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Summit’s "water cop’ keeps an eye on moisture

SUMMIT COUNTY – The beaver hadn’t worked all that hard. A few twigs lay haphazardly strewn across the ditch, caught on a single branch about the size of a man’s arm. It only took Scott Hummer a few extra steps, a moment or two and a heave to sunder its tawdry creation and move on down his way.

“It’s amazing what one little stick can do,” he commented.

The “stick” had been gumming up one of the few hundred small waterways that trail across Summit County’s Lower Blue Basin in a spiderweb of ditches feeding the area’s agricultural land. The impact was small and the ditch’s flow was hardly restricted, but it was a nuisance and, as Hummer well knew, could quickly balloon into a problem.



So he chucked it aside and went on to measure the water flow through a Parshall flume upstream.

Hummer is Summit County’s self-described “water cop.” The first full-time water commissioner to be assigned to the Lower Blue, he is one of 120 such commissioners around the state who comprise the Colorado Division of Water Resources.



“We are the stewards of the most precious resource we have, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” he said from behind sunglasses, a brown baseball cap and a few days growth of silver beard one morning as he made his rounds. “(Without it), we don’t have an economy in this county, period. Whether it’s the agricultural economy of the 1890s or the recreational economy of the 1990s.”

On call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Hummer governs the water rights claims on the ebbs and flows of the liquid gold that courses through this parched county. He monitors ditches for obstructions and structural problems, he helps inspect dams, and, in general, oversees all things H2O.

“It’s not a faucet you turn on. It’s a living breathing thing,” he said, using his favorite analogy. “Water runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That’s the nature of the resource.”

Scarcity of resources

Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is covered in water. However, approximately 97 percent of that is untappable ocean salt water and 2 percent is locked in polar ice caps. The animal and plant life that subsists on fresh water lives entirely off that single remaining percent.

In Colorado, the past few years have underlined the scarcity of the resource as severe drought has drained reservoirs, slammed agriculture and precipitated usage restrictions across the state. In Summit County, the ski economy suffered as the blanket of white on which it depends steadily lost much of its fluff.

“We live in an arid place, and the mountains give an illusion that we live in a wet place,” Hummer said. “That white reservoir can go away. We depend on the snowpack.”

There is little water that actually flows into the state, so virtually every drop that passes through its rivers, streams and lakes originated within its boundaries. Therefore, when the rains don’t come and they stay away for a few years, the situation becomes critical.

“The demand for the resource isn’t decreasing, it’s only increasing,” Hummer said.

On average, Colorado receives 16 inches of precipitation a year. That places its climate squarely in the semiarid desert classification. Though agriculture accounts for 90 percent of the state’s water use, the crush of people moving to the state over the past few decades has increased the thirst for a diversified range of water use, from landscaping and aesthetics to rafting and car washes.

“It’s an amenity these people want to use and sell with their property,” Hummer said.

Across the mountains, a series of reservoirs has been built to meet these needs, though Hummer noted that the true nature of the system often goes underappreciated by the public. As an example, he points to Front Range

day-trippers who boat on Dillon and Granby reservoirs only to return home in the evening, take a shower or get a drink.

“They don’t realize it’s the same water,” he said.

He worries that with this year’s substantial spring snowfalls and a wet early June, much of the ground that had been gained in educating the public is in danger of being lost as people start to resume old habits.

“We don’t have that luxury anymore,” he said. “Last year really opened a lot of folks’ eyes as to what value this resource really has and how much work it takes (to manage).”

***

“Man, what a difference a year makes,” Hummer said as he walked the contours of an irrigation ditch, one of nearly 200 in the county.

Each ditch is equipped with a water-flow measuring device, most commonly an hourglass-shaped structure called a Parshall flume that channel water along next to a ruler. It’s is Hummer’s responsibility to check that the owner of each ditch diverts no more from the source than is allotted in his or her water right.

Additionally, he looks for general maintenance issues that may need to be addressed.

“I’m just looking for common, everyday problems.”

The Office of the State Engineer, which was created in 1881, oversees the Division of Water Resources, Hummer’s department. The position of water commissioner predates the office by two years, with its foundations laying in the original 1879 legislation creating individual water districts. At first deputized by local sheriffs to enforce what were often hotly disputed claims, commissioners today work in cooperation with ranchers and law enforcement officials to settle disputes that can still be vociferously contentious.

The county has changed significantly in past years, but agriculture still plays one of the major roles in Hummer’s life.

“This is still rural, central Colorado,” he said. “The ranchers that are here are still proving that fact. They’ve weathered many a storm to stay here.”

This gives them a greater understanding and respect for water issues than most people enjoy, Hummer said. For them, it’s simple, he said. “No water, no grass. No grass, no feed. No feed, no cattle. No cattle, no pay.”

However, the tourist tourist economy has steadily gained greater prominence in water use issues, changing the nature of the game.

“Now we’re not farming lettuce, we’re farming golfers,” Hummer said, referring to the Keystone Ranch golf course, which used to be a lettuce farm. “We’re still irrigating the same ground, we’re just producing a different crop with a different economic benefit.”

It was this reality, in conjunction with strong support from the county commissioners, that lead to the creation of Hummer’s job in 1990. In the ensuing years, he has come to know the terrain intimately, walking each the 63 smaller basins of the Lower Blue at various points throughout the year.

On a perfectly clear day recently, as he made his way around some of the more secluded and beautiful terrain in the region, he seemed content. A Colorado native with a ranching background, Hummer appeared to relish the freedom and responsibilities he enjoys.

“I have a good job, there’s no doubt about that,” he mused. “The demands for what I do and my time and the diversity of what I do increases all the time.”

Aidan Leonard can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229, or by e-mail at aleonard@summitdaily.com


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