A experimental irrigation program using Totten Reservoir is helping out McElmo Canyon farmers.
The small lake, east of Cortez, is owned by the Dolores Water Conservancy District. But there has not been much irrigation use for it since the installation of the Towaoc Highline Canal.
“Our objective is to deliver water if we have it, so last year we started a trial program to benefit McElmo farmers,” said Mike Preston, DWCD general manager.
In 2013, dam outlets and ditches from Totten were improved to deliver the water across the valley and into McElmo creek. Upon notice of the new water sale, farmers lined up at the water office to get dibs, and about 14 walked away with contracts.
This year, the board voted that those same farmers will get first priority to buy the water, and anything left over will be made available for other users.
“They can come in this week and sign contracts for the same amount as last year,” Preston said.
The contracts are for one year, at a price of $21 per acre-foot.
Several farmers expressed their appreciation of the new program at a recent DWCD meeting. And they were relieved it would be offered again to the same customers this year.
“It was making me a little nervous to think I have to stand in a line to get water,” said one farmer.
Farmers in McElmo benefit from Totten irrigation water that is delivered earlier. They start farming sooner than the rest of the county because of their lower elevation and earlier growing season.
Water losses are a challenge for the system. It takes 20 hours for the water to reach McElmo Creek, losing significant volume along the way, which users pay for.
Totten Reservoir has some lingering structural problems on its dam, discovered in 2008 when it was drained. As a result, the Colorado Division of Water Resources has it on a restrictive status limiting how much it can be filled.
Repair costs are unknown, but are expected to be significant, officials said.
“We are continuing to monitor the crack,” said DWCD engineer Ken Curtis. “We’re getting comfortable that we don’t have a big problem. It is not getting worse, but it will need to be fixed.”
The board discussed that a long-term solution was needed for Totten and said a reserve fund was needed for a repair project.
With the fill restriction, Totten holds 3,000 acre-feet. A fish pool reserves 400 acre-feet, and another 700 acre-feet has been made available for irrigators.
“We know we can physically deliver the water,” Preston said. “The next step would be multi-year contracts.”
Irrigation delivery from Totten to McElmo buyers is expected in April.