From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Nicole Seltzer):
Boring. Arcane. Those are words I hear when I ask people their opinions on water management. If you don’t own a water right or rely on water for your paycheck, it’s usually an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.
Until it isn’t.
Until there isn’t enough water in the river to bring in tourism dollars. Until low river levels mean ranchers without senior water rights must stop irrigating hay fields. Until water levels in Nevada’s Lake Powell go low enough to require all Colorado water users to send more water downstream. These realities are at the forefront for only a small percentage of people, but the rest of us will notice the ripple effects eventually.
One of the reasons I moved to Routt County a few years ago was the slow pace of change. Having witnessed 15 years of Front Range growth, I was ready to celebrate the value of maintaining the status quo. The Yampa River is healthy and hard working, and most water users don’t face imminent threats. But we can’t let the lack of an emergency blind us to a slow accumulation of changes that require good planning.
That’s why I am involved in helping the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable develop the first Integrated Water Management Plan for the Yampa River basin. The planning effort takes advantage of state grant dollars available for water planning. A coalition of Basin Roundtable members, local water agencies and NGO partners has raised over $500,000 to make progress on roundtable goals and build relationships with water users.
This plan will combine top-down and bottom-up tactics. The roundtable is currently hiring segment coordinators to meet with water users and other stakeholders to understand the opportunities they see and the challenges they face. They will also hire science and engineering experts to characterize existing conditions and identify future trends.
The outcome of the plan will be a prioritized list of actions that users can take to protect existing and future water uses and support healthy river ecosystems in the face of growing populations, changing land uses and climate uncertainty. The roundtable has its own grants to help fund implementation of those actions and will identify federal, state and local partners that can contribute as well.
The plan is just starting to take shape, and there will be ample opportunity for involvement. You can learn more at yampawhitegreen.com.
Nicole Seltzer is the science and policy manager for River Network, a national nonprofit that empowers and unites people and communities to protect and restore rivers. She lives in Oak Creek and now owns more irrigation boots than high heels.
Here’s the notice from the the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Scott Hummer):
South Routt County Water Users Meeting
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Soroco High School / Oak Creek, CO
6:30 PM – 8:00 PM
Representatives from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (DWR), Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (UYWCD), United States Forest Service (USFS), and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
The agenda will address the agencies specific roles regarding:
Authority and Responsibilities associated with Administration, Management, and Oversight of water matters in the Morrison Creek, Oak Creek, and all Tributary drainages above Stagecoach Reservoir
All waters users are encouraged to Attend
Special recognition to the Soroco High School, FFA Chapter for helping organize the event!
“The city is confident, based upon volumes of analysis, that it has adequate water supply to provide West Steamboat Neighborhoods, even in dry years,” city Water Resources Manager Kelly Romero-Heaney said…
According to a water demand study conducted by the developers, at full build-out, homes in the neighborhood will require a total of 203.9 acre-feet of additional water…
The addition of a school and commercial developments increase this demand to 255.3 acre-feet, Romero-Heaney said…
Between 2006 and 2017, the city of Steamboat Springs used an average of 1,344 acre-feet each year, according to Romero-Heaney.
In 2012, one of the driest years on record in the Yampa River Basin, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service, about 7,800 acre-feet of water was available to the city from Fish Creek, Romero-Heaney said. The Yampa River added another 2,000 acre-feet.
She estimated that 93% of the water the city uses comes from Fish Creek, with the remaining 7% coming from the Yampa River. The city is working to expand its Yampa River water intake to provide an additional water source should Fish Creek become unusable.
Funding additional water infrastructure
Before the first home is built, West Steamboat Neighborhoods will be required to do the following under the annexation agreement:
Pay $292,000 to a newly established water-firming fund to pay for additional water infrastructure
Install a “water distribution system” either by extending a water main along U.S. Highway 40 that currently ends near Snow Bowl Plaza, by connecting to and extending from water lines in the neighboring Overlook Park development or by building a storage tank in the development
Install pressure-relief valves and boosters
Brynn Grey will be required to pay $15,000 to the water-firming fund upon the closing of each market-rate home. There will be an additional $11,200 payment to the fund on closing when selling homes with secondary units. This amount will be adjusted for inflation according to the Engineering News-Record Construction Cost Index.
