The current snowpack of the Yampa and White River Basin, which encompasses Routt County, is currently 18% above average, according to data from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
“My observations have been that this is tracking pretty similar to the 2019 snow year,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs city water resources manager. Last year’s snowpack was mostly well above average in Routt County, though not quite record setting, she explained…
A snow telemetry site maintained by the Conservation Service on Rabbit Ears, at an elevation of 9,400 feet, recorded a snow depth of 37 inches, according to Jan. 1 measurements. That site typically reaches peak April 28 then melts off. As of Saturday, Jan. 18, there are 13.3 inches of snow water equivalent, a measure that considers the amount of water contained in the snowpack.
At the Bear River telemetry site, at 9,080 feet elevation south of the town of Yampa in the Flat Tops area, the snow depth was recorded at 22 inches, with 5.1 inches of snow water equivalent.
Snow depth at the Tower telemetry site, which is at 10,500 feet elevation on Buffalo Pass, was 56 inches as of Jan. 1, with 24.5 inches of snow water equivalent.
So far this season, Steamboat Resort has received 196 inches of total snowfall. That’s more than the 152 inches recorded to this date last year and 109 in 2018, which was a tough season for snowpack.
Midmountain snow depth at Steamboat Resort stands at 49 inches as of Saturday, with 66 inches on the upper mountain and 50 inches at the base, according to the website onthesnow.com, which records snow data for ski resorts.
After a lightning-fast start to the winter season that saw more than 2 feet of snowfall by the end of November, Denver’s only had one day of measurable snow since Nov. 29. Since Nov. 30, Denver has only received 2.8 inches of snow at the city’s official weather observation site at Denver International Airport.
At the city’s more centrally-located Stapleton Airport climate site, only 2.5 inches of snow have fallen there since Nov. 30. Additionally, all of that snow came on only one day: Dec. 28. That means since the end of November, Denver’s seen only one total day of measurable snowfall at both of its primary observation locations…
As mentioned earlier in January, though, this type of mid-winter pattern can change in Denver. Typically, late winter and spring are Denver’s busiest snow months of the year, although busier falls like this past one aren’t particularly unusual.
Here’s a guest column from Clinton Whitten (NRCS) that’s running on Steamboat Today:
The Natural Resources Conservation Service is an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides free technical assistance, or advice, to land owners and managers regarding resource concerns on their property. The main mission of the NRCS is to help address natural resource issues on private lands through voluntary conservation activities.
We can help landowners conserve and restore water, air, forests, rangelands and other natural resources. The services we provide range from providing a simple soils report of your property to developing a full conservation plan for an agricultural operation. These services are free, private and voluntary.
Every county in the U.S. has resource concerns that are unique to the climate and land uses of the area. The following is a list of the common resource concerns in Routt County that NRCS currently encounters. This list is not comprehensive, but it covers the issues that we address the most.
Irrigation improvements help increase water use efficiency. In Routt County, this primarily involves improving infrastructure to increase control of flood irrigation water.
Grazing management plans help ensure the sustainability of livestock operations and the ecosystems they are utilizing. This can include assistance with infrastructure that would help to facilitate a grazing plan, such as cross fences and watering facilities.
Wildlife habitat management plans help improve the habitat of a variety of species on private lands.
Forest management plans help improve the health of private lands forest ecosystems. Implementation of management practices, such as thinning, planting, mastication, etc., have the goal of creating a more sustainable forest.
Seeding recommendations for the restoration of rangeland, pastureland and disturbed areas to reestablish native grasses which benefits soils and overall ecosystem health.
Stream and riparian restoration improve both water quality and fish and wildlife habitat.
Many of these resource concerns are best addressed using the expertise of a range of organizations and agencies. That is why the NRCS works to develop partnerships with many different local groups.
We are currently working with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District to develop a grant program that will better assist local irrigators to upgrade their head gates and install measuring devices. Forest management plans and projects are developed in coordination with the Colorado State Forest Service.
The Steamboat NRCS office currently has two partner biologists from Trout Unlimited and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies who assist with the development of conservation plans. By partnering with different entities the NRCS is able to leverage more funds and provide better technical expertise to the private land owners and managers of Routt County.
If you think you have a resource issue on your property and would like technical assistance, contact the NRCS office at 970-879-3225.
Clinton Whitten is the resource team lead with the National Resource Conservation Service.
Irrigators in Northwest Colorado are facing a sea change in how they use their water, and many ranchers are greeting such a shift with reluctance and suspicion.
