Southern Colorado property owners are starting to receive notices of illegal ponds. Here’s why hundreds of them may need to go

Courtesy of the Colorado Division of Water Resources
The state is evaluating ponds in the Arkansas River basin to determine if they’re legal.

The state has completed a review of 540 ponds in the Arkansas River basin with a total surface area of 1,260 acres. It has resulted in around 500 property owners receiving a notification from the Colorado Division of Water Resources about the illegal status of their ponds.

That's only a fraction of the ponds the state will eventually evaluate. 

Evaporation from the ponds reduces the amount of water in the river basin, which could affect downstream water users. Although the exact number isn’t clear yet, there could be as many as 10,000 or more ponds that don’t have a legal water source in the Arkansas River basin, which includes tributaries and creeks that flow into the main river.

Owners of illegal ponds can work with their local water commissioners to see if there’s a way to replace the loss from evaporation by a variety of means, including purchasing appropriate water rights. If that isn’t possible, the pond will have to be removed, but the state will work with owners to set a reasonable timeline for compliance, according to state engineer Rachel Zancanella. Each situation is different and might take years to resolve, she said. 

The state also sent about 10 cease and desist orders to pond owners who have not responded to the notices.

Some people have already chosen to remove their ponds voluntarily, according to Zancanella. They may have received notices or heard about the program via word-of-mouth, she said.

There are ponds that might be exempted,  Zancanella said, such as “pre-1981 gravel pits or livestock water tanks. If a pond can be exempted from administration the evaporative loss does not have to be replaced and the structure can remain without a water right.”

County commissioners can also apply to have certain ponds designated for emergency fire protection purposes. Last year the state legislature passed a bill allowing “specific ponds, which may be critical in protecting life, property, and infrastructure when fighting fires in emergencies, may be designated as 'Fire Suppression Ponds.'" These ponds would also be exempt from the state’s administrative requirements.