminy!”
There is a silver lining in what Jones says he pays for his water per year, around $2,300, in that it's three times more expensive in neighboring Dolores County, which is in worse drought.
Ten winding miles from Jones’ wide acreage, along two-lane roads framed with weathered oak and steep red canyon rims, is a different sort of ranching property first owned by Montezuma County’s earliest homesteaders.
Fourth generation farmer-rancher Sheldon Zwicker, a wiry 76 year old grandfather of 23, has been thrown in jail three times for assault over water fights, adding he’s put a few “smart knots” on the head of a stubborn neighbor or two. “Not trying to blow smoke but I’ve been into martial arts since I was 17 and I still train,” says Zwicker.
His earliest memory is riding with his dad, who learned from his dad who learned from his dad how to deal with water thieves. “He used to tell them ‘Either turn my water loose or I’ll throw you in the ditch.' And he did.’”
Zwicker figures his 80-acre spread, rich with history and bordering the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, is worth fighting over. His livelihood depends on Rock Creek, a seemingly miracle stream which has kept the family livestock and hay business going since 1888. His property’s 130 year-old hand-hewn irrigation canal is the very last in line on the ditch, which makes it hard to keep track of who’s being honest miles up.
“If the water’s low you want to take all you’re entitled to, and so by the time it gets to the end of the ditch here, everybody’s irrigating but you,” said Zwicker, who lost the last two fingers on his left hand to a hay baler. “It’s just like I say without the water you’re living in a desert and you won’t stay long. But if you’ve got water to irrigate with and you take care of it you do all right.”
Zane Odell is doing all right, but says he has gone broke a couple of times, and one more dry year meant he had to “measure the water by the spoonful.”
Tired of fighting the battles that come with the ranching life, Odell, 59, recently sold most of his cattle and used part of the money to build a $1.5 million livestock sale barn and a new career. “I could’ve put it in a sock and lived out my life. But I’m investing in my kids,” the father of three told The Gazette.
Odell still runs some cattle and farms 250 acres of wheat on land which his family has run for four generations. “I don’t know anything else.”
Family lore goes all the way back to the 1880’s, when his great-grandmother was knee-high to a corn stalk, she would run pails of biscuits and bacon out to the rim along the canyons where Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, AKA the Sundance Kid, and his band of outlaws hung out in secret.
The Sundance Kid left Cortez in 1886. He could have stayed doing honest work, according to the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company, toiling 12 hour shifts at a dollar a day digging tunnels through the mountains to bring water to the valley from the Dolores River. By 1890, irrigation ditches were flowing, ranchers were making decent money, and Sundance Kid was a year or two away from a life of crime, robbing banks and trains throughout the West.
The Kid didn’t foresee that four generations later, water would be about as valuable as gold.