The final frontier of the free river, irrigators in the Yampa River region have long used what they need when the water is flowing with little regulatory oversight. Water commissioners have been encouraging better record keeping in recent years, but a first-ever call on the system during the 2018 drought led state officials to begin enforcing requirements to measure and record water use.
State law requires all irrigators to maintain measuring devices on their canals and ditches. Kevin Rein, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said such devices are widely used in other river basins throughout Colorado, where bigger populations and more demand for water have already led to stricter regulation of the resource. The Yampa River Basin is the last region to get into compliance, Rein said.
“The basin went under call for the first time in 2018,” he said. “I would not call that a driving force; I would call that affirmation of why it’s been important … to do this for so many years.”
Nearly 500 Yampa River Basin water users were ordered this fall to install a device by Nov. 30, although irrigators don’t need to comply until spring 2020, when irrigation water begins to run. Those without devices won’t be allowed to use their water and could be fined $500 daily if they do.
The new enforcement is being met begrudgingly by irrigators, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation ranchers and whose families have never measured and recorded water use in more than 100 years.
“Ever since the 1880s, there has never been a call on the Yampa River,” said Craig cattle rancher Dave Seely. “If there wasn’t any water, (ranchers) accepted the fact, so it’s unusual that suddenly we have all this coming down on us now.”
A call on the river occurs when someone with senior water rights isn’t receiving their full allotted amount, and the state places a “call” for users with junior rights to send more water downstream or stop diverting altogether. The move triggers administration of the river by state water commissioners, who make site visits to monitor how much water is flowing through each ditch.
An air of the Wild West still lingers in this sparsely populated corner of the state, where many ranchers would rather accept a shortfall than invite the government into their affairs by making a call for their water.
“They just took it on the chin and dry farmed,” Seely said.
State officials have seen this resistance to change before and accept it as a matter of course.
“It’s a rough, rocky road at first, but after a while, I think a lot of people will be glad they have a device there,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer with the Division of Water Resources.
Light and her colleagues reminded irrigators at the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable meeting in November that keeping accurate records helps protect their water right, since rights are considered abandoned if not used, although the state rarely enforces this.
“Your water right has a value, a value to water your livestock or your crops, but it also has a dollar value for your heirs,” Scott Hummer, a Division 6 water commissioner, said at the meeting. “The only way they have to sell the water or get a price for the water is if the engineers know how much water is consumed by your crop.”
But many irrigators feel mistrustful of state government having more oversight of their water and are worried that outside entities may have designs on the region’s largely unallocated resource. Climate change has led to hotter, drier conditions over the past 20 years, and growing populations have increased the demand for water — both in the Colorado River Basin and along the Front Range.
“It just raises the question of what’s the drive behind it,” said third-generation Yampa cattle rancher Philip Rossi. “It’s hard to have an opinion when you don’t fully understand the long game.
“They’re trying to put a monetary value on water,” Rossi said. “Are they trying to get a better understanding of exactly how much water there is … so they can put a value on it if they want to sell it? Are we helping ourselves, are we hurting ourselves, are we helping them? There’s so many of us that are not interested in selling our water.”
Other ranchers are concerned that increased oversight could mean new restrictions even when water is plentiful. Many are in the habit of using as much water on their fields as they need, regardless of their decreed right.
“When the water’s high, we want to get it across our fields quickly, so we take more water than (our allotted right),” said John Raftopoulos, a third-generation cattle rancher in western Moffat County. “The fear is that, even with high water, they’re going to cut you down to the maximum you can take … that they’ll regulate you to the strict letter of the law.”
Rein said users could continue using more than their allotted right when the river is a free river — in other words, not under a call — as long as they are not wasting it.
“There’s a statutory term called waste; you can’t divert more water than you can beneficially use,” Rein said.
He also said keeping accurate records would only protect the water user as demand increases statewide and across the West.
Measuring devices cost from $800 to $1,500, so installation can get expensive for the many ranchers who have more than one ditch. Rossi has three more devices to install. Raftopoulos has about five others, for a total of 15 on ditches irrigating roughly 2,500 acres of grass hay and alfalfa.
Light estimated 100 irrigation structures had requested extensions — which she is granting in many cases until either July 31 or Oct. 31 — but she won’t have an accurate count on how many ditches are in compliance with the orders until May or June.
“It’s something that was going to happen sooner or later because of water shortages. That’s the system, that’s the law,” Raftopoulos said. “It’s a burden right now, it’s expensive and it’s going to put more government in our ditches. There’s going to be more people watching what comes out.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Steamboat Pilot and Today, the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story appeared in the Dec. 27 edition of the Steamboat Pilot and Today.
