Community Agriculture Alliance: River planning

An irrigated hayfield along the lower Yampa River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the Friends of the Yampa (Eugene Buchanan) via Steamboat Pilot & Today:

The key to river planning is collaboration, and the Yampa River Basin is doing just that. There are water users everywhere — agriculture diverting water to grow food and raise animals, municipalities securing drinking water and treating wastewater, ski resorts making snow, power plants producing steam to create power, recreationists fishing and paddling, and wildlife using it as sustenance and a home. With all of these various purposes, how do we manage water use?

The key is planning and working together. There is an understanding among river users that, without this collaboration, there is a risk that one of these stakeholder groups might not receive the water they need.

To that end, there exist such entities as Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green River Basin Round Table and Yampa River Integrated Water Management Plan to help all these water use stakeholders.

According to its website, “The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable is leading the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan (IWMP). The process will combine community input with science and engineering assessments to identify actions 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 Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable and the Integrated Water Management Plan are great examples of collaboration,” said Friends of the Yampa President and Basin Round Table Recreation at-large member Kent Vertrees. “A lot has been accomplished in a short time because of this. People look to our basin here in the Yampa Valley as a great example of how to work together to ensure water for our future.”

Another entity helping the cause is the newly formed Yampa River Fund, whose goal is “to establish a sustainable, voluntary funding source for the Yampa River in order to: enhance water security for communities, agriculture, the economy and the natural environment in the Yampa Valley; support a healthy, flowing river and enhance critical low flows through water leases from reservoirs; and maintain or improve river function through a holistic approach to restoration of riparian and/or in-channel habitat.”

The fund’s first funding cycle of grants was announced in May, awarding a total of $200,000 to various projects. The projects include riparian habitat restoration in Steamboat Springs and in the Lower Elkhead Creek; recreational access improvements in Moffat County; water releases out of Stagecoach Reservoir facilitated by Colorado Water Trust; and stream improvements in Oak Creek.

Of special importance this year is the fund’s funding mechanisms to absorb some of the basin’s variability as well as its environmental and recreational vitality. While 2019 was heralded as a banner water year, we currently stand at 30% of average discharge to the river, meaning the use of water leases could come in especially handy this year. And stakeholders working together will be more important than ever.

Eugene Buchanan is a board member of the Friends of the Yampa and local author. Lindsey Marlow is the program manager for Friends of the Yampa.

#YampaRiver Fund Awards First Round of Grants

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

Here’s the release from the Yampa River Fund (Andy Baur):

The Yampa River Fund has awarded its first-ever round of grant funding to five applicants, allocating $200,000 in available funding. On April 29, the Yampa River Fund Steering Committee met to review grant applications and make its decisions. Seven applications were received by the March 24 deadline and $273,000 was requested of the Fund. “We were very pleased to see project applications from throughout the Yampa Basin for a variety of project types,” said Andy Baur, Yampa River Fund manager. “After several years of work with so many groups and entities, it is really exciting to see the first Yampa River Fund grants going out to projects as the program was intended.”

The projects funded in this round of awards are:

1. Stagecoach Reservoir Environmental Release Project, $45,000. Applicant: Colorado Water Trust. This project will provide funding for vital flow releases from Stagecoach Reservoir if flows fall below critical levels in 2020.

2. Irrigation Project for Yampa River Forest Restoration, $30,358. Applicant: Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. This project provides funds for critical irrigation infrastructure to support Yampa River forest restoration efforts.

3. Oak Creek Restoration & Greenway Design, $44,821. Applicant: Town of Oak Creek. Funding will be used to provide key planning and design services for the Oak Creek restoration efforts.

4. Lower Elkhead Creek Restoration Project, Phase 1, $35,000. Applicant: Trout Unlimited. Funds will be used to bolster stream restoration and stabilization efforts below Elkhead Reservoir.

5. Loudy Simpson Improvements Projects, $44,821. Applicant: Moffat County. Moffat County will put funds towards building a redesigned boat ramp and bank stabilization at a popular Yampa River access site.

Kelly Romero-Heaney, Chair of the Yampa River Fund Board and Steering Committee, touts these first Yampa River Fund grants as critical to advancing these projects especially in a time of economic uncertainty associated with the COVD-19 crisis. “We recognize that there are many critical funding and support needs in our communities right now. The Yampa River Fund grants will support this river that adds so much to our economy and way of life which is so important as we cope with the uncertainties and stress related to Covid-19. We hope these funds will provide a bit of good news for the community and applicants along with their key benefits to the Yampa,” she said.

The Yampa River Fund was launched in September 2019 to provide a sustainable, voluntary funding source for the Yampa River in order to enhance water security and support a healthy, flowing river by enhancing critical low flows, and maintaining or improving river function through a holistic approach to restoration of habitat.

The Yampa River Fund is governed by a 21-member founding Board representing local governments, community and statewide NGO’s, business, water providers and irrigations districts.

