Here’s a report from a tour of Stagecoach Dam from Matt Stensland writing for Steamboat Today. Click through for the cool photo of the drain system from inside the dam. Here’s an excerpt:
It is a careful balancing act at the Stagecoach Dam, where electricity is generated for homes, fish habitat is managed and water is stored for a time when cities, ranchers and industry need it.
Behind the steel door, mineralized sludge covers the concrete walls and incandescent bulbs dimly light the narrow corridor.
These are the guts of the Stagecoach Dam southeast of Steamboat Springs, and it can be a little unnerving knowing that at the other side of the wall, 9,360 pounds of pressure push against each square foot of concrete.
Water drips from the ceiling and falls from drain pipes that collect water from the seeping concrete.
“All dams get water into them,” said Kevin McBride, adding that not having a system to drain the water would create pressure and put the dam’s integrity at risk…
“It’s pretty much paradise here,” said Blankenship, who most recently worked at a coal mine and previously worked in the power house of the USS Enterprise for the U.S. Navy.
Rogers has an electrical engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines.
In addition to monitoring the integrity of the dam, they oversee the hydroelectric power plant, which was named the John Fetcher Power Plant in 1997. He pushed to make electricity generation part of the dam design.
“I think John was a natural conservationist and to have this capability in a project that size and not do it was a bad thing,” said McBride, referring to Fetcher, who died in 2009 at age 97 after being recognized as one of the state’s water leaders.
Above the loud turbine in the power house sits a sign warning people not to stand underneath. That is because above, there is a large, weighted steel lever that will come crashing down if the power generated at the plant needs to immediately come off the grid.
On Tuesday afternoon, the electrical turbine was generating upwards of 500 kilowatts. The system can generate as much as 800 kilowatts, but generation is limited by the amount of water that is flowing into the reservoir.
“The generation, it fluctuates wildly,” said Andi Rossi, the water district’s engineer. “If the flows get too low, we shut down for power generation. In a big wet year, we’ll make a lot of power.”
The water district had been selling the power to Xcel Energy, but Yampa Valley Electric Association began buying the power last year for six cents per kilowatt hour. In 2016, YVEA paid more than $230,000 for the 3.85 million kilowatt hours generated at the dam. That is enough energy to power about 355 homes.
Power generation varies and is dependent on runoff. During the drought year of 2002, only 1.85 million kilowatt hours was produced. When there was abundant snowfall in 2011, 4.7 million kilowatt hours was produced. Since 1999, an average of 3.8 million kilowatt hours has been made each year…
A tower of concrete in the reservoir beside the dam has three gates that allow different temperatures of water to be mixed and sent through a pipe under the dam toward the generator.
From there, the water is either sent through the generator or through a pipe called a jet flow, which shoots water out of the power plant and helps oxygenate the water for fish habitat in the section of river in front of the dam known as the tailwaters.
The area is an angler’s delight and can only be accessed by snowmobile from the Catamount area or by hiking along a county road from Stagecoach State Park.
“It’s phenomenal,” Colorado Park and Wildlife fish biologist Billy Atkinson said.
With improvements by Parks and Wildlife to the river habitat, the area has thrived for fishing, partly because of the dam and reservoir. Relatively warm water released from the dam keeps the section of river from freezing over, and the water from the reservoir is rich in nutrients for the fish.
“The system is very productive,” Atkinson said.
In 2016, 25 percent more people visited the section of river, and 4,000 trout were measured per mile.
Not all tailwaters below dams in Colorado are experiencing similar success.
“It depends on the dam and the operations of the dam,” Atkinson said.
The Routt County Board of Commissioners agreed Dec. 6 to renew its $9,660 commitment in 2017 to the water quality monitoring that has been ongoing in the Upper Yampa River Basin since 2011, with the support of the U.S. Geological Survey and other local agencies…
Under the testing regimen, six different sites on the river are tested four times annually to establish the baseline for a healthy river.
In addition, Cowman said the Yampa has been found to have a temperature impairment, and consistent water quality testing over time will help the entities involved in the testing make the case that they’ve been responsive to that condition when the Colorado Water Quality Control Division next focuses on the Yampa.
Steamboat Today reported Dec. 7, 2015, that some high water temperature readings in the river west of Hayden have the potential to lead to a big shift in how a 57-mile stretch of the river is regulated by the state of Colorado.
After a summer of sparse moisture in 2016, the Yampa, where it enters Stagecoach Reservoir, was flowing at 22 cubic feet per second on Sept. 23, representing an historic low, based on 27 years of record.