Steamboat Springs: Hundreds of ranchers in the scenic Yampa Valley have ignored a state request to begin measuring the water they use, putting them on a collision course with regulators that will land many of them in court this summer if they don’t relent.
Division Engineer Erin Light, the top water chief in the region, said roughly 70 percent of irrigators in this remote part of northwestern Colorado have not installed measuring devices, meaning that millions of gallons of water are being consumed without oversight, something that is routine on other river systems.
“I sent out a notice in March saying, ‘I’m going to issue an order if you don’t install them now,’” she said. “It was a friendly gesture.”
No one responded.
“We have not been impressed with the response,” Light said.
On Sept. 30, she issued a formal order to 550 ranchers, which, if ignored, could result in fines of up to $500 a day and court action.
The deadline to respond this time was Nov. 30. Few did so, Light said.
Under the terms of the order, ranchers who don’t install measuring flumes or other devices to track diversion rates from the river into their irrigation systems will be cut off if they try to irrigate in the spring. They will also likely face prosecution, Light said.
“We’ll be working with the attorney general’s office to begin court proceedings,” she said.
The issue reflects an end to a gentleman’s agreement that dates back to the late 1800s, a consensus that said these tough, resourceful ranchers could manage their own water, that the state did not need to issue a direct order, and that the hay meadows, and cattle and sheep operations, could continue diverting their irrigation water as they always had.
And that’s largely because of the Yampa River’s amazing flows. Unlike almost any other place in Colorado and the West, water here was once so abundant that there was almost always plenty to go around. Measurements weren’t needed, and the state rarely had to step in to resolve disputes among water users, allowing Mother Nature free rein.
But chronic drought, climate change, and population demands have begun eroding the Yampa’s once bountiful supplies. For the first time ever, in the desperately dry summer of 2018, Light was forced to step in, cutting off some irrigators because more senior water rights holders weren’t getting their legal share of water. That sent a shock across the valley but triggered little action.
These days the Yampa River has the distinction of being the only one of Colorado’s eight major river basins that remains largely unmeasured and unregulated.
But Light said the issue has become too critical, and water too scarce, to allow that to continue.
Mike Camblin, whose family has been ranching here for more than 100 years, said he will comply with the order. But he and many of his colleagues feel the state has been too heavy handed in its approach.
“What I don’t like about the order is that it’s forcing people to install those or they are going to get fined $500 a day to run water even if it’s a free river,” he said. The term free river means that there is enough water in the stream to satisfy all water rights, and under normal circumstances people can divert as much of the excess as they want.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Dave Seely, a long-time rancher who has 11 different irrigation ditches that span Moffat and Routt counties.
Many of his ditches already have measuring devices, but the order means he will have to install at least five new ones at a total cost of more than $10,000, he estimates.
Light is aware of the anger in the ranching community and said she understands the financial burden the order will place on many irrigators.
“I’ve been trying to encourage my water users to understand that there is a value to them in measuring how much water they divert. Water is often a rancher’s most valuable asset. But many don’t want to hear that,” she said.
Seely plans to comply with the order so that he can divert in the spring. But there is a lingering resentment and sense of loss for an era that is ending.
“Historically there was never a call on the river, but now there is,” Seely said. “Now we’re under the jurisdiction of the state engineer forever.”
Water sufficient for more than 1 million homes on the Front Range could be lost, and thousands of acres of farm land on both the Eastern and Western Slopes could go dry, if the state can’t supply enough water from the drought-stricken Colorado River to downstream states as it is legally required to do, according to a new study.
Among the study’s key findings:
+ In the next 25 years, if the state does nothing to set more water aside in Lake Powell, the Front Range could lose up to 97 percent of its Colorado River water.
+ All but two of the state’s eight major river basins, under that same “do nothing” scenario, also face dramatic water cutbacks.
+ If Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico increase their water use by as little as 11.5 percent, as predictions indicate they will by 2037, the risk of a legal crisis spurring such cutbacks on the river doubles, rising from 39 percent to 78 percent, under one scenario, and 46 percent to 92 percent under another.
“Every water user in every river basin [linked to the Colorado] faces some risk,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, one of the sponsors of the Colorado River Risk Study, as it is known. The Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District also sponsored the work.
“That’s an important takeaway because when you begin to realize the extent of potential damage, whether it is on the West Slope or the Front Range, then we all come to the realization that we have a shared risk,” Mueller said.
Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the river’s supplies are divided between the four Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) and three Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona). The compact dictates that cities and farmers in the Upper Basin whose water rights were obtained after the compact was signed would have to give up some or all of their water to the Lower Basin if there isn’t enough water in Lake Powell to meet the terms of the compact. Colorado uses the most water of all the Upper Basin states and therefore faces the most risk.
