The Little Cimarron River is one of the jewels of Colorado’s West Slope. It tumbles from the Uncompahgre Wilderness, bound for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, 33 miles to the north. For the first 13 miles, the Little Cimarron has all the qualities of a Gold Medal Trout Stream, its waters cold and clear and teeming with trout. Once the river reaches the irrigation ditches of the lower valley, though, it is alternately dried up, re-watered and dried up again by irrigation diversions from mid-July to September. A great trout stream becomes little more than a rocky ditch.
This is the fate of many streams in the Rockies, and their quality can only be restored by keeping the water—the cold Rocky Mountain water—in the streambed. This in turn can only be done by buying land with senior water rights to dedicate them for in-stream use.
In 2012, Western Rivers Conservancy set out to do just this by purchasing a 214-acre farm on a stretch of the Little Cimarron that gets drained nearly or totally dry in late summer and fall. The farm possesses 5.76 cubic feet per second of senior water rights to the Little Cimarron, enough to keep the river flowing year-round if kept in stream during those drier, hotter parts of the year.
In early 2014, we conveyed these water rights to the Colorado Water Trust, which successfully pursued an irrigation plan to allow for continued agricultural operations while keeping the water in the Little Cimarron when the river needs it most. Six years later, in 2020, we sold the land to a neighboring farmer who shares WRC and CWT’s conservation vision. The new irrigation regime now functions for the benefit of both local agriculture and the Little Cimarron and its fish.
In the end, our goal was to guarantee year-round flows in the Little Cimarron all the way to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, dramatically increasing this priority stream’s adaptability to a changing climate, while allowing native Colorado cutthroat trout to re-colonize a former part of their range. With the river now perennially unbroken, we made great strides toward accomplishing that goal.
We believe that this can be a model for other such streams, not only in Colorado but throughout the West.
Funding for the Little Cimarron River Project was made possible through generous contributions from multiple sources, including the L. P. Brown Foundation, The Conservation Alliance, ExxonMobil and with the generous support of many additional individuals, foundations and businesses.