Managers of the Stagecoach and Catamount dams timed their seasonal draw-down of their reservoirs to benefit the Yampa downstream. And the city of Steamboat and the Colorado Water Trust both arranged to release stored water to boost the river’s flow by 10 cfs well into autumn.
The cost of the water testing in 2017 is up about 2 percent, with the USGS contributing $14,631, or 30 percent, of the total cost of $48,443. Joining the county in contributing 20 percent of the total are the city of Steamboat Springs and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
The Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District and Morrison Creek Water and Sanitation District are each contributing $2,415, or 5 percent, of the total.
Work begins [November 21, 2016] on a new whitewater feature on the Yampa River adjacent to Little Toots Park.
The new Toots Hole will be similar to the A-Wave upstream, which was reconstructed in December 2015.
“There is going to be a drop feature on the right-hand side and then a passage on the left for fish,” said Kent Vertrees, board member for Friends of the Yampa, which is carrying out the project in collaboration with the city of Steamboat Springs Parks and Community Services Department. “It will create a good, fun wave for tubers and also create some fish habitat.”
The project will include river bank stabilization, riparian habitat restoration and other improvements.
In December 2015, the river’s A-Wave was reconstructed, as the drop-off had become troublesome for tubers who could hurt themselves or become stuck in the wave.
“At low water, it was keeping tubers in the hole, or tubers were flipping in and getting stuck,” Vertrees said. “Now, it flushes.”
Both the A-Wave and Toots Hole projects are being funded by Friends of the Yampa, thanks to grants the organization received from the Colorado Water Conservancy board’s Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable and the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.
Friends of the Yampa also organizes additional fundraisers, including its annual Big Snow Dance, which took place Saturday. The event raised more than $12,000 through an auction, money that will also support the Toots Hole project.
“That money goes directly into the river for this project,” Vertrees said. “The community of river people and Friends of the Yampa folks have really supported this project.”
The improvements to the river were identified in the 2008 Yampa River Structural Plan, and the two projects together are expected to cost about $130,000.
Vertrees said Toots Hole is the last component of what he calls the Yampa River Boating Park, a series of river features through downtown.
“We’ve created this interesting little urban river canyon, and we’re just adding to it,” he said. “We’re really excited about the conclusion of this project.”
Vertrees thanked Rick Mewborn, of Nordic Excavating, for his work on the projects, including donations of time and rock.
“Without him as a partner, this wouldn’t have been as successful,” he said.
Work on the project is expected to last about two weeks, and periodic closures of the Yampa River Core Trail might occur while work is taking place.
Solar-powered water systems let livestock drink more easily and take pressure off ponds and streams
[Vance Fulton], an engineering technician with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, described the way solar energy provides an effective way for landowners to transport water to their livestock.
“Especially around here, (landowners) have found that solar is a much more efficient way to pump water than the old windmills,” Fulton said.
And now, with the birth of the Sage Grouse Initiative, the solar-powered systems are receiving increasing amounts of federal support. Fulton said the systems have received funding through the Farm Bill for decades — but for the last several years, SGI has targeted more money for the solar-powered projects in places where the sage grouse is affected, such as Moffat County.
Surprising as it may seem at first glance, the creation of multiple water sources for cattle helps sage grouse too.
The system often works this way: A solar panel powers a pump that drives water through an underground pipeline, and the pipeline delivers the water to troughs at various points in the land so that animals can drink. The pump often fills up a storage tank for a backup water supply, as well.
The system, as Fulton explained it, creates an efficient means of supplying water to animals on the land. By creating several water sources, the system also eases stress on the ponds, puddles and streams where animals may gather to drink. That benefits a host of creatures — including the sage grouse.
Chris Yarbrough, formerly a biologist with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, who is now regional habitat biologist for Idaho Fish and Game, explained how a water system such as this can help sage grouse. If there’s only one pond on a ranch, he said, that’s where the cows will congregate.
“That area will probably get overgrazed, and you’ll probably get a lot of weeds — things that aren’t good for wildlife,” he said.
But water troughs scattered throughout the land can attract animals to different spots, easing the pressure on a pond or a stream.
“The grasses and (other plants) then have a chance to grow,” he said — something that’s good for sage grouse and lots of other species, as well.
Yarbrough said much of the funding to install solar pumping systems in Moffat County is generated by the SGI, launched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2010.
Fulton said the NRCS works with about 20 landowners in Moffat County on solar watering systems, and he noted there may be others using solar power, as well. It’s a number that’s far larger, he said, than it was about a decade ago, before the SGI.
One of the Moffat County landowners who uses solar-powered system is Doug Davis, who has a ranch called Davis Family Farm LLC that lies in the eastern part of the county.
“We discovered a very good water source up high, and because it’s up high you can use gravity flow,” Davis said.
Davis explained that the solar panel on this ranch pumps water from the well into a storage tank — and from that storage tank, gravity allows the water to flow through pipes to troughs throughout the property. Davis said that, on another property, he uses the solar-powered pump to push water directly to the troughs.
Either way, Davis said he’s glad to be using solar energy. He used to use windmills, which could be tough to maintain and less reliable.
“Windmills are much higher maintenance, and the wind does not blow as consistently as the sun shines,” he said. “Solar, which has turned out to be a low-maintenance, relatively low-cost proposition for us, is a winner.”
As Fulton walked through Davis’s land on that sunny July day, he pointed to some small nuances in the equipment, including strategically placed fencing to protect the plumbing from the animals drinking from the troughs, and a “small animal escape ramp” to let otherwise trapped animals climb to safety.
Fulton said the solar-powered system works without batteries, which means that energy is transferred directly to the pumps. It also means that the amount of energy may vary from day to day, depending on the supply of sunlight at a given time. That’s where the agility of the pumps comes into play.
“These pumps are able to work on variable voltage,” he said. “They’ll even continue to pump on a slightly cloudy day.”
Storing water during the sunny days, Fulton said, creates a water supply to use on the cloudy ones.
“You store water instead of storing electricity,” he said.
Fulton said, too, that advances in technology — in the pumps and the solar panels — have made the system even better than it used to be.
“It got more dependable, more efficient through the years,” he said — a sign that the sun soaking ranches throughout the county will be put to good use for many more years to come.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Zach Smith, Kelly Romero-Heaney, Kevin McBride):
Today, Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District began releasing water purchased by the Colorado Water Trust and its partners to bolster flows in the Yampa River from Stagecoach Reservoir through the City of Steamboat. The purchase of 264 acre-feet, to be released at a rate of 10 cfs for 13 days, provides a gap measure between other local entities’ efforts to keep the Yampa flowing in this dry late summer.
The Yampa River, although forecasted to run at normal streamflow levels this summer, began dropping in the late summer and remained well below average, impacting fish, recreationalists, and water quality. Noting dropping water levels, the City of Steamboat began releasing water from its 552 acre-feet pool in Stagecoach on August 19th to improve water quality – the first time the City has used its water in Stagecoach in such a way. When that water ran out on September 14, Upper Yampa maintained that 10 cfs release by generating hydropower as part of a winter drawdown of Stagecoach it performed earlier than normal to coordinate with this purchase. The Water Trust’s purchase will continue adding water to the Yampa until the Catamount Metro District lowers levels in Lake Catamount to prepare for the winter sometime in early October.
“Watching the local community now lead the streamflow restoration effort on the upper Yampa River is the best outcome for the work the Water Trust has accomplished in the Yampa valley since 2012,” said Zach Smith, staff attorney for the Water Trust.
“A healthy Yampa River is important to our community on so many levels,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney. “The City was fortunate to be able to release its Stagecoach Reservoir water this year to improve water quality in the river.”
The Water Trust’s partners, The Nature Conservancy, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Tri-State Generation & Transmission and the CAN’d Aid Foundation funded the $10,000 for the 2016 purchase and costs related to the transaction.
In 2012, 2013, and 2015 the Water Trust purchased water out of Stagecoach for release to the Yampa River to help maintain healthy stream flows and water quality.
As always, the project wouldn’t be a success without the help of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Catamount Development, Inc., Catamount Metropolitan District, and other cooperative water users.
…the Colorado Water Trust has joined the city of Steamboat Springs, Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Catamount Metropolitan District in ongoing efforts to boost the Yampa’s flows deeper into autumn.
The river was flowing at 60 percent of its median flow for Sept. 23 Friday morning, but it would have been lower this week if not for the fact the city and Upper Yampa Water have been adding flows of 10 cubic feet per second from water stored in Stagecoach Reservoir since August. The city, for the first time ever, began releasing water from its 552-acre-foot pool in the Yampa Aug. 19, and when that ran out Sept. 14, Upper Yampa continued the 10 cfs release by accelerating its seasonal timetable for drawing down the reservoir to accommodate 2017 spring runoff.
Upper Yampa District Engineer Andy Rossi observed at the time: “We are flirting with historically low flows into Stagecoach Reservoir.”
