[This article appeared in the 12/28/2015 edition of The Mountain Mail]
Dear Mom, thanks for the water.
What is this? It is a phrase that I try to say out loud every morning,
which may seem particularly odd because my mother died in
2009. Nonetheless, I consider it an important part of my daily
ritual. I’ll try to explain.
My mother was a person who understood the relationships between the
physical environment and the plants and animals who live in a
place. As a 30-year resident of Howard she became attuned to
changes that affected the plant community in her neighborhood. She
understood the importance of water.
When she had the opportunity to purchase a small water right on the
local ditch, she went to the bank and borrowed the money to make the
purchase. This water right is very small but enough to keep the horse
In the confusing world of water law I have learned that the earlier
the claim was approved the better the water right is. This claim was
formalized in 1878, making it very solid. In fact the attorney
that helped us settle Mom’s estate kept saying: “You are so lucky to
have that water right.” I didn’t realize that it was such a big deal.
Move forward to last July and our new neighbors. I was visiting with
them looking at their 2-acre pasture that was turning brown. They com-
mented that they didn’t have any way to water it because they didn’t
own any ditch rights, and it is illegal to use your household well to
Then I found out that because of the location in the subdivision they
could not get a permit to drill what is called an augmentation well
from which they could draw water for their pasture. When I told them
that I had a water right, they echoed our attorney and said, “You are
This part of Colorado is deceptive. Our mountains are forested, we
have beautiful streams and rivers, and we know the snow can pile up
and thunderstorms can be furious. I decided I needed to check the
climatic data and was a bit surprised to find that Salida receives
right around 10 inches of precipitation a year. As a geographer, I
know the cutoff point for calling a place a “true desert” is 10
inches. So our valley is right on the break of falling into that
The vertical nature of our area leads to many microclimates, and
this is what makes our part of Colorado deceptive. The Arkansas River,
that ribbon of water that flows south and eastward to the
Mississippi, transports water that has fallen in some of those wet-
ter high elevations. This river gives our area a special attribute
that we should all respect.
As human population continues to increase, the demands on our water
resources are daunting. Having recognized this, I have chosen to
become involved in Trout Unlimited, a national organization that
works to ensure quality cold water fisheries.
Through the work of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Forest
Service, Bureau of Land Management, Trout Unlimited and many other
grassroots organizations in our area, the valley we live in has made
great strides in improving the quality of this waterway.
We can be happy with the improvements that have been made but we can
never be complacent. Mad Eye Moody, a character from the Harry Potter
books, is a wizard who is always on the lookout for trouble. His
mantra “constant vigilance” is one I take to heart when I consider the
use of our water resources.
I encourage us all to be aware and proactive by joining groups like
Collegiate Peaks Chapter, the local chapter of TU, and other
conservation-minded people to protect and enhance our limited water
resources. As I think about these things again I say aloud, “Dear
Mom, thanks for the water.”
For more information about Collegiate Peaks Chapter and our events,
visit our website, collegiatePeaksTU.org.
Eric Heltzel is a board director for Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout