By Teresa L. Benns
SAGUACHE COUNTY— A county resident out walking her dogs discovered last month that one of the Valley’s true natural treasures, Russell Lakes, has been adversely impacted by not only the drought, but reports of water thefts.
The woman said last year the area was teeming with shallow ponds and random rivulets coursing through the marsh’s thick grasses, but the marsh now seems to be all but dried up, with only the two main lakes remaining.
And the wonderful natural spring water, still running but protected by a wire cage, can no longer be accessed by travelers just wanting a bottle or two to enjoy. A source close to law enforcement confirmed last week the spring water most likely is being diverted to marijuana grows.
Both The Denver Post and The Pueblo Chieftain have reported water theft concerns in the Valley regarding marijuana grows since 2015. But local officials seem at a loss to know how to address the thefts, which often cannot be proven because they happen at remote locations or after nightfall.
Division of Water Resources Engineer Craig Cotten spoke to the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and also addressed the state legislature about the problem in 2015.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife public information officer for the southwest region, Joe Lewandowski, said Monday the lack of usual water pooling in the area can be attributed to the drought this year. One state official said this year’s drought is worse than the previous drought because there was even less snowfall in the mountains last year and into the spring than previously.
Lewandowski confirmed the water thefts were happening, but said no one has ever been caught, and he doesn’t know who is responsible for stealing the water. He blamed the drought primarily for the aridity at the site, which is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Reclamation.
Russell Lakes background
The most extensive bulrush marsh in Colorado, Russell Lakes represents one of the few remaining large, high-altitude, alkaline marshes in the southern Rocky Mountains. This site is an outstanding resting and breeding place for waterfowl.
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other online reports, the 5,433-acre property is one of the few remaining large, high-altitude, alkaline marshes in the southern Rocky Mountains. The marsh, consisting in a vast maze of spring-fed shallow lakes, wetlands, dikes and canals supports large numbers of flora and fauna. Created in 1992 by the Colorado Division of Wildlife with the goal of restoring habitat for nesting waterfowl, it is believed to be the most extensive bulrush marsh in Colorado.
The lakes are located just off Hwy 285 about halfway to Saguache from Monte Vista and are bordered by a large grove of cottonwood trees. The area is a popular birdwatching destination and duck-hunting location.