The Yampa was flowing at 22 cubic feet per second just above the reservoir Friday. Based on 27 years of record, that compares to the lowest flow on record for Sept. 23 — 22 cfs in 2002.
However, water district general manager Kevin McBride said the reservoir his agency manages filled to capacity after a very wet spring, allowing the water district to advance its autumn timetable.
The Water Trust announced Sept. 22 that, together with its partners, it will spend $10,000 to purchase another 264-acre feet of water from Stagecoach Reservoir, enough to increase the flows in the Yampa by 10 cubic feet per second for 13 more days. The Water Trust’s purchase will continue adding water to the Yampa until sometime in October, when the Catamount Metro District lowers levels in Lake Catamount to prepare for winter.
Water Trust staff attorney Zach Smith said that the level of cooperation among water managers in the upper Yampa Basin is gratifying for his organization.
“Watching the local community now lead the streamflow restoration effort on the upper Yampa River is the best outcome for the work the Water Trust has accomplished in the Yampa Valley since 2012,” Smith said in a news release.
Here’s the release from The Center for Biological Diversity (Taylor McKinnon):
Lawsuit Launched Over Fracking, Water, Climate Change in Colorado River Basin
The Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers today filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to compel them to update invalid, outdated Endangered Species Act consultations on the impacts of climate change and expanded fracking in western Colorado on the Colorado River system and its four endangered fish. The challenge seeks to halt all new oil and gas leasing and development on federal public lands in the Upper Colorado River Basin of Colorado — including the White River and Grand Junction field offices — pending updated consultations.
“The Colorado River system’s endangered fish can’t handle more water depletions. The river system is already overtaxed, and declining flows because of climate change are making a bad situation worse,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center. “It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive policy for the Colorado River Basin than using scarce water to fuel more climate-warming fossil fuel extraction — but that’s exactly what the Obama administration is allowing.”
The notice asserts that a programmatic “biological opinion” study authorizing water withdrawals for oil and gas development on public lands in the Upper Colorado River Basin is outdated and invalid. The study fails to consider impacts to endangered fish from the drawing-down of large amounts of water that would be used for horizontal drilling, as well as the impacts of developing expanded estimates of Mancos shale gas deposits, existing and projected future climate-driven Colorado River declines, oil and other toxic spills, mercury and selenium pollution, and the failure of the federal recovery program to provide minimum river flows in critical habitat for the fish.
The notice challenges both agencies’ reliance on the study when they approved new land-use plans for the Grand Junction and White River field offices last year and other oil and gas development plans this year. Together the new land-use plans would allow nearly 19,000 new oil and gas wells in western Colorado. Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service has already conceded that any further water depletions from the Colorado River or its tributaries would jeopardize the four endangered fish — the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail.
“Fracking in the Colorado River Basin comes at the peril of public lands, our climate, the river, its endangered fish, and tens of millions of downstream water users,” said McKinnon. “It’s backward public policy in face of a worsening climate crisis. Now’s the time for the Obama administration to align our country’s energy policies with its climate goals by ending new fossil fuel leasing on America’s public lands.”
Center for Biological Diversity attorneys Wendy Park and Michael Saul are staffing the case.
On behalf of the American people, the U.S. federal government manages nearly 650 million acres of public land and more than 1.7 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf — and the fossil fuels beneath them. This includes federal public land, which makes up about a third of the U.S. land area, and oceans like Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard. These places and the fossil fuels beneath them are held in trust for the public by the federal government; federal fossil fuel leasing is administered by the Department of the Interior.
Over the past decade, the combustion of federal fossil fuels has resulted in nearly a quarter of all U.S. energy-related emissions. A 2015 report by EcoShift Consulting, commissioned by the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth, found that remaining federal oil, gas, coal, oil shale and tar sands that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential greenhouse gas pollution. As of earlier this year, 67 million acres of federal fossil fuel were already leased to industry, an area more than 55 times larger than Grand Canyon National Park containing up to 43 billion tons of potential greenhouse gas pollution.
Last year Sens. Merkley (D-Ore.), Sanders (I-Vt.) and others introduced the Keep It In the Ground Act (S. 2238) legislation to end new federal fossil fuel leases and cancel non-producing federal fossil fuel leases. Days later President Obama canceled the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, saying, “Because ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”
Download the Center for Biological Diversity’s legal petition calling on the Obama administration to halt all new offshore fossil fuel leasing.
