Water thieves, beware: This Colorado ‘water cop’ is on the case

CORTEZ, Colo. – Dave Huhn usually is off work on Sundays, but when the phone rang one Sunday during the height of irrigation season a few years ago, he picked up.

The woman on the other end was frantic, screaming as she watched from the window as a neighbor, age 86, beat her husband, 82, with a shovel. The fight was over water, the most valuable resource in much of the West. One neighbor accused the other of taking more than his share from their irrigation ditch, leaving less for everyone else. The situation escalated to the point that farm tools became weapons.

“It was a situation where you had two old-timers that were very stubborn and very hard-headed,” said Huhn, a sheriff’s deputy for Montezuma County. “They were bound and determined to do it their way. And the other party was saying, ‘No you won’t.’”

Wine grapes grow in Montezuma County’s McElmo Canyon, which sheriff’s Deputy Dave Huhn calls a flashpoint of water conflict. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Montezuma County is a stretch of sagebrush mesas and sandstone cliffs bordering Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, home to Mesa Verde National Park, where the cliff dwellings of ancestral Puebloans still stand. Unlike most local law enforcement throughout the West, Huhn specializes in the complex world of water law.

For the past nine summers, he has crisscrossed the county, seeing up close the conflict that chronic aridity creates. In 2009, when Huhn took over as the sheriff’s department’s water enforcer, word spread quickly.

“The very first month of the very first year, I had almost 450 calls that one month,” Huhn said. “That was just extraordinary.”
These days, depending on the severity of arid conditions, Huhn said he averages 60 to 100 water-case calls per month.

Water disputes – both violent and nonviolent – sometimes get the attention of local law enforcement, but because of an ignorance of what the law actually says, many deputies will simply tell the parties to hammer out their differences in state water court.

Huhn said the common refrain is that conflict over water is a civil matter, that no criminal statutes have been broken.

But in some cases, Huhn said, that’s incorrect. Local law enforcement can issue citations for water violations and police how people use and abuse the scarce resource.

Montezuma County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Huhn writes citations for such infractions as stealing water, lacking a measuring device in an irrigation ditch or tampering with a headgate. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

On the beat for nearly a decade, Huhn said he’s known for fairly and thoroughly investigating water cases. His reputation precedes him to the scene.

“I’ll walk up to the front door or out in that field to talk to whoever I need to talk to, and they’ll turn around look at me and give me a funny look and say, ‘You’re that water cop, aren’t you?’ So I’ve kind of gotten used to that.”

The majority of calls he receives are claims of water theft, Huhn said.

There are a few methods to steal water. One popular method, he said, is to simply drop a pump into an irrigation ditch. Throughout the county, ditches run through private properties on an easement, meaning the residents see the water on their land, but they have no rights to it. If they turn that pump on and divert from the ditch without the water rights to do that, it’s a crime.

Huhn started confiscating dozens of pumps, storing them in the evidence room, “and as they started to pile up, I was told not to do that anymore.”

Disputes among farmers are sometimes harder to prove, he said.

One party might have rights to some water but take more than its share. After consulting the local water commissioner and documents related to a water-rights decree, Huhn can issue either a warning or write a ticket, just like at a traffic stop.

“First, people were shocked. They were like, ‘You’re kidding me right? You’re going to cite me over water?’ I say, ‘Yes, it’s a valuable commodity in this state.’”

Another common citation is for failing to have a measuring device on a ditch, like a weir or a flume. Those who divert from a stream are required by state law to measure the flow of what they take.

Enforcement of that requirement varies across Colorado, but not in Montezuma County. No measuring device? That’s either a warning or a citation, Huhn said.

Farmer Bob Schuster, 76, has called on Huhn to help resolve water disputes among his neighbors a few times.

At dispute is water in a ditch that irrigates farmland in the county’s McElmo Canyon, a narrow, picturesque reach of sandstone with a series of vineyards and pastures that stretch across the Utah line.

Schuster grows wine grapes and hay, and he runs a plumbing supply store in the county’s biggest city, Cortez. Schuster said water conflict is a constant fact of life in the county, but droughts like the current make people desperate.

“People are basically – and these are good people – basically dishonest,” he said.

Schuster’s farm sits at the end of an irrigation ditch with a handful of users upstream. If they’re taking more than they’re entitled to, the ditch goes dry before it reaches his fields.

“They look out their fields, they see they need water, and they take the water going through that’s not theirs,” he said. “They don’t consider their neighbor needs his water.”

Because livelihoods here are so dependent on water, emotions run high when accusations get thrown around. In true Hatfield and McCoy fashion, Schuster said, people have pointed guns at him, swung shovels at his head and sucker-punched him during fights with neighbors over water.

When water deliveries are cut because of drought restrictions, everyone’s on edge.

“Water is more scarce,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “And so you get the same demand, less water. And so that heightens the potential for conflict.”

Huhn’s role – enforcing water law and interacting with the county’s agricultural community – is unique in the state, Preston said.

“To tell you the truth, I can’t believe that that other counties aren’t doing the same,” Preston said. “Once this kind of program is put in place, if it’s done with a well-trained person, they’re never going to want to go back to the bad old days.”

Back at the sheriff’s office, Huhn said violent skirmishes over water have been on the decline since the county started enforcing water law. But the continued dry years add pressure on farmers and ranchers trying to make ends meet.

“Historically, we’ve had people killed over water in the state of Colorado. We have in this county,” he said.

Huhn’s job has all the makings of a tall tale from the Wild West, with sweeping desert vistas and shootouts with outlaws. But his role seems more futuristic. The most recent science on climate change predicts the Colorado River Basin, which includes all of Montezuma County, will be hotter and drier as decades pass.

“We don’t want the violence,” Huhn said. “We don’t want the fighting between families and between friends. We want to be able to resolve it in a nonviolent way.”

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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