Sunset over the Yampa River Valley August 25, 2016.

From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Derek Maiolo):

The Yampa River Fund has awarded its first-ever round of grants to five projects aimed at protecting and improving its namesake river and tributaries in Routt and Moffat counties.

A total of $200,000 went to local organizations, using money that members of the endowment have been raising over the past year…

A $45,000 grant went to the Colorado Water Trust to provide funding for water releases from Stagecoach Reservoir if flows fall below critical levels this summer and fall. As Baur explained, the money would be used only if necessary. If flows remain at healthy levels, the money can be earmarked for next year…

This first round of grants is particularly important considering the economic stress under the COVID-19 pandemic, Baur said. As he put it, the need to protect and enhance the health of local waterways does not shut down like the businesses and services affected by the crisis. If anything, the current situation emphasizes the importance of the Yampa River, Baur argued.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Tri-State doesn’t feel a ‘sense of urgency’ in deciding water rights — The Craig Press

Ice breaks up on the Yampa River as Spring invites warmer temperatures. Should the water that the nearby Hayden and Craig power plants use be allowed to stay in the river once the plants cease to operate, native and endangered fish species in the river would have a higher chance of survival. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

From The Craig Press (Dan England):

Tri-State Generation and Transmission doesn’t feel a sense of urgency in deciding what will happen to its water rights after 2030, when the plant closes. But it does feel everyone else’s.

“Tri-State and our members are acutely aware of the importance of water to communities,” the company said in a January statement, “as a key element of future economic drivers.”

…Tri-State uses 16,000 acre-feet of water a year…Residents are concerned about it being pumped over to serve the Front Range based on the Western Slopes past water history, and others hope that it’s reserved for local agriculture or even for turning Dinosaur Monument into a national park.

Tri-State had a meeting with those community leaders to start the process of figuring out who may get those water rights and was planning more when the virus hit, meaning things are on hold for now. But that is OK, Stutz said, as he’s reminded officials, repeatedly, that the plant has quite a bit of time to reach a decision.

That’s a decade, if you’re counting, and even after the plant closes, it will need the water to complete reclamation, which should last until early 2030 and maybe longer, Stutz said. That was the tone of the first meeting, said Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck, one of the more heavily involved local officials in Tri-State affairs, as well as one of its biggest supporters…

As with any discussion about water, it’s complicated, as Tri-State’s water rights are junior, meaning others have rights that take priority, and are for industrial purposes and therefore cannot be automatically transferred to another user, Beck said. Tri-State acknowledges that, stating that there’s more than one owner of the station as well as those other water rights to consider.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.

Bear River administration May 24, 2020 — Scott Hummer

Bear River at Hernage and Kolbe Ditch May 23, 2020. Photo credit: Scott Hummer/DWR

From email from Scott Hummer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources:

Bear River Water Users,

Effective at 9:00 am, tomorrow, May 24, 2020: The Bear River will go on Call and under Administration.

The Swing Right (most junior right partially in priority) will be Yamcolo Reservoir, Admin #41329.00000…the dry up point is the Nickell Ditch.
All current diversions “junior” to Admin #41329.00000…Must be curtailed.

Water will be released from Yamcolo tomorrow morning in order to meet the demand by Senior rights at the bottom end of the system.

There is currently not a need for any water users Senior to Yamcolo Reservoir to place an order for the delivery of contracted/stored water.
The Call situation will be subject to change dependent upon a variety of circumstances, I’ll keep you posted as to any changes in a timely manner.

UYWCD is currently planning to calibrate the new measuring equipment in the Five Pine Ditch on Tuesday the 26th…and there may be some fluctuation in river flows during the task.

Please contact me with any further questions or comments.

Respectfully,
Scott

#Runoff/#Snowpack news: Average streamflow expected for the #YampaRiver

Bear River at CR7 near Yampa / 3:30 PM, May 16, 2019 / Flow Rate = 0.52 CFS. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

From Steamboat Today (Holly Kirkpatrick and Andy Rossi):

For water managers, the onset of spring is signaled by the reactivation of stream gages.

That’s right, the day field technicians awaken the extensive network of flow data collection instruments from their winter hibernation is highly anticipated in the water world. But what does that mean for the non-water nerds who are simply enjoying warmer temperatures? The short answer is a lot, particularly if you enjoy water activities.

Stream gages, operated by the state of Colorado and U.S. Geological Survey, give water managers, agricultural producers, recreationists and emergency managers valuable information needed to coordinate the use of our most valuable natural resource, water. Before stream gages are activated and spring runoff begins, water managers monitor snowpack to forecast river flows.

Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) is an extensive system of instrumentation extending from the U.S.-Canada border to the southern reaches of Arizona and New Mexico that tracks snowpack data which determines the amount of water that will end up in our rivers, streams, and lakes when temperatures rise.