Download the Center for Biological Diversity’s legal petition with 264 other groups calling on the Obama administration to halt all new onshore fossil fuel leasing.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Two conservation groups say oil and gas leasing and development need to be halted on federal lands in the Upper Colorado River Basin until agencies can take the steps needed to protect endangered fish.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers have notified the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they plan to sue the agencies for failing to take into account new information in order to properly protect the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail. This information includes the growing use of water-intensive horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and gas from the Mancos shale formation, which holds a much larger developable resource than previously thought. The U.S. Geological Survey recently estimated that the Piceance Basin’s Mancos shale formation contains 40 times more recoverable gas than it previously had estimated.
The groups say the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service relied on an invalid and outdated study authorizing water depletions for oil and gas development in the Upper Colorado Basin as the BLM approved land-use plans in the region, most notably plans involving the Grand Junction and White River field offices that combined allow for nearly 19,000 oil and gas wells…
The study, known as a programmatic biological opinion, was adopted in 2008, before the BLM recognized the potential for horizontal drilling and the associated water impacts, the groups say in their notice of intent to sue. The notice said while the BLM estimated that local wells drilled out directionally and then vertically into producing formations require an average of 2.62 acre-feet of water, nine local horizontal wells ended up consuming an average of nearly 69 acre-feet each. That largely was responsible for water consumption of nearly twice the projected annual total for oil and gas development for a sub-basin portion of the Colorado River, in violation of a depletion limit intended to protect the fish, the groups say.
The groups’ notice said difficulty meeting minimum recommended flows for the fish in a critical 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River in Mesa County strongly suggests the habitat there will be unsuitable for the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker in dry years, “and that flow depletions from oil and gas development will only exacerbate these unsuitable conditions and reduce these species’ chances of recovery.”
BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service spokesmen said Monday their agencies don’t comment on pending litigation.
Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance industry group said the legal action is another attempt by conservation groups to grasp at straws in their opposition to the industry. She noted a state estimate that fracking consumes less than a tenth of a percent of Colorado water.
“It’s a very small amount of water that is used for fracking and for oil and gas development in general,” she said.
She added that one horizontal well replaces several vertical wells, so the overall water use is actually lower. And she questioned how much impact energy development can be having on fish at a time of minimal drilling activity on the Western Slope.
The conservation groups single out in their notice water consumption by Black Hills Exploration & Production, but that company since has suspended local drilling.
MEEKER – The mule in a pasture east of Meeker along the White River seemed happy to see Erin Light, a state division engineer, and Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner, when they went to take a look at the amount of water flowing through the Meeker Ditch on July 11.
Lewis, who grew up on a Colorado ranch, praised the mule’s beautiful, deer-like coloring and said they’d become friends on her frequent visits to check the ditch.
But the warm equine reception the two enforcers of Colorado water law received differed from the response they sometimes get from ranchers in Division 6, which encompasses the Yampa, White and North Platte river basins, especially when they are visiting a ditch because they think its operator is diverting more water than they need through their head gate.
“I would say I’m more telling than I am curtailing,” said Light, who has been the division engineer based in Steamboat Springs since 2006. “There have only been a few situations where I’ve actually said, ‘That’s it. We’re curtailing you.’ And they’re very obvious situations where they’ve got a lot of water going down the tail end of their ditch, where you can’t argue that this isn’t waste.
“Where the problem becomes in determining waste is that I can go out to a piece of land and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got 6 inches of water on this land. There’s ducks swimming around. This is wasteful,’” she continued. “You can go to the landowner or the irrigator and say, ‘This is waste,’ and they’ll stare you right in the face and say, ‘The hell it is.’”
Division and state engineers working for Colorado’s Division of Water Resources, as Light does, are the only officials who have the authority to determine if waste is occurring on an irrigation system. And their primary response is to curtail wasteful flows at the head gate.
But determining if there is waste in a ditch is a case-by-case exercise. It’s site specific and time sensitive, and it can take time to understand how someone manages their ditch.
There’s no state definition of waste or written guidelines, but in the end it’s a fact-based analysis focused on how much water is needed to irrigate so many acres.
An allowance is also made for customary inefficiencies on a ditch system. Water leaking out of an old ditch, for example, is not considered waste. But beyond inefficiency, which is often a physical issue, there is waste, which is usually a water-management issue.
And waste is a much bigger issue on the Western Slope than on the state’s drier eastern plains, where irrigators have long watched for anyone wasting water.
Free river, or not
In 2014, Light served the Meeker Ditch with a written curtailment order, and she also told the big Maybell Canal on the Yampa River that they had to stop wasting water.
And she did so even though neither river was “under administration,” the term for the body of water being called out by senior downstream diverters, so both were considered in a “free river” condition.
