The Yampa River is the harbinger of the dry future of the West

The first public warning sign that the Yampa River in northwest Colorado was running low on water came during a scorching summer three years ago.

Cross Mountain Ranch, a sprawling cattle, guest, and hunting farm near Maybell and the Yampa’s confluence with the Little Snake River, needed water to flood the grasslands for sheep and other livestock.

But there was nothing more to divert in the ranch ditch at Lily Park. A snapshot from a state official at the time shows no Yampa there – just a gravel bank with a puddle of standing water at the base.

The ranch may be far downstream, but it has priority. Under Colorado’s water law, this means the ranch long ago secured water rights that are far superior to many other river users. So if the ranch needs it, the state water engineer should call the Yampa and tell the junior holders upstream to stop using it, letting their water flow to Cross Mountain and the Utah border. .

Yampa division engineer Erin Light did just that for the first time in 2018. She has an 80-page list of descendant water rights holders to the Yampa. The ranch is on the first page.

The easiest way to find enough water to meet the rights of the ranch was to call Craig Generating Station, a massive coal-fired power plant with a variety of river rights and reservoir shares in the Yampa Basin. The power plant, run by Tri-State Generation and owned by various western utilities, cooperated on water issues, Light said, and quickly sent more water downstream.

Then it happened again in 2020. Drought. A river almost dried up as the Yampa approached Dinosaur National Monument. And an official state appeal.

This year the Yampa looks gravely troubled again. It is no longer a coincidence, but a trend. That’s why Light asked his boss, State Engineer Kevin Rein, to approve his 15-page memorandum and ask to officially declare the Yampa “over-appropriate.”

Too many users have distributed the dwindling water from the river in too many ways, and future ditch diggers and well drillers need to be warned. Dozens of new water rights claims come to the water tribunal every year over Yampa’s claims, she added.

Yampa not alone

The Yampa is not the first Colorado River to suffer the indignity of an official declaration of over-appropriation. In fact, most of the great rivers were divided too many decades ago and therefore need to be managed downward, from the South Platte on the Front Range, to Arkansas and Powder.

But the fact that this is happening to the Yampa, which has long run relatively wild and free through the sparsely populated open range of northwest Colorado, is a clear sign of danger, state officials and conservation groups say. . Short-term drought and long-term climate change overlap with relentless economic growth across Colorado, turning debates over water use from a distant concern into a topical event.

Finding enough water for users in the Yampa Valley will become increasingly difficult as the seven western states of the Colorado River Compact approach deadlines for mandatory changes in how the river’s flow is distributed. The Yampa is one of Colorado’s many tributaries, flowing west to join the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. The Green joins Colorado at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, with the merged waters destined to fill drought-stricken Lake Powell and further downstream, Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam.

As part of the pact, lower Colorado Basin states, including Arizona and California, could require Colorado state water managers to leave more volume in the river, in order to meet their obligations to the river. growing cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles.

“I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t predict the future,” Light said. “But we are certainly seeing a trend of less and less supply and more demand, and the more we see the trend in that direction, the more it will become the norm.”

The ongoing drought promises to make disruptive calls for water rights on the Yampa and other rivers more frequent. On July 1, Governor Jared Polis formalized the ultra-dry reality of 2021 for the Western Slope, declaring 21 counties in drought-related emergencies. Federal drought monitoring maps showed nearly 30% of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought that week, including the entire northwest.

“Mother Nature tells us how it is,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado Water Project legal counsel for conservation group Trout Unlimited. “We are here in new territory. At one point you are using more water than you are allowed to use as the population increases, ”and recently, she said,“ it’s happening a lot faster ”.

Light’s detailed memo justifying the over-appropriation claim for the Yampa noted that the volume of water supplied by the river has fallen over the past decades from a standard of 1.5 million acre-feet per year. at 1.1 million acre-feet. At the US Geological Survey’s Maybell gauge on the Yampa on July 2, the river was flowing at about 340 cubic feet per second, less than 16% of that day’s median in 105 years of record keeping.

A massive ranch needs a lot of water

The owners of Cross Mountain Ranch have not returned phone messages asking for comment on their Yampa water needs and how they have handled the low flows in recent years. The ranch, one of the largest in the country with hundreds of thousands of acres owned and leased, went up for sale for $ 100 million in 2017 with priceless water rights.

The lower portion of the ranch along the Yampa and Little Snake is still for sale, with the Mirr Ranch Group listing 28,000 acres of working sheep farm. The list also includes more than 54 cubic feet per second of Yampa water rights.

In his report, Light credits the ranch for not asking for water rights calls every year of severe drought. In 2002, for example, rafting on the Yampa was closed via Steamboat Springs, and the reservoir water had to be released to get sufficient flow for power generation at the Tri-State plant. The ranch had to turn off the pumps at Lily Park to prevent damage to the machines, but the owners of the diversion “chose not to pursue an appeal” that year, Light wrote. The ranch’s water right dates back to 1886.

While water users like pastoralists and power plants have been able to trade water or find a standby supply on the Yampa during droughts since 2000, such cooperation is unreliable on a river overloaded with thousands of users, said Light.

So what would state approval of the over-appropriation designation mean in practical terms for counties in northwest Colorado? Developers looking to drill a new well in the Yampa Basin will have their plans re-examined by the state to ensure they are not tapping water from the river already owned by a prime rights holder. plan. If Light believes there would be damage, she can ask the developer to increase the loss with a different supply, such as water from a stored tank or a pond capturing water during periods of higher runoff.

Anyone with an unauthorized well will also face further revisions and requests for increases. Due to the behavior of Colorado’s rivers and groundwater, state engineers consider wells to draw water from the river as if they were taking it from the surface of the river.

People could still apply for new Yampa surface rights, but they will be warned, Light said, that their supply is likely to run out by August or September when senior rights holders launch their appeal to protect what they need.

Individual owners can still authorize a new well in the Yampa Basin, Light said. State law considers a single household use well on 35 acres or more to be “exempt” from the appropriation rules.

“No more straws in the ground”

This is where it gets even more complicated, however, for economic development accelerators in the Northwest. While Routt County, home to Steamboat Springs, considers 35 acres the minimum lot size for subdivision, Moffat County to the west allows smaller lots.

“So that means there is more straw in the ground,” said John Bristol, economic development manager for Steamboat Springs and Routt County. Bristol is part of a group that is trying to link Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties and their towns into the Northwest Colorado Development Council.

Moffat County, on the one hand, will need to create solid water augmentation plans for any new development it wishes to achieve, Bristol said. And the fates of the counties are inextricably linked, he added.

The Craig and Hayden coal plants, which generate big jobs with good wages, are on the way out; local and state officials must replace these jobs with other industries or businesses. Meanwhile, growing tourism in resort towns like Steamboat Springs is driving demand for new housing in cheaper communities downstream of Routt County.

Bristol said he often thinks of a saying he attributes to former US Senator Ken Salazar, now appointed Ambassador to Mexico. Salazar once said, according to Bristol, “when we divided the state and across the West, we really should have been thinking in terms of watersheds, instead of these random political borders. And that makes sense, as the workforce tends to reflect the watershed. “

This story is from the Colorado Sun, a Denver-based, state-owned journalist outlet. To learn more and to support The Colorado Sun, visit The Colorado Sun is a partner of the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.

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