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For the week of May 23 through May 29, 2001

Little Wood Reservoir appears healthy

Drought expected to drop high water lines quickly

Express Staff Writer

The Little Wood Reservoir looks nice and healthy and full this spring — compared to the Magic Reservoir and other state irrigation impoundments already showing very visible signs of this year’s drought.

The Little Wood Reservoir isn’t showing any drought lines yet, but snow-impoverished peaks in the background predict the lowing water lines are just a matter of time. Express photos by Peter Boltz.

Measured in elevation from sea level, the surface of the Little Wood reservoir was 5,232.06 feet on Thursday, or about 5 feet below the top of the spillway.

Filled to capacity, the reservoir on the Little Wood River, 12 miles northwest of Carey, holds 30,000 acre feet of water. It was estimated to be holding 26,965 acre feet on Friday.

But a nearly full reservoir today does not mean a good supply of irrigation water for Carey farmers tomorrow. Due to low snowpack in the Pioneer Mountains, the reservoir will not be replenished as late into this spring as it does in wetter years.

The Little Wood Reservoir serves about 150 irrigators with water rights dating from 1880 to 1980.

Little Wood water master Bob Simpson said Thursday the "best" water rights are those granted in 1899 or earlier.

"It’s the best water right," he explained, "because anything later than 1899 is not valid as of today, May 17."

That is, unless it starts raining ¾ a lot.

Simpson has a list of everyone with water rights on a clipboard on his wall. At the top of the list on the first page is the owner of the very first water right of May 15, 1880. At the bottom of the last page is the owner of the youngest, or newest, water right.

Simpson, like all other watermasters, must operate his basin’s irrigation system on the basic principle of western water rights: "First in time, first in right."

So, as the reservoir’s water supply drops during the irrigation season, Simpson makes "priority cuts," starting from the bottom, or youngest water rights, and working his way up to the oldest.

The priority cut he made Friday is just one of many he normally makes during the irrigation season, from April 1 to Nov. 1. Sometimes, he said, he’ll make priority cuts on a daily basis.

What is not normal about this season is how quickly he may work his way up through the list in this low-water year. But he could not predict how much earlier than normal water rights will be cut off this summer.

Several predictions of the cumulative volume of water expected from the Little Wood have been made, and all of them are sobering.

The "best" forecast—that is, if this becomes a very wet spring—would make the 2001 season the basin’s 11th worst water year since 1956.

The "worst" forecast—that is, if this is an exceptionally dry spring—would make 2001 the second worst water year since 1956. The worst year on record is 1977.

The forecast most likely to happen—at least statistically—would make 2001 the eighth worst water year on record.

Unless, of course, it starts raining….



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