The study was conducted by Boulder-based Hydros Consulting and released in June. It looked at different scenarios for the way river conditions and reductions to diversions could play out, as well as ways to reduce the risk cities and farms face, including spreading the cutbacks proportionately among all the river basins, something that isn’t typically done.
Front Range water utilities are wary of the study and have begun a new round of analysis to determine if they agree with the results.
Alex Davis is a water attorney for the City of Aurora. At a recent forum on the risk study, she said that the chances of a Colorado River crisis were being exaggerated. And the study acknowledges that under some scenarios the risk of such a legal crisis is low.
“All of this talk is helpful to get people to think about the issue, but it also seems like a bit of scare tactics. If the Lower Basin states did try to do something, there would be a whole number of reasons [they would not get far],” she said.
Including the fact that they continue to overuse their share of the river by about 1.2 million acre-feet a year. Before Colorado and its northern neighbors were asked to cut back, the Lower Basin would have to do additional cutbacks as well, she said.
West meets east
Though the Colorado River flows west, and originates in Colorado’s Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, a large chunk of its flows, more than 530,000 acre-feet, are pumped east over the Continental Divide to the state’s Front Range cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield, among others. That’s enough water to supply 1.06 million homes or to irrigate more than one-half million acres of crops.
Because these water users built their tunnels and reservoirs decades after the 1922 Compact was signed, they could be among the first to be cut off. Denver’s largest storage pool, Dillon Reservoir, was completed in the 1960s. East Slope cities and farmers would lose 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies if those diversions were completely shut down, according to the study.
“You have to start with the fact that 50 percent of the water on the Front Range comes from the West Slope. Should the Upper Basin fail to meet its delivery obligation, half of water use on the Front Range would be curtailed. That’s an enormous problem,” said Brad Udall, a senior climate and water scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.
Other parts of the state also face risk, some more than others. The Yampa River Basin, home to Steamboat Springs, would lose slightly more than 70,000 acre-feet of water, or 30 percent of its Colorado River supplies.
The Gunnison Basin, where agriculture controls historic water rights that pre-date the compact, is better protected, with the potential to lose just over 57,000 acre-feet of water, or 10 percent of its share of the river.
But a large swath of the southwestern part of the state would also be hard hit. Despite the historic farm water rights in this region, several small communities and irrigation districts built reservoirs after the compact was signed, just as cities did on the Front Range, meaning that those stored water supplies are also at high risk. In this basin, 178,000 acre-feet of water, roughly 36 percent of its Colorado River supplies, could be lost, according to the study.
The likelihood of ongoing drought and hotter summers only deepens the uneasiness over the river’s ability to produce the amount of water the state once relied on.
“We don’t expect to see cooler temperatures in the future, we expect to see warmer temps,” Mueller said. “If that is true, then we have to plan on reduced water supplies within our state.”
Saving more water?
The study comes as the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the lead water policy agency in the state, is examining whether to launch a massive, voluntary conservation program that would allow the state and its neighbors to save some 500,000 acre-feet of water and store it in a newly authorized drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool, to be used only by the Upper Basin states, could help protect Colorado and its neighbors if drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows.
Michelle Garrison is a modeler with the CWCB who has analyzed the study’s results. She said the scenarios it considered are important for comparative purposes and may help the West Slope and Front Range collaborate on any water cutbacks, something that hasn’t always occurred in the past.
“It’s a tough one,” she said. “The hydrology in the Colorado River has always been extremely variable and it’s predicted to become even more variable. But I’m really pleased to see them sharing their results.”
In places like the Yampa Basin, if the state cut back water use based strictly on prior appropriation, where water right dates determine who gets water first in times of shortage, Stagecoach Reservoir, the most significant storage pool in the valley, could be shut off because its storage rights date only to the 1980s. And residents would be hard pressed to cope if another long-term drought drained the river and their only source of stored water was no longer able to refill.
Kevin McBride is manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns Stagecoach. He, like dozens of other water managers across the state, is still contemplating the options. (Editor’s note: McBride serves on the board of Water Education Colorado, which houses Fresh Water News.)
“Generally being safe from drought is what it’s all about,” McBride said. “But how do you get there?
“It’s complicated and it comes down to how it’s done.”
McBride and others on the West Slope are asking for another round of modeling that would examine more equitable ways to cut back water use, so that no one takes the brunt of the reductions.
With insurance, or without?