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District incorporates snowpack data and runoff forecasts for the Yampa River to manage the timing of filling Stagecoach and Yamcolo reservoirs, which can be a delicate balance. The forecast products used by Conservancy District are updated on a regular basis by incorporating new snowpack and climate data as it becomes available.

In addition to all this data, real-world observations can be used to improve the usefulness of the forecast products developed by public agencies. Real-world observations made by a robust monitoring network of citizen scientists provide valuable information. Citizen scientists are those who have a close relationship with rivers and streams, including agricultural producers, outdoor enthusiasts and water facilities operators.

Now for the good news, forecasts suggest a healthy average runoff for the Yampa River system and thus far, this year’s early spring runoff in observed streamflow levels has reinforced those forecasts. So round up your boat gear and get ready to enjoy some warmer days. Spring has finally sprung in the Yampa Valley.

And, if your spring is signaled by the end of calving season and the beginning of irrigation season, don’t forget about Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District’s grant program funding diversion infrastructure improvements. Call Holly Kirkpatrick at 970-439-1081 or visit upperyampawater.com/projects/grants for more information.

Holly Kirkpatrick is the communications and marketing manager and Andy Rossi is the district engineer with Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.

From The North Forty Times:

Play It Safe Tips

  • Wear a life vest
  • Use proper flotation devices
  • Wear shoes
  • Wear a helmet
  • Don’t tie anything to yourself or to your tube/raft/kayak
  • Safe to Go?

  • Know the weather and water conditions
  • Poudre River water is melted snow – it is always cold!
  • Avoid logs, branches, rocks and debris
  • Know Where You Are

  • Take a map
  • Plan your take-out location before you get in the river
  • Float Sober, Float Safe

  • Alcohol and drugs impair judgment
  • Be Courteous

  • Pack it in; pack it out
  • Share the river
  • What if you flip?

  • Do not stand in the river – avoid foot entrapment
  • Float on your back with feet pointing down river and toes out of the water
  • Use your arms to paddle to shore
  • Craig: Chloramine conversion process scheduled to begin May 11, 2020 — The Craig Daily Press

    Craig. Jeffrey Beall / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

    From The Craig Daily Press (Joshua Carney):

    Following a number of delays, the monochloramine conversion process within the city’s water department is scheduled to officially start on Monday, May 11 at 10 a.m.

    According to a press release from the City of Craig Water & Wastewater Department Director Mark Sollenberger, the city’s water department has resolved a number of issues and is ready to get the project, previously scheduled to start on March 31, underway.

    “After numerous weeks of working on the primary disinfection portion of the treatment plant upgrade, our engineers, staff, and contractors have finally resolved many of the issues preventing the original March 3 start date for the chloramine conversion process,” Sollenberger said in the press release. “Be assured that we are now ready to proceed and that the entire conversion process of the water plant, and roughly 80 miles of water distribution system, will still take approximately 3 weeks to be fully completed.”

    Sollenberger added that the city will continue to flush fire hydrants in the distribution system throughout the entire conversion process to help move chloraminated water around the entire water system and support normal system maintenance.

    “The public should please note that fire hydrant flushing can cause discolored water or pressure fluctuations at your home. If you encounter these problems, they should clear up quickly if you run your water faucets throughout the house for a short period of time. We apologize for this inconvenience,” Sollenberger said.

    The controversial monochloramine project to add monochloramines to the current use of chlorine for water disinfection has the city’s water department monitoring water quality now, and moving forward, Sollenberger added.

    “Please be assured that throughout the chloramine conversion process, and long afterwards, the City Water Department staff will be monitoring the water quality in the water distribution system to make sure it always remains safe and is of the highest quality we can deliver to our customers,” Sollenberger said.

    #Runoff news: Much of the #ArkansasRiver above Lake Pueblo is currently runnable

    Browns Canyon via BrownsCanyon.org

    From The Mountain Mail (Cody Olivas):

    Nearly the entire [Arkansas River], from Granite all the way to the Pueblo Whitewater Park, is flowing at or above 700 cubic feet per second, the level of flow that Colorado Parks and Wildlife maintains for boating from July 1 to Aug. 15 with its voluntary flow management program.

    The river was flowing at 696 cfs Wednesday from Granite to Buena Vista. From Buena Vista to Rincon it was flowing at 1,080 cfs, then at 911 cfs to Cañon City and 665 CFS at Pueblo’s water park.

    “It seems runoff typically begins between May 1 and May 15,” Rob White, Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area park manager, said. “It started a little early this year.”

    He said he thinks the whole river is currently runnable, and signs are pointing to a good season.

    “It appears like it’s going to be a pretty good whitewater season in terms of water,” White said. He said it will depend on how hot it gets as well as how much rain falls, but he noted that with the upper basin’s SNOTEL sites currently above 100 percent, water levels could be above average this season.

