It was a miserable start to runoff season in the Yampa River Basin owing to ongoing low precipitation and a snowpack that melted out early or sublimated as it will sometimes do. In late July 2021 Coyote Gulch sat down with Scott Hummer the Division of Water Resources boots on the ground in the Upper Yampa River Basin at the inlet to Stagecoach Reservoir. I wanted to get an understanding of what is was like for a water commissioner to administer the streams under his purview in the horrible dry times. Below are his written answers to a couple of questions and then some quotes from our couple of hours together.
Coyote Gulch: What memories stand out since the start of water year 2021?
Scott Hummer: Absolutely no runoff whatsoever! Placing calls on streams that had never been on call previously, ever! A quote from one on my water users…”My family has been here for 135 years, and there has never been a year like this ever”…”and we have written records”!
CG: Who do you have conversations with regularly?
SH: Erin Light daily. Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District staff, daily. For nearly a month I talked daily, with a former colleague and predecessor water commissioner, as he holds the senior right per the Hunt Creek system that was under Call for the first time ever as a “system” with five tributaries in play to meet senior rights at the bottom of the system as two senior rights from the Yampa River that were potentially impaired per actual streamflow available early in the season. Contact as needed with water users on drainages never under Call in order to explain matters and ensure proper administration and compliance.
CG: What memories stand out from prior years prowling Colorado River Headwaters streams?
SH: None, in my 26 year career with DWR there are no years that can compare to 2021, in my opinion.
All across Colorado the snowpack map didn’t look so bad on April 1, 2021, but snowmelt did not make it to the streams in some watersheds, particularly the Colorado River Basin.
This was due to the dry soils and early snowmelt from drought conditions. Note the peaks in the hydrograph showing precipitation.
Back to Scott:
“As we are sitting here on the 22nd of July, the look of the Upper Yampa valley above Stagecoach is a different hue than it was 30 days ago. We’ve been the beneficiary locally of what I would call monsoonal moisture, more traditional summer time monsoonal moisture. Really the first moisture that we’ve seen in months in any significance. I’m not saying that the storms have been significant it’s that they’ve been a little bit consistent. The green here is nice to see but kind of gives the false illusion that we are in a place with our water supply that we’re actually not.”
“#1 [runoff] hit me right between the eyes. Absolutely no runoff whatsoever, none. That is just the most shocking thing for myself and the longtime locals. I mean multi-generational ranching families are experiencing that, they never have, they never even contemplated that they would, that they could.”
“Placing calls on streams that have never been on call previously, ever. Understanding the severity of the situation by listening to my water users and one quote that really caught my ear here recently per a meeting we had some local water users and the CWCB in regards to some instream flow issues. The question was posed to the water user, ‘What are you seeing this year?’ And his reply was, quote, ‘My family has been here for a 135 years and there has never been a year like this, ever.'”
“For example, in a normal year, instead of the 20 cfs passing by us over to our left, it would be closer to a 100 cfs so I have a ditch that’s about 2.5 miles up the river from where we’re sitting right now, has a water right for 5.4 cfs. I was there yesterday and it was only pulling about a little over a foot and a half but there was plenty of water in the river. But they lost some of the pressure at their check dam on the river so they need to get back in the river to re-construct their check to keep water moving and pressured up on their headgate. That has been an issue throughout the season on every drainage that we have. Some of the photos that I sent to you early in the season where the river was pretty much being swept like at the Stafford Ditch or the Oakton Ditch. For the last 30 days it was a different picture, there was much more water there, but we’re now starting to trim back to where we were back in late May going back into mid-May and I’m afraid that by, in a month, in another 30 days…I’m not optimistic about what the flow regimes will be like. I think we’ll continue to see streamflows drop back to levels that we saw previously in the season and maybe lower. Especially on the side tribs.”
“If you went back to CO-131 and you drive up the river towards Yampa keep your view on the east side of the valley from basically Oak Creek to Toponas. On the east side of the valley here none, and I literally mean none, of the tributaries that came off the east side of the valley up high on the west facing slopes, none of those streams had any water in them on the first of May. I mean, so little that it was a trickle. It wasn’t enough to fill…there’s a number of small reservoirs on the east side of the valley that came nowhere near to filling, no where near being even a quarter full. And there are meadows that would usually be irrigated from runoff off the streams on the east side of the valley that never saw water this year. And, if you drove back to the south and looked up high you would see those dry meadows, they stick out like a sore thumb.”
“[There was a diverter] whose headgate was leaking and the measuring device was non-functional and you know they may not have [that maintenance on the schedule] prior to the start of the season, we were simply in a position that, based on never having to administer that system before had to have every device functioning properly. Luckily that particular user got right on it, fixed the headgate, fixed the device, and I was able turn his water back on to him in a fairly timely manner. But I think that a lot of folks, if they haven’t, are going to be paying more attention to the necessity of measurement.”
“One of the biggest concerns to my local ag users, stock producers, is going to be the availability of stock water as we move into the late summer and the fall. We have people all over S. Routt County, and when I say S. Routt County, that includes the portion of the county that is outside my jurisdiction that is actually in Water Division 5, the headwaters of the Colorado River. We have had people down around McCoy hauling stockwater since May and I’ve noticed more water tanks running up and down highway 131, between Oak Creek and Yampa hauling water as well.”
“Not only for stock but also for domestic potable purposes. Some folks still have hand-dug wells for example. And because of a lack of tailwater and runoff some of those hand-dug wells have actually gone dry at some of the older ranch homes. I know for a fact that there are at least two older ranch homes that have traditionally been served by springs and the springs have gone dry. And they’re looking perhaps at replacing their springs with a well and cost of doing that, of course.”
“The other concern for stock growers in this area right now and throughout the summer irrigation season is the lack of pasture. Lots of stock growers are pasturing animals on meadows that they normally would have irrigated to grow hay on all summer long. They have cows out on meadows that normally you wouldn’t see them on this time of year.”
“So when you came from Oak Creek for example, the old depot, the red depot, down there…You can actually park right there and get cell service. It’s spotty around here, yeah.”