Others have suggested that the state should let the rules embedded in the 1922 Compact and Colorado’s water rights system play out, rather than creating an expensive, legally complex water conservation program.
Anne Castle is a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources who specializes in Colorado River issues. Going without a major conservation program carries its own set of very high risks, such as decades of expensive lawsuits or unplanned water shortages.
Over the next several months, the state will continue to examine how best to protect its Colorado River water as part of drought planning work it is engaged in with the other Upper Basin states. Late next year, all Colorado River Basin states will begin negotiating a new set of operating guidelines for the entire river system, designed to bring it back into balance and slash the risk of major cutbacks.
“Truly one of the points of this risk study is to make sure that anyone who is at risk understands the risk,” Mueller said. “If you’re a water planner, it may set off some alarm bells. But we don’t want people to panic. The hope is people will look at this and say, ‘Our community is at risk…what are we going to do about it?’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
From the Yampa/White Basin Roundtable (Gena Hinkemeyer) via The Craig Daily Press:
The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable is one of nine basin roundtables in Colorado established to address the ever-increasing water challenges facing our state.
As part of its mission and to meet the Colorado Water Plan, the roundtable is developing an Integrated Water Management Plan for the Yampa River Basin that best represents the interests and needs of all water users. These interests include agricultural, recreational, environmental, municipal, industrial and water providers. The first phase of the Management Plan focuses on the Yampa River main stem and the Elk River basin.
In order to make the Management Plan a success, the roundtable seeks to provide the community with meaningful opportunities to participate and provide valuable input for the Management Plan. To do this, two subcommittees where formed — stakeholder and technical — to complete related tasks.
The stakeholder subcommittee is working to implement a community outreach program designed to listen and learn in an open communication process. This subcommittee will provide a forum for dialogue on water related issues for all water users, including agriculture, recreational, municipal and environmental aspects of a healthy river.
The technical subcommittee was formed to look at the science-based river health for each of the identified geographic segments. One of the many related tasks is working with a private engineering contractor to conduct 40 to 50 voluntary water diversion assessments within the Yampa River Basin.
The goal is to learn more about the diversion effectiveness and incorporated environment aspects at the diversion site. Ultimately, this may help identify water projects that have positive impacts for the water diversion and broader river health.
The Management Plan recognizes the importance of agriculture to the Yampa River Basin. One of the roundtable priorities is to protect and maintain agricultural water rights in the region in consideration of increasing water demands and water availability fluctuations. Another goal is to help identify potential funding for water infrastructures that have multiple benefits and are in need of improvement for interested and volunteering agricultural stakeholders.
Two segment coordinators, Gena Hinkemeyer and Jerry Albers, are working as contractors on this project to listen, learn and seek input from agricultural stakeholders. Hinkemeyer has lived in the Yampa Valley for most of her life and will be working in the lower and middle Yampa River regions. Albers has lived in Stagecoach for the last 15 years and will be working in the Upper Yampa and the Elk River Basin.
The coordinators will be reaching out to members of the agricultural community to better understand water related issues confronting agriculture and seek input on planning efforts. If you are interested and would like to learn more visit the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable site at yampawhitegreen.com or contact Gena Hinkemeyer email@example.com.
Governor Mark Gordon announced today he has appointed Greg Lanning Wyoming State Engineer. Lanning takes over for Pat Tyrrell, who retired in January after serving as State Engineer for 18 years.
The State Engineer is a position established by the Wyoming Constitution and has a term of six years. The State Engineer serves as the chief water official in the state and is responsible for the general supervision of Wyoming’s waters, including technical, policy and regulatory matters concerning its beneficial use. The search process involved numerous stakeholders including experienced water industry professionals and representatives of rural water users; agriculture; the mining, oil and gas industries; and environmental organizations.
“Finding the right State Engineer was a challenging process, as the position requires a unique set of technical, policy and political skills,” Governor Gordon said. “Greg’s background expertly balances these requirements and I can think of no one better to hit the ground running to lead the way in managing Wyoming’s water. I look forward to welcoming Greg back to his home state of Wyoming.”
A Casper, Wyoming native, Lanning previously served as Deputy State Engineer under Tyrrell from 2012 to 2014. His broad background in civil engineering and water resource management includes time spent as Public Works Director for communities both in Wyoming as well as neighboring states. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and his Masters in Business Administration degrees at the University of Wyoming. He holds a Masters in Civil Engineering from Colorado State University and is a registered Professional Engineer.
“It is an honor to once again serve this great state,” Lanning said. “I look forward to re-introducing myself to our Wyoming water users and stakeholders and returning to our dedicated team of more than 120 employees at the State Engineer’s Office.”