    From Steamboat Today (Derek Maiolo):

    On Monday, the flow of the Yampa River had risen to more than 2,000 cubic feet per second, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The flow has decreased slightly since then, due mainly to fluctuations in snow melt and temperature.

    Portions of the Yampa River Core Trail have been closed due to high water, according to Craig Robinson, parks open space and trail manager for Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation. Signs have been posted in those areas directing people to detours. Most of the trail closures are on underpasses, Robinson said…

    The Yampa River likely will continue to rise and flow at faster rates in the coming weeks, according to Tom Martindale, streets supervisor for the city of Steamboat Springs. The river usually peaks in late May or early June, he said. This comes after snowpack reaches its peak in the higher elevations and warmer temperatures send the melted snow downstream.

    The smaller tributaries that feed into the Yampa River likely have reached or neared their peak levels, Martindale added. He regularly surveys Butcherknife Creek and Soda Creek, checking also for any debris, such as trees, that could dam the waterways and lead to flooding. So far, he has not seen any major issues…

    The city currently is offering sand and sandbags for residents who want to fortify their homes against flooding. As of Tuesday, the city had set up two collection sites: one at Missouri Avenue and North Park Road, the other at Short and James streets. A third site at Eighth Street and Crawford Avenue will be established this week, Martindale said.

    Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

    From The Montrose Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

    Although snow was nearly average through December, it fell to below average for January and February in the Gunnison Basin, then bounced back close to average in March and hit between 90 to 95 percent of average in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Aspinall Unit.

    Moderate drought conditions persist throughout the basin.

    As of last week, snow conditions in the basin sat just below average, with runoff forecast for the rivers 70 to 80 percent of average. The forecast puts the unit in the “moderately dry” year hydrologic category and if that holds, it will call for a one-day peak flow of 7,017 cubic feet per second in the lower Gunnison, as measured at the Whitewater gauge, according to written information from BuRec.

    There are no half-bankfull or peak flow duration targets under this type of hydrologic year.

    Flows on the Gunnison through the Black Canyon are projected to peak at nearly 4,000 cubic feet per second. After peak, the flows will likely drop to between 500 and 900 cfs and the baseflow targets at the Whitewater gauge, consistent with moderately dry years, are to be between 890 and 1,050 cfs (summer).

    Blue Mesa Reservoir was sitting at 515,000 acre-feet and is forecast to hit a maximum content of 730,000 acre-feet by late June, or about 11 feet below what would be a full reservoir, per BuRec.

    The reservoir would then slowly decrease to its winter target level of 580,000 acre feet. Black Canyon flows are projected to drop to 400 cfs by early fall, according to BuRec’s report…

    Overall precipitation has been “well below normal” since the start of the water year and moderate drought conditions are predicted in most of the basin. The start of the month could bring below normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures — it is expected to be both warmer and drier…

    “The snowpack is disappointing, there’s no doubt about that,” Anderson said. The UVWUA experienced an April “hole” this year, when less snow and colder weather in the high country meant there was not enough water to feed the project and the association had to dip into its storage at Ridgway and Taylor Park reservoirs.

    However, the UVWUA had full accounts there going into April.

    “Currently, we’re not using any storage and that’s a good thing. We still have plenty to make the irrigation season,” Anderson said.

    We Are Rivers episode 24: Understanding #Colorado’s instream flow program — @AmericanRivers

    From American Rivers (Fay Hartman):

    Tune into the 24th episode of our podcast: We Are Rivers. Learn all about Colorado’s instream flow program, and the significance it has on surrounding rivers and communities.

    The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

    Join us for Episode 24 of We Are Rivers, as we de-wonk Colorado’s instream flow program, a critical tool to protect and enhance river flows across the state of Colorado.

    Rivers form the lifelines of Colorado’s economy and lifestyle. On both sides of the Continental Divide, rivers provide world class fishing, paddling and fantastic scenic canyons. Not only do rivers provide engaging recreation opportunities, they also provide most of Colorado’s clean, safe, reliable drinking water, support our thriving agricultural communities, and substantially contribute to Colorado’s culture, heritage, and economy.

    Recognizing the importance of rivers and the fact that the state needed to correlate the demands humans place on rivers with the reasonable preservation of the natural environment, Colorado established its Instream Flow Program in 1973. This program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to hold instream flow water rights – a legal mechanism to keep water in a specific reach of a river – to preserve or improve the natural environment of a stream or lake. The CWCB is responsible for the appropriation, acquisition, protection and monitoring of instream flow water rights.

    The CWCB is the only entity in the state that can hold an instream flow water right, however many different entities including cities, agriculture, recreation and the environment benefit from instream flow water rights. In this episode of We Are Rivers, we explore the benefits of the program and discuss the important partnerships and collaborations that occur between different water users.

    Take for example the City of Steamboat Springs. The 2002 and 2012 droughts significantly reduced flows in the Yampa River, impacting all water users. In 2002, the river experienced some of its lowest flows on record. River sports shops closed their doors, there was a voluntary ban on angling, and farmers and ranchers had less water. The river and the community suffered. Flash forward to 2012, and the community faced similar drought conditions. But partners got creative, and used the instream flow program to bolster flows in the Yampa River, preventing history from repeating itself. This partnership included the CWCB, Colorado Water Trust, and Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. Together, they temporarily leased water from Stagecoach Reservoir, improving flows in the Yampa through the City of Steamboat. The short-term leases from Stagecoach Reservoir were vital to the health of the Yampa River and its surrounding communities, and were used not only in 2012, but also 2013 and 2017. This is just one example of how a diverse set of partners came together and utilized the instream flow program for many benefits.

    The instream flow program underwent an exciting expansion earlier this year that will provide more opportunities for communities to benefit from collaborative instream flow solutions. After a multi-year stakeholder effort, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill to expand Colorado’s existing instream flow loan program – HB20-1157. The law expands protection of rivers without threatening or hindering existing water rights. It authorizes a targeted expansion of the loan program that makes the program more useful to water right owners and benefits Colorado’s rivers and streams. Specifically, it adjusts the amount of time a user can exercise a renewable loan from 3 years out of 10, to 5 years out of 10 years and it allows water right owners to renew participation in the program for up to two additional 10-year periods, for a total of 30 years. This is a huge opportunity for rivers and communities: take, for example, the benefit this provides to the Yampa River. The partners working together to secure the 3 in 10 instream flow loan on the Yampa through the city of Steamboat Springs now have two additional years in this 10-year period where water can be leased under the expanded program. Future climate conditions make frequent droughts more likely, and the opportunity to curb impacts during those back-to-back drought years is another important and timely benefit of the expanded ISF program.

    The complexity of Colorado Water Law is a lot to digest, and the instream flow program is no exception. We hope you join us for Episode 24 to break down the specifics of the instream flow program and what it means for rivers and communities.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.

    Water from retired coal plants could help endangered fish in the #YampaRiver — @AspenJournalism

    Ice breaks up on the Yampa River as Spring invites warmer temperatures. Should the water that the nearby Hayden and Craig power plants use be allowed to stay in the river once the plants cease to operate, native and endangered fish species in the river would have a higher chance of survival. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best):

    Endangered species of fish in the Yampa River may benefit as coal-fired power stations close in the next 10 to 15 years.

    Water demand in the Yampa River valley has been flat, and only modest population growth is expected in coming decades. Unless new industries emerge, the water will probably be allowed to flow downstream.

    And that will be of value in recovering populations of fish species.

    The Yampa River downstream from Craig has been designated as critical habitat for four species of fish listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act: Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail and humpback chub.

    The Yampa River can fall to very low levels, especially during late summer in drought years, but the water now consumed by power plants at Craig and Hayden could possibly help augment those flows.

    The power plants at Craig and Hayden together use about 10% of the water in the Yampa River basin. Municipalities, including Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, use about 10%, and irrigation accounts for 80% of the use, which is common on Western Slope rivers.

    Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the dominant owner of the 1,283-megawatt Craig Station, located just outside of Craig and not far from the Yampa River, will close the first unit in 2025 and unit 3 by the end of 2030.

    The retirement date for unit 2 isn’t entirely clear. Tri-State has said 2030, but former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who convened stakeholder discussions last year that led to the shutdown plan, told a congressional committee in late February that unit 2 will be closed by 2026. Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said the wholesale provider’s partners still need to agree on a retirement date.

    Thermoelectric power generation plants in Moffat County, which includes the Craig plants, used 17,500 acre-feet of water in 2008, according to a 2014 study. Routt County used 2,700 acre-feet.

    Xcel Energy, the dominant owner of 441-megawatt Hayden Station, will make its plans more clear in early 2021 when it submits its electric resource plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission as it is required to do every four years, said Xcel spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo.

    Nobody knows for sure yet how the water will be used once those plants close and remediation is completed. But Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, expects the water will be allowed to flow downstream. He points out that demand in the Yampa Valley has been flat.

    “What will happen with that water being used? Probably nothing,” Kuhn said.

    And that could help the endangered fish, which are struggling to survive in a river depleted by humans.

    “We have a hard time meeting our flow recommendations, particularly in dry years,” said Tom Chart, program director for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

    “As water becomes more available through the closure of those power plants, we could improve performance in meeting our flow recommendations, and that would certainly benefit the aquatic environment and the endangered fish,” he said.

    Tri-State, however, has not divulged plans for future use of water from Craig Station. Tri-State spokesman Stutzsays Tri-State will continue to use the associated water during the decommissioning of its power plants and mines.

    Steamboat-based water attorney Tom Sharp sees the water from the power plants mattering most in low-water years, such as 2002, 2012 and 2018.