Nor was there another water right that was being injured by either ditch’s diversions.
Just in the past 10 days, Light’s office has informed rancher Doug Monger that water is being wasted in the irrigation system he manages on his Yampa River Ranch three miles east of Hayden.
Monger is a Routt County commissioner, a member of the Yampa-White Roundtable, and a director on the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s board.
When asked Tuesday, during a break in a daylong strategic retreat at the River District, about Light’s belief that he was wasting water, he responded in a way that she has heard before.
“I don’t know what the hell difference it makes if I’m wasting water or not, it’s going back in the river,” Monger said. “Who the hell cares, if it’s a free river.”
“I know he is wasting water,” Light said Monday of Monger. “And he should be the poster child of what should be done, not what shouldn’t be done.
“About 10 days or so ago, our water commissioner approached a bunch of water users in the ditch system,” she explained. “There are several ditches that combine and co-mingle there.
“They were immediately going, ‘That’s Doug Monger’s responsibility, Doug’s the one controlling that,’ which I take as Doug is the one controlling the head gates,” Light said. “One of our water commissioners, Brian Romig, went to Doug and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here. You’re diverting too much water.’ From what Brian told me, Doug somewhat recognized it. He concurred that he needed to reduce his diversions.”
But Tuesday, Monger was not willing to go that far, saying he understood from the water commissioner only that he was still figuring out how Monger’s ditch works.
“I won’t acknowledge it,” Monger said of the allegation that he was diverting more water than he needs. “And if they start coming up with some scenario on it, we can always get our attorney. “
That was the same initial response that David Smith, the primary shareholder on the Meeker Ditch, had when Light curtailed his ditch in 2014.
But since then, and after spending $40,000 in legal and engineering fees, Smith has come around to see Light’s point.
“I would tell you that Erin and I started out on opposite ends on this thing, but both of us have kind of tried to work our way towards middle ground that we can both agree on,” he said.
Smith was busy this week bringing in hay on his well-tended fields along the White River just west of Meeker — the same fields his grandfather irrigated.
“I’ve had some disagreements with her, but Erin is an intelligent gal,” he said of Light, who has a master’s degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University with an emphasis in hydraulics and hydrology. “We’ve worked with her, and we’ve worked with the people that she has here, and at the end of the day it’s helped all of us, and I think we’re all better educated because of it.”
Laying down the law
The Meeker Ditch has a water right dating back to 1883 to divert 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water and two other later and smaller rights that allow it to divert 25.95 cfs in all.
The ditch diverts water from the White River just east of Meeker, runs it through Meeker proper, and then to fields west of town. (See map).
In her August 2014 curtailment order, Light said the historic water rights held by the Meeker Ditch represent enough water to irrigate about 1,000 acres, but today only 153 acres are actively being irrigated. And engineers at Resource Engineering Inc. calculated that the Meeker Ditch only needed 6 cfs to irrigate the fields still served by the ditch.
Attorney Kevin Patrick of Patrick, Miller and Noto, a water law firm with offices in Aspen and Basalt, had hired Resource Engineering to analyze the irrigation ditch on behalf of a client who owned commercial property under the ditch.
Since 2004, the property had been intermittently subject to flooding by water leaking from the ditch.
Patrick sent the engineering report and a letter to Light. “The ditch is diverting unnecessary water which is merely being spilled” and “the excessive running of water, over that reasonably required for the reasonable application of water to beneficial use for the decreed purposes and lands, is forbidden” under state law, the letter says.
After investigating the matter, Light found the ditch had been consistently diverting about 20 cfs at its head gate, but was then sending much of the water out of the ditch and down Curtis Creek, Sulphur Creek or Fairfield Gulch, back toward the White River.
Light then curtailed diversions at the Meeker Ditch head gate, which she has the authority to do. And when asked to do so by Smith, she put the curtailment order in writing.
“Colorado statute clearly prohibits the running of water not needed for beneficial use,” Light wrote in her order, dated Aug. 15, 2014.
Light cited a Colorado statute that reads “it shall not be lawful for any person to run through an irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”
And she addressed the issue of water being released from the ditch and back to the river.
“Generally when water is being wasted off the end of the irrigated acreage, through waste gates, or at the tail end of the ditch, the head gate should be turned down to eliminate that waste of water,” Light wrote. “In this case it appears that water is being diverted at too great a rate for the lands that are being irrigated, and the rate of diversion is not being reduced to eliminate waste.”
Light’s stance on enforcing waste has the backing of her boss, State Engineer Dick Wolfe.
Use it or lose it?
