by Marty Shellabarger

Valley-born Marty Shellabarger, our county’s veterinarian—ranching 10,000 acres, 1000 acres of hay, with 350 head of cattle—writes this history of water use.

The San Luis Valley, called the world’s most productive alpine valley, boasts less annual precipitation than the Sahara Desert. It’s productive because of two natural reservoirs, our mountain ranges and the rechargeable underground aquifer. Reservoir use—governed by Colorado law, a tri-state legal agreement (NM, TX & CO) plus an international agreement with Mexico—is more practically governed by natural laws, annual precipitation and the long-term balance and sustainability of use verses recharge.

The mountain reservoir, source of surface flows since European settlers arrived in the 1850s, holds six months of precipitation in frozen storage, then releases their accumulated waters over the six-week period beginning our 90-day growing season. This surface runoff, applied as irrigation, produces root crops, small grains, alfalfa and grass—and also recharges the aquifer.

These first settlers found a much different water scenario than today’s. Northern Valley streams drained into San Luis Creek—really an expanse of braided channel marshland extending to the San Luis Lakes and draining out of the Closed Basin into the Rio Grande, east of Alamosa.

Then, wagons couldn’t cross the marshlands from the sand dunes north to Moffat. Settlers from Ft. Garland traveled along the Sangres to cross at Rito Alto Creek, where the marsh narrowed at my great grandfather’s homestead. There, emigrants camped until three yoke of oxen pulled one wagon at a time across the mud to Saguache. Today, your feet stay dry from Hwy 17 to the mountains (unless you step into the Closed Basin Project Canal). Then, springs flowed year-round—natural outlets of the confined aquifer. But San Luis Creek’s been waterless at Grandpa’s homestead for 12 years now.

Then, what wasn‘t wetlands was desert crossed by riparian strips of ephemeral streams. Today, our wetlands are dry and arid lands, dotted with green circles. After Crestone boomed, my great grandpa built an adobe icehouse next to the Moffat-to-Crestone railroad, cutting iceblocks from San Luis Creek, covering them with hay to sell to saloons for next summer’s beer. In those days people used to ice skate from Villa Grove to Hooper, and San Luis Creek carp, big as your leg, became a favorite on the settlers’ menu. Today, I can’t find a frog in June.

Early settlers used the Homestead Act to file for 160 acres of land, and also filed for irrigation water from the streams. Water was appropriated at one cubic foot of water flowing 1-foot per second (1 csf=450 gallons per minute=2 acre-feet every day) per 50 acres. Cultivating more than 100 acres was difficult for a homesteader and a team of horses, so most water decrees back then were for 2 cfs maximum. Stream water diversions were governed by the doctrine of prior appropriation (“First in time, first in right”), and water rights were given a priority number to indicate their seniority. You could take water if all more senior rights were satisfied and water remained in the stream. Since stream runoff occurs during a brief period in the spring, less-senior water rights could divert for only a few days while stream flows were high—inadequate to raise a crop or a decent garden. Homesteaders, after obtaining their land patent in six years, usually sold their land and water right to another homesteader with an earlier right and dollars still in his pocket.

Thus, larger land parcels came about with larger decrees for using a one-time flooding of native grass meadows. The water table, high enough for grass roots, maintained growth into late July. Today, a single flood irrigation won’t raise a crop of hay. Because our northern Valley’s alluvial soils weren’t prime farmland, available water was best used for hay to winter livestock until the summer grasses grew. Cattle and sheep ranching became the major agricultural endeavor here. Farming was established on better soils to the south with longer-lasting river flows delivered via canal systems.

Diverting water from natural flood plains meant more water consumption and evaporation. Perennial San Luis Creek marshlands dried out somewhat, creating more harvestable grass meadows. Once, Saguache County had the highest US workforce percentage producing grass hay, abundantly exported after railroads came in the 1890s. Moffat, the major shipping station for cattle in these parts, had numerous corrals holding thousands of cows. In the silver-boom years just after 1900, Moffat was even a candidate for capitol of Colorado.

Mountain reservoirs maintaining year-round livestock was status quo here for 90 years … until center-pivot sprinkler irrigation in the 1960s utilized our second great reservoir, the aquifers. That—along with large-bore water drilling, new pumps and the electricity to power them—would begin to change everything in our valley.