    And in the pinch time of August and early fall, Sharp said, the water from the coal plants could make a difference for endangered fish if the water is left in the river or held in storage for release during low-flow times.

    Doug Monger, director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, shows the abandoned meander of the Yampa River that flows through his ranch, Monger Cattle Company, outside of Hayden, Colo. Monger said he isn’t too concerned about Front Range water diversions in the grand scheme of things. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    Front Range ‘water grab’?
    Diversions by Front Range cities remains a worry by many in Craig, but experts see no cause for fear of a “water grab” by Front Range cities.

    “I don’t want to see these water rights sold to the highest bidder on the Front Range,” a woman told the Just Transition workshop in Craig on March 4, provoking sustained applause from many among the more than 200 people in attendance. The state’s Just Transition advisory committee was created by and tasked by the state legislature in House Bill 19-1314 with creating reports, first this July and then December, about how to best assist coal-dependent communities as mines and plants close.

    Not to worry, say experts. Geographic barriers between the Yampa Valley and the Front Range that have precluded diversions over the past century remain.

    Also, experts point out that rights associated with the power plants are relatively “junior,” in the lexicon of Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine of prior appropriation. The oldest right, from 1967, belongs to the Hayden plant. More valuable by far are water rights that predate the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

    “If Front Range entities were inclined to a water grab, they would be looking for something a little more useful, and pre-compact rights are on the ranches,” said John McClow, a water attorney in Gunnison and an alternate commissioner from Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Water Commission.

    The compact governs allocations by Colorado and the other six states in the basin, and pre-compact rights will be most valuable in avoiding a compact curtailment, should the Colorado River enter even more extended and deeper drought.

    Hayden rancher Doug Monger, a member of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable and director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, similarly downplays worries about Front Range diversions.

    “I don’t think it will be as much of a threat in the bigger scheme of things,” he said.

    Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers in the upper Colorado River basin. This story ran in the April 7 online edition of The Steamboat Pilot & Today.

    We are rivers episode 24: understanding #Colorado’s instream flow program — @AmericanRivers

    City of Steamboat Springs. Photo credit: American Rivers

    From American Rivers (Fay Hartman):

    Tune into the 24th episode of our podcast: We Are Rivers. Learn all about Colorado’s instream flow program, and the significance it has on surrounding rivers and communities.

    Join us for Episode 24 of We Are Rivers, as we de-wonk Colorado’s instream flow program, a critical tool to protect and enhance river flows across the state of Colorado.

    Rivers form the lifelines of Colorado’s economy and lifestyle. On both sides of the Continental Divide, rivers provide world class fishing, paddling and fantastic scenic canyons. Not only do rivers provide engaging recreation opportunities, they also provide most of Colorado’s clean, safe, reliable drinking water, support our thriving agricultural communities, and substantially contribute to Colorado’s culture, heritage, and economy.

    Recognizing the importance of rivers and the fact that the state needed to correlate the demands humans place on rivers with the reasonable preservation of the natural environment, Colorado established its Instream Flow Program in 1973. This program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to hold instream flow water rights – a legal mechanism to keep water in a specific reach of a river – to preserve or improve the natural environment of a stream or lake. The CWCB is responsible for the appropriation, acquisition, protection and monitoring of instream flow water rights.

    The CWCB is the only entity in the state that can hold an instream flow water right, however many different entities including cities, agriculture, recreation and the environment benefit from instream flow water rights. In this episode of We Are Rivers, we explore the benefits of the program and discuss the important partnerships and collaborations that occur between different water users.

    Take for example the City of Steamboat Springs. The 2002 and 2012 droughts significantly reduced flows in the Yampa River, impacting all water users. In 2002, the river experienced some of its lowest flows on record. River sports shops closed their doors, there was a voluntary ban on angling, and farmers and ranchers had less water. The river and the community suffered. Flash forward to 2012, and the community faced similar drought conditions. But partners got creative, and used the instream flow program to bolster flows in the Yampa River, preventing history from repeating itself. This partnership included the CWCB, Colorado Water Trust, and Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. Together, they temporarily leased water from Stagecoach Reservoir, improving flows in the Yampa through the City of Steamboat. The short-term leases from Stagecoach Reservoir were vital to the health of the Yampa River and its surrounding communities, and were used not only in 2012, but also 2013 and 2017. This is just one example of how a diverse set of partners came together and utilized the instream flow program for many benefits.