Both Wolfe and Light served recently on a committee, convened by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, that issued a report in February on the widely brandished piece of advice to irrigators to “use it or lose it.”
The report is called “How diversion and beneficial use of water affect the value and measure of a water right” and is subtitled “Is ‘use it or lose it’ an absolute?”
The 11-page report ends with several declarative statements about waste that give further backing to Light’s approach, and that she might well wish to see chained to every head gate on the Western Slope.
“Water that is diverted above the amount necessary for application to a beneficial use (including necessary for transit loss) is considered waste,” states the report.
“Increased diversions for the sole purpose of maintaining a record of a larger diversion are considered waste,” it says, referring to the practice of diverting toward the full amount of a decree in order to bolster the future potential value of a water right.
And, “Wasteful diversions will either be curtailed, or will not be considered as part of the water right’s beneficial use.”
Wolfe, who recently gave a presentation to the Colorado Ag Water Alliance on the “use it or lose it” report, said that Light is not being overzealous in her enforcement of waste.
“She is not going out and as a division engineer purposely looking and being more assertive or aggressive about trying to find where waste is going on,” Wolfe said. “These are ones that just came to our attention.”
Alan Martellaro, the division engineer for Division 5, has not taken the same approach as Light when it comes to curtailing waste.
“To actually actively go look for waste is not something that’s historically been done unless there’s a call on the stream,” said Martellaro, who is based in Glenwood Springs and whose jurisdiction includes the Colorado, the Roaring Fork, and the Crystal river basins. “It just hasn’t been the mode we’ve ever been in.”
Kevin Rein, the deputy state engineer who also served on the “use it or lose it” committee, said issues vary from division to division.
“In Division 6, in the Yampa-White, we’ve had periods of free river without administration for a long time, because it hasn’t been over-appropriated,” Rein said. “That means not being water short. So very often people were just diverting whatever they wanted because, why not? But she’s really directing herself to getting people to measure their diversions and pay attention to duty of water. I think you choose what’s important in your division. That’s important in her division.”
“Duty of water” is essentially how much water someone needs to grow crops on a certain amount of land, without waste. In the Yampa and White river basins, the duty of water is generally held to be that it takes 1 cfs to adequately irrigate 40 acres of land.
After giving a presentation at a water workshop in Gunnison in June about the “use it or lose it” report, Rein was asked why the state doesn’t go around and curtail people who are over-diverting.
“We do, as resources allow,” Rein said. “It’s simply a matter of looking at our water districts where we, maybe, have one water commissioner and maybe a deputy. Maybe if they each had two or three more deputies, then we could do that.”
Light sounds like she could use some help.
“When it comes down to obvious waste,” she said, “I would say we have a tremendous problem with it. I had a long-standing water commissioner — he was with us for 40 years and grew up a rancher — tell me one day, ‘The problem with irrigators today is they don’t go out and move their sets. They just open the head gate wider.’”
“Sets” refers to how irrigators have set various control points, such as check dams and internal head gates, along their ditches.
“That just blew me away,” Light said. “Here’s a longtime rancher living in the community of Meeker his entire life who is more or less telling me that his co-irrigators … just open up their head gate and don’t move sets anymore. To me, that’s where the inefficiency is. Go out, divert less water, and move your damn sets.”
After receiving Light’s written curtailment order in August 2014 on the Meeker Ditch, Smith appealed it to an administrative hearing officer, which was a rare move.
Wolfe said the appeal, which was addressed to him, “is the only curtailment order that I am aware of that has been appealed since I have been state engineer.” He’s been state engineer since since 2007 and has been with the Division of Water Resources since 1993.
An attorney for the Meeker Townsite Ditch Co., which owns the Meeker Ditch, told the state that Light was “attempting to restrict the diversion of water down the Meeker Ditch at a time when the White River is not under an administrative call and at a time when no other water rights owner is affected by the diversion.”
At that point, the state stepped in to defend Light’s curtailment order, and Philip Lopez, an assistant attorney general, prepared an answer to Smith’s appeal.
In his answer, Lopez cited a relatively straightforward statute that reads: “During the summer season it shall not be lawful for any person to run through his irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, and for domestic and stock purposes, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”
And he quoted the Colorado Supreme Court in Fellhauer v. People, where it said, “The right to water does not give the right to waste it.”
As to the matter of Light, or any other division engineer, not being able to curtail waste if there is not a call on the river, Lopez wrote “the division engineer has the authority to curtail [the Meeker Ditch’s] wasteful diversions at any time pursuant to [state law], regardless of whether or not the White River is under administration.”
