From National Geographic (Sandra Postel):
That summer of 2002, the river “smelled like rotting seaweed,” Van De Carr recalled. “It was a nightmare.”[…]
But 2012 would turn out differently. On Friday, June 29, as if by a miracle, the river started to rise. By 9:30 that night, it was flowing at 71 cfs.
Something had happened that had never happened before in Colorado: an intervention to spare a river – and its dependents – from decimation during a drought.
Back in the spring, when the skimpy mountain snowpack spelled disaster for so many of Colorado’s rivers and streams, the non-profit Colorado Water Trust (CWT) issued a statewide request for water. Anyone willing to sell or temporarily lease water was encouraged to contact the CWT. If the water could help a river weather the drought, the CWT would consider buying it.
One answer to the call came from Kevin McBride, director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District in Steamboat Springs. McBride had just had a contract with a customer fall through, leaving 4,000 acre-feet (1.3 billion gallons) of Yampa River water unclaimed in Stagecoach Reservoir. For the right price, McBride was willing to lease that water to the Colorado Water Trust.
“We rocketed that (project) to the top of our priorities,” said Amy Beatie, Executive Director of the water trust, based in Denver.
“It looked like a system that was ecologically going to crash,” Beatie said. “The river was starting to crater.”
So for a total of $140,000, or $35 per acre-foot, CWT leased the water district’s spare water. McBride had set the price, based on what he knew his board would approve. In that part of the West, the cost was very reasonable.
On June 28, the leased water began flowing out of Stagecoach Reservoir into the Yampa. The extra flow would directly benefit seven crucial miles downstream of the reservoir, as well as the river’s course through Steamboat and beyond. The idea was to keep the river as healthy as possible through the summer, by releasing about 26 cfs a day into September.
Along the way, the leased water provided multiple benefits. It generated extra hydropower at the Stagecoach Reservoir. It provided aesthetic and recreation benefits in Steamboat, helping businesses like Backdoor Sports avoid tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenues. Further downstream of the reach targeted for the lease, some irrigators even got more water for their crops, a welcome boost during a drought and dire economic times.
“The purpose of the lease is to maximize the beneficial use of water in Colorado,” Beatie explained. “These incidental benefits make this a win-win-win-win. “
Besides rescuing a river and its dependents, the Yampa drought-lease set a precedent in Colorado. It was the first use of a 2003 state law, passed in part in response to the devastating 2002 drought, that allows farmers, ranchers, water districts or other entities to temporarily loan water to rivers and streams in times of need.