    The instream flow program underwent an exciting expansion earlier this year that will provide more opportunities for communities to benefit from collaborative instream flow solutions. After a multi-year stakeholder effort, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill to expand Colorado’s existing instream flow loan program – HB20-1157. The law expands protection of rivers without threatening or hindering existing water rights. It authorizes a targeted expansion of the loan program that makes the program more useful to water right owners and benefits Colorado’s rivers and streams. Specifically, it adjusts the amount of time a user can exercise a renewable loan from 3 years out of 10, to 5 years out of 10 years and it allows water right owners to renew participation in the program for up to two additional 10-year periods, for a total of 30 years. This is a huge opportunity for rivers and communities: take, for example, the benefit this provides to the Yampa River. The partners working together to secure the 3 in 10 instream flow loan on the Yampa through the city of Steamboat Springs now have two additional years in this 10-year period where water can be leased under the expanded program. Future climate conditions make frequent droughts more likely, and the opportunity to curb impacts during those back-to-back drought years is another important and timely benefit of the expanded ISF program.

    The complexity of Colorado Water Law is a lot to digest, and the instream flow program is no exception. We hope you join us for Episode 24 to break down the specifics of the instream flow program and what it means for rivers and communities. Take a listen today!

    #YampaRiver at @USGS gage, above Stagecoach Reservoir, March 31, 2020 — Scott Hummer #runoff

    Yampa River at USGS gage, above Stagecoach Reservoir March 31, 2020. Photo credit: Scott Hummer.

    From email from Scott Hummer:

    Note the attached, taken yesterday afternoon…
    River is beginning to open up, calves are starting to hit the ground and irrigation season will soon be upon s in the high country!

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.

    2020 #COleg: New law strengthens historical agricultural water uses — @AspenJournalism [#HB20-1159]

    A small pool of water along the Walker Ditch is kept free of ice and snow all winter long in order to provide water for cattle on the Monger Ranch near Hayden. A bill recently passed the Colorado legislature that allows ranchers’ historical stock watering rights to stay first in line, ahead of instream flow rights for the environment. Lauren Blair/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Lauren Blair):

    A bill that cleared the Colorado legislature with bipartisan support March 4 seeks to resolve an eight-year debate over how ranchers and other water users can maintain their historical water use when dry conditions trigger cutbacks to protect streamflows.

    HB20-1159 [State Engineer Confirm Existing Use Instream Flow], which passed the House with a unanimous 63-0 vote and the Senate with a 31-1 vote, authorizes state water officials to confirm historical usages, such as water used for livestock, whether or not it’s held in an official water right. This allows ranchers’ uses to stay first in line for water ahead of the stream protections, known as instream-flow rights.

    “It’s really a belt-and-suspenders clarification of existing authority,” said Zane Kessler, director of government relations for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which drafted the language for the bill. “I think it’s a good example of when we sit down and pore over these issues, it’s not hard to come up with a fix that protects West Slope water users and provides the state engineer the authority he needs to continue administering them.”

    Instream-flow rights, which are held exclusively by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, exist for the sole purpose of preserving the natural environment of streams and lakes “to a reasonable degree.” Most of these date to the 1970s and are junior to most agricultural-water rights under Colorado’s prior appropriation system of “first in time, first in right.” To date, instream-flow rights protect roughly 9,700 miles of stream in Colorado.

    Mud and manure line an access point for cattle to drink from a ditch on Doug Monger’s ranch near Hayden as winter nears its end. A bill recently passed the Colorado legislature that will protect ranchers’ historical uses without requiring them to go to water court. Photo credit: Lauren Blair/Aspen Journlism

    Historical uses

    The debate over historical uses has turned on whether a water user must go to water court to make their pre-existing use official in a decree.

    A 2012 drought brought the question to a head when state officials cut off water users on the Elk River in northwestern Colorado in favor of instream-flow rights. Although many ranchers in the area have water rights for irrigation that are senior to the 1977 instream-flow rights and have historically used that water also for their cattle, the state Division of Water Resources determined that livestock watering wasn’t implicit in irrigation rights.

    Those without specific rights for stockwatering were left high and dry once the summer irrigation season was deemed over, even though they had used the water for livestock for generations.

    “My grandparents bought this piece of land in 1946,” said Krista Monger, a cattle rancher on the Elk River. “We have the records to show we’ve been using (our water) for livestock.”

    Stockwatering and irrigation often go hand in hand. During the irrigation season, if a rancher’s livestock drink from the ditches used to irrigate their fields, the use is considered incidental to irrigation. But once the growing season is over and a rancher keeps the water flowing through the ditch for the exclusive purpose of watering their livestock, the use is not covered under irrigation-water rights.

    The amount of water typically used for exclusive stockwatering is a fraction of what is used for irrigating, around 80% to 90% less. Some ranchers also use stock ponds, which require a water-storage right.

    More than 90,000 irrigation-water rights are held across the state, of which 29,000 specifically name both irrigation and livestock uses. That means the new law could potentially apply to 61,000 water rights, although not all of these are held by ranchers raising livestock. An additional nearly 32,000 water rights are held exclusively for livestock purposes but not irrigation.