Lopez did concede, though, that the water rights held by the Meeker Ditch still allowed it to divert water, as long as they did so “without waste.”
That’s an important distinction for Smith, who insists that he wasn’t technically curtailed, only that he can’t waste water when diverting.
“She hasn’t curtailed me to the amount of water that I can use,” Smith said. “All that Erin tells me is that whatever amount of water I have in the ditch, that she doesn’t want us wasting any water.”
Light has a different take.
“We curtailed them,” Light said. “We issued an order to stop wasting. They hired an attorney. They hired an engineer. It went to the hearing officer. They don’t waste anymore.”
The hearing officer in the case denied the ditch’s appeal, indicating it was a matter for water court. But Smith declined to go there.
“We kind of came to a working agreement that we were going to try to work with it, but as far as the laws, there was never a test case,” Smith said.
That may be, but on July 11, when Light and Lewis measured the flow in the Meeker Ditch, it was running at 6 cfs, not 20 cfs as it often used to.
The Maybell Canal
Light has also curtailed another irrigation ditch in Division 6, the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River near Maybell, which she found was similarly diverting more water than it needed.
The canal diverts water from the Yampa into a head gate located in a canyon on the edge of Little Juniper Mountain, about 30 miles west of Craig. (See map).
The Maybell Canal has a senior water right for 42.2 cfs that was adjudicated in 1923 and appropriated in 1899. It also has a junior right for 86.8 cfs that was adjudicated in 1972 and was appropriated in 1946.
The waste on the Maybell Canal was brought to Light’s attention by one of her water commissioners who’d visited the ditch. Light then verbally instructed the canal’s manager to stop wasting water. Mike Camblin, manager of the Maybell Irrigation District, wasn’t happy when he got the curtailment order from Light, but he’s now working to secure funding to make $197,000 worth of improvements to the irrigation system.
On July 13, the Yampa-White-Green basin roundtable approved a $108,000 grant of state funds to help fix several issues on the ditch system. One of those improvements is a modern, automated “waste gate” a mile below the head gate.
Camblin said such a remote-controlled system won’t work at the head gate, which is higher up in the canyon without cell phone service and prone to being washed out by high water.
But he is willing to use the automated gate to reduce sending more water than necessary out the bottom of the ditch, where the water returns to the Yampa River.
The arrangement for the new gate does not entirely please Light, however. She insisted that Camblin agree to send someone up to the head gate within three days after receiving information from the new automated gate that they are over-diverting.
An agreement to that end has been worked out and is poised for adoption, both Light and Camblin said.
“The whole goal is to not only help Erin out but to make us better at what we do,” Camblin told his fellow roundtable members on July 13.
In an interview this week, Camblin said, “At times we were probably taking more water than we need, but that’s what this whole process is about, to cut that down.” He said he is forging a productive working relationship with Light.
“I think it all comes down to communication, especially with Erin and the water commissioners,” he said. “If they get to know us and how our ditch can run better, and we allow them to do that, and we communicate, we can solve a lot of problems.”
Watch that stick
Dan Birch, the deputy general manager at the Colorado River Conservation District and a member of the Yampa-White basin roundtable, is supportive of the improvements that Camblin is trying make on the Maybell Canal.
“I think Mike’s really trying to do the right thing, and I think he wants to take a look at ways he can manage his diversions better,” Birch said. “I certainly don’t think he’s diverting just for the sake of diverting.”
Birch also cautioned against using a stick to beat back waste.
“You can’t go into a situation and say, ‘Hey, you guys are wasting water, I want you to reduce your diversions,’” Birch said. “You really have to be prepared to go into that situation and say, ‘Hey, look, here’s something that we’re seeing here. Let’s have a conversation. I’m interested in exploring what we might do to improve flow in the river.’”
But Light feels the Maybell Canal needed to be prodded into action.
“What has partially pushed the Maybell Canal to go the direction they have is us really putting our foot down that we’re not going to allow this waste to continue,” she said. “Again, the waste is so blatant. They were diverting about 54 cfs at the head gate, and we estimated about 18 cfs going out the tail end. It’s like, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
Birch was asked directly if he thought the Maybell Canal would be making its proposed improvements without Light’s enforcement actions.
“That’s a fair question, and my immediate response is probably not,” he said.
While Light has been able to work with both Smith and Camblin, she knows she’s raising the hackles of ranchers in the Yampa and White river basins.
“I don’t think the irrigation community wants to be told they’re wasting,” she said. “I’d love to do more as far as waste, but I do have to tread lightly.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, July 24, 2016