This payment is in addition to standard tap fees Brynn Grey will pay when it receives a building permit for each home. Water tap fees equate to about $6,800 for a 1,500-square-foot, two-bath, single-family home.
The developer’s total contribution to the water-firming fund is expected to be more than $4.67 million at full build-out, according to the city.
The water-firming fund would be used to eventually build an additional water-treatment plant and purchase additional water rights, which would be necessary should the city annex land beyond West Steamboat Neighborhoods, Romero-Heaney said.
The city also will build a new water tank on the west side of town within two years of the proposed annexation agreement taking effect. In 2018, the city budgeted $3.82 million for the project.
When the Yampa River went on call for the first time last year, 65% of water users on the river had to cut back or stop using their water because they didn’t have a measuring device or headgate on their diversion.
In light of that, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 6 Engineer Erin Light sent water users on the Yampa a notice earlier this year, requiring that they install these devices.
Water users must install headgates
“We know we had a problem with measuring devices … but because of this call and this recognition of a problem of having so many structures without measuring devices, I made the decision to send out notices for the installation of headgates and measuring devices,” Light told the audience at the annual State of the River presentation in Steamboat Springs earlier this month.
Light is asking users to install devices by July 31 or ask for more time. If someone does not comply with the notice or receive an extension, they’ll receive an order to install these devices. Not complying with the order can result in a locked headgate, which means a user can’t use any of their water, or a $500 fine per day for every day a user continues to divert water without a headgate.
These structures are required by law, but the Yampa River is still the Wild West when it comes to water use. The Yampa was among the last, if not the last, large rivers in the state to go on call. The area also is among the last in the state to have so many diversions without headgates.
When the river went on call, even water users who had senior water rights and were using less water than they were legally entitled to were not allowed to use their water because their ditches didn’t have measuring devices that count how much water is used.
That’s means about 65% of the devices Light and her staff track in the Yampa River basin — about 850 — were shut off.
A similar notice and order was issued after the Elk River was placed on call in 2010.
Measuring for the future
These devices are important, Light said, because, in the state’s eyes, the value of a water right is based on the record of how much water that crops, livestock and people consume.
Without a way to measure the water, this record is an estimate, with water commissioners — the people charged with monitoring water rights on the ground — taking an educated guess at how much water is flowing based on how quickly a dandelion head floats downstream.
And how the state values a water right is becoming increasingly important as water managers start to plan for the possibility of an interstate call under the Colorado River Compact, which would require Colorado to cut back use as a state in order to send water downstream. Water managers are already working to balance increased demand for water with less available water…
The Upper Yampa Water Conservation District, which includes much of Routt County, offers mini-grants for up to half of the project cost or $500 to assist water users with the cost of installing water control and measuring devices. Each device can earn a grant, so if a producer is installing a headgate and measuring device, they can receive up to $1,000, Upper Yampa General Manager Kevin McBride said.
An earlier spring
Though having a lot of snow is generally good for the water year, the type and timing of the snow also impacts the western cycle of water.
“It’s not just amount of snowpack we have that is critical, it’s also the type of precipitation we’re receiving, especially in the winter — whether we’re getting rain or snow,” said Orla Bannan, in a Yampa Valley Sustainability Council Talking Green event. Bannan works with water scarcity as strategic engagement manager for the conservation organization Western Resource Advocates in its Healthy Rivers Program.
She added when snow melts is critical, and “we’re seeing changes there.”
Springtime has sprung earlier and earlier in the Yampa Valley, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Services’ snow telemetry sites. Snowpack is reaching its peak and melting off earlier in the season. Dust on snowy, windy and sunny days can all increase how quickly snow melts off the mountains.
When that early snowmelt runs off into the streams that feed into the Yampa and Elk Rivers, the rivers also peak earlier. This has impacts to everyone who uses Yampa water.
When the river peaks early, flows can rush by before producers’ crops are ready to use them. The river level appropriate for river recreation in town can fall by early summer, closing the river at the hottest time of the year when many would like to be paddling, fishing or tubing down it. When flows are low, the river is also more likely to warm to temperatures that are unhealthy for trout and other aquatic species.
These changes are forecasted to continue, largely driven by warming global temperatures as human impacts continue to create a hotter atmosphere, according to the 2019 National Climate Assessment, a report authored by several federal agencies and reviewed by members of the National Academy of Sciences.
“In the last 50 years, Colorado has seen greater amounts of precipitation as rainfall as opposed to snowfall, and then snowmelt and subsequent peak flows have shifted by weeks,” Bannan said. “So, we’re already seeing those changes.”
Across the West, states with water cycles reliant on snow are seeing smaller snowpack, with a greater decline at lower elevations, Bannan said. Higher temperatures also intensify droughts as more water evaporates from streams and both crops and wild plant species use more water to grow in hot sun.
One good year is not enough to mitigate the impacts of a decade of dry years, Bannan said.
Locally, Routt County was only pulled out of drought conditions last week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Drought Monitor. Before snowmelt hits the streams, it will first soak into dry soil. While snowpack is above average, river forecasters are still predicting near-average flows in the Yampa.
As of Sunday, snowpack in the Yampa Valley contained 125 percent of its normal snow water equivalent, according to the NRCS, but the National Weather Service is forecasting flows in the Yampa River in April through July to be much closer to average — 91 percent of average at Stagecoach Reservoir and 100 percent in Steamboat Springs.
The Yampa is also part of a much larger watershed, flowing into the Green River and then the Colorado River, and then into Utah, Arizona and Mexico. Colorado is legally obligated to send a portion of its water — including Yampa River water — to downstream states in the form of an annual contribution to Lake Powell.
In recent years, below average water years have increased concern that Colorado won’t contribute enough water to Lake Powell to meet its legal obligations. Should that happen, an interstate call would be administered, requiring water users in Colorado to reduce use to send more water downstream to meet its obligations.
Just as upcoming flows in the Yampa are predicted to be slighter than its snowpack, flows in the Colorado River are predicted to be slighter than its snowpack, meaning the state needs several more good years to soothe water managers worries for Lake Powell.
“We’re going to have a normal year for Lake Powell,” Bannan said. “It’s going to go up a little bit, but it’s not going to go up a lot. It would take an awful lot of wet years for that reservoir to really recover.”
Statewide, water managers are working to plan how to divvy up water should Colorado be required to curtail water use due to an interstate call.
On the Yampa, the city and other partners are working to make the river more resilient to a changing climate. Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, explained programs to restore trees along the riverbanks will eventually help shade the river, preventing evaporation and temperature increase due to the heat from the sun’s rays. This will allow more of that water to make it downstream.
The city has also partnered with the Colorado Water Trust to increase flows in the river, and a new endowed fund set to launch later this year will help fund river management in the future.
“When it comes to the Yampa River, we don’t exactly know what to expect year-to-year, but we know that if we give the Yampa the ingredients it needs — like conserved lands, flowing water, restored riparian forests — then we’ve done the best we can do to at least help our rive buffer our self against the extremes we have coming our way,” Romero-Heaney said.
Precipitation in the Yampa and White River basins was surveyed at 106 percent of average as of Sunday, Feb. 10, according to data reported by U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Colorado Snow Survey Program.
Statewide, mountain snowpack improved from 94 percent of normal Jan. 1 to 105 percent of normal Feb. 1.
The result was attributed to “a consistent pattern of weather systems throughout much of January (that) brought snow to the state, particularly, storms during the 15th through 24th of January,” said Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor.
The southern mountains have fared even better.
“Southern portions of the state currently show more than twice the snowpack present at this time last year, a stark contrast to last year’s shortage,” Domonkos said. “Double the snowpack of last year is a step in the right direction as reservoirs remain low.”
Precipitation in Northwest Colorado has been high for three of the past four months.
According to the most recent NRCS Water Supply Outlook report, “Water year 2019 got off to a great start with all major basins receiving above average precipitation in October. This ranged from a low of 109 percent of average in the combined Yampa, White, and North Platte basins to a high of 144 percent in the combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan basins of Southwest Colorado. November precipitation displayed notable differences between the northern and southern parts of the state. Northern Colorado continued to receive well above average precipitation …”
December was not as strong, with precipitation falling to just above 60 percent of average before rising in January.
Streamflow forecasts Feb. 1 point to a much more positive runoff season than last year’s forecasts, however, with nearly one-third of the usual snow accumulation yet to fall, conditions may change.
After 19 years of extended drought in the Colorado River basin, water users in Northwest Colorado are concerned that the region could become a “sacrificial lamb” as the state seeks to reduce water use to meet downstream demands.
As Colorado water officials begin work on a new “demand management” system to reduce water consumption, members of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, which met Jan. 9 in Craig, are seeking to make sure the cutbacks don’t disproportionately impact their river basins, including the Yampa, White and Green rivers. The concerns prompted the creation of a new Big River Committee, which met for the first time Jan. 9, to advocate for the basin on state and regional issues across the Colorado River system.
“We’re already doing our fair share,” said Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, a basin roundtable member and fourth-generation cattle rancher. “[In the Yampa basin] we already use only 10 percent of our water — 90 percent of our water goes to Lake Powell.”
There is relatively little reservoir storage on the Yampa River — less than 72,000 acre feet of water on the main stem and a total of 113,000 acre feet in the basin — compared to other major rivers in the West, meaning most of the water feeds into the Colorado River system and eventually Lake Powell.
“Such a small part of our native flow is developed, and there are concerns about how much should fall on the shoulders of our basin to send past the state line when we already don’t use very much,” said Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable Chair Jackie Brown, who is the natural resources policy advisor for Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
Indeed, data shows that consumptive water use in the Yampa basin averaged about 182,000 acre feet of water annually between 1990 and 2013, or about 10 percent of the basin’s total 1.74-million acre feet of average annual stream flow, according to hydrologic models used by the state.
By comparison, upper Colorado River stream flows averaged about 3.8 million acre feet of water over the same time period, not including the Gunnison River. Consumptive use equaled about 908,000 acre feet, or about 24 percent of the basin’s total water, according to the same data source.
But Colorado water law doesn’t account for such discrepancies across basins, and prioritizes water use according to a system based on dates tied to the initiation of a water right, often described as “first in time, first in right.”
“The Yampa and the White both were settled at such a later time period than the Front Range and some other areas, and we’re that much further behind in priority dates,” Monger said. “If we want to go forward on the prior appropriation system for allocating future water — last one in is the first one cut — that absolutely doesn’t work for us.”
Many roundtable members believe the Yampa and White river basins should have the right to develop their water resources further in the future.
“We’re the sacrificial lamb if they were to lock things in the way they are now,” said Kevin McBride, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a member of the Big River Committee.
However, such worries are largely speculative at the moment, as the mechanisms of a demand management program are far from decided and drought contingency planning hasn’t yet been finalized.
“This is the very, very beginning of the demand management conversation,” said Brent Newman, the interstate, federal and water information section chief for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The board has already committed to avoiding “disproportionate negative economic or environmental impacts to any single sub-basin or region within Colorado while protecting the legal rights of water holders,” according to a policy statement adopted by the agency’s board in November.
“We want to make sure no basin is a target basin, and as best we can, make sure reductions are shared equitably across the state, across basins and the divide,” Newman said. “We’re trying to make things fair.”
If a compact call were to occur — a demand by lower basin states for more water to be sent downstream according to the Colorado River Compact — then it is widely expected that Colorado water officials will use the prior appropriation doctrine to curtail water use based on seniority.
“We want to be proactive and avoid a compact call instead of being reactive and responding to crisis if it came to pass,” Newman said.
“Big river” issues aside, Northwest Colorado water users are feeling the squeeze after record-breaking heat and drought in 2018 prompted the first-ever call on the Yampa River.
Furthermore, officials at the Colorado Division of Water Resources will examine this year whether the Yampa and the White rivers should be designated as “over-appropriated,” Division Engineer Erin Light told roundtable members at the Jan. 9 meeting.
The designation would signal that there is not enough water to meet demands during dry years, and new water rights would be conditional to available water supply.
But even as water users start to adjust to the new local reality, roundtable members are preparing for an uphill battle to argue their case regarding demand management.
“We’re already sending as much water as we can,” Monger said. “We’re paying the bill for Colorado.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. The Pilot published this story online on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 and the Press published it online on Jan. 30, 2019.