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Voices of Water: Jim Siscoe

Coordinates: 37.20°N 108.34°W, Watershed: Dolores River

20100810 Cortez 0550 OD© Blue Legacy/Oscar Durand

“From the time I was old enough to stand in a creek I was fascinated by running water, quite frankly,” says Jim Siscoe, manager of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company (MVIC) in Cortez, Colorado. MVIC owns about $1.5 billion dollars worth of water rights in the area that revolve around the McPhee Dam on the Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado River.

While Siscoe is a scientist by training he is a rancher at heart; he and his wife, Loretta, have just begun an organic cattle operation that has 40 head of Black Angus cattle. 

One of the hottest topics in this area revolves around the endangered fish species that used to - and could once again - call the Dolores River home. These include the endangered pikeminnow and razorback sucker that are locally extirpated.

To restore their populations, conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy want to restore flow downstream of the McPhee Dam and Reservoir, something that MVIC also wants to accomplish but in a way that honors their existing water rights in the region.

As Siscoe explains, Colorado’s “use it or lose it” water law work like this: “It’s like somebody walks into your savings account and says: you haven’t used your money so we’re going to take it.” This means that if they want to give their water to nature, they might lose their water right over it.

Opposition to putting water downstream for nature among local farmers and residents is strong. Some fear that if they restore flow to the river their own land will return to the scrubby sagebrush desert it was before the irrigation system was installed.

For Siscoe the solution is simple. MVIC should work with the environmentalists or risk losing some of their water rights entirely: “The downstream environment is going to change the realities and you can work with them or against them.”

20100810 Cortez 0523 OD© Blue Legacy/Oscar Durand