    The Monger family holds both irrigation- and livestock-water rights to grow hay and to water their 300 cattle. Her family’s rights and diligent record-keeping meant their ditches kept flowing while their neighbors’ ditches were shut down in 2012, highlighting the need for better record-keeping among the region’s irrigators.

    But the incident prompted a statewide debate over the meaning of Colorado statute C.R.S. 37-92-102(3)(b), which states that instream-flow rights are subject to pre-existing uses of water, “whether or not previously confirmed by court order or decree.”

    The state Department of Natural Resources, home to both the Division of Water Resources and CWCB, argued that when the instream-flow protections were created, lawmakers intended for water users to make their existing use official in a decree. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District argued that the statute clearly precludes the need for a court decree and sought to protect ranchers’ historical usage without requiring them to go to water court.

    “The statute says… prior uses would be honored. But they’re saying the statute doesn’t say what the statute says,” said Mike Hogue, former president of the cattlemen’s group.

    After years of negotiations, stakeholders agreed on a simple piece of legislation to clarify the state water engineer’s authority “to confirm a claim of an existing use (if it) has not been previously confirmed by court order or decree,” according to the bill summary. The bill had bipartisan sponsorship from Reps. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, and Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, and Sens. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Kerry Donovan, D-Vail.

    “I do think this is very helpful legislation,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein, who is with the Division of Water Resources. “We had what I’d call an honest disagreement about what the statute meant. My position is if they change the law and give me a place to hang my hat on, that solves the problem.”

    Ditch water trickles back under the cover of snow and ice from a watering hole for cattle on the Monger ranch near Hayden. New legislation prevents ranchers’ water for stock from being shut off by an instream flow right for the environment. Photo credit: Lauren Blair/Aspen Journalism

    Wakeup call

    However, what the legislation doesn’t resolve — and what is perhaps a bigger Pandora’s box opened by the 2012 incident — is the decision that state water officials made that irrigation rights do not include stockwatering rights. In practice, irrigators around the state, many of whom hold water rights dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s, have used irrigation- or agricultural-water rights not to just irrigate their hayfields, but also to water their livestock.

    The new distinction means that ranchers with irrigation rights must apply for livestock water rights if they want to protect their usage into the future. Although the new legislation protects a rancher’s stockwatering use from being shut off specifically by an instream-flow right , their stockwater use could still be cut off if another water user makes a call on the river to fulfill a formal water right.

    “We all thought that was part of our ag water rights,” said Doug Monger, a Routt County commissioner and a cattle rancher on the Yampa River in northwest Colorado, and also uncle to Krista Monger. “It’s a wakeup call for all of us.”

    Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Craig Daily Press, Steamboat Pilot and Today and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the March 16 edition of the Craig Press.

    Craig is slated to switch to chloramines for system disinfection in March 2020

    The water treatment process

    From The Craig Daily Press (Joshua Carney):

    Presenting to City Council Feb. 11, SGM Water Engineer Rick Huggins told councilors that the project has gone as expected locally, after the city’s recent water quality plans were set into motion when the Colorado Department of Public Health increased disinfectant residual requirements for water systems, which Craig couldn’t meet in 2016.

    Previously, Craig was using free chlorine to keep its water clean, but due to the failure to meet state requirements, the City of Craig had to act.

    According to Huggins, after months of studies and workshops, council members decided a few key upgrades along with treating the city’s water system with monochloramine was the most cost-effective solution to keep the water safe. The project was expected to cost $5.2 million, requiring the city to increase rates to help finance the entire project.

    According to Huggins, SGM expects the project to cost $3.128 million in the end, which is below the $3.375 million the company estimated costs would be at the start of the project.

    The city announced to residents in their latest water bill that the monochloramine changeover will be implemented sometime in March…

    Huggins did add that the project has run into scheduling issues that has pushed the project back 4-6 weeks, but he said that SGM anticipates that they’ll have Craig’s water treatment system compliant with state regulations by April 1.

    As Western #Coal Plants Close, What Happens To Their #Water? — KUNC

    The coal-fired Tri-State Generation and Transmission plant in Craig provides much of the power used in Western Colorado, including in Aspen and Pitkin County. Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office has a plan to move the state’s electric grid to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

    Coal-fired power plants are closing, or being given firm deadlines for closure, across the country. In the Western states that make up the overallocated and drought-plagued Colorado River, these facilities use a significant amount of the region’s scarce water supplies.

    With closure dates looming, communities are starting the contentious debate about how this newly freed up water should be put to use.

    That conversation is just beginning in the northwest Colorado city of Craig, home to nearly 9,000 residents and hundreds of coal industry workers. In January, TriState Generation and Transmission announced it will fully close Craig Station by 2030. The same goes for the nearby Colowyo coal mine.

    The news comes on the heels of several high profile closures or closure announcements in Wyoming , New Mexico and Arizona . Each has a coal plant that taps into the Colorado River or its tributaries…

    Craig’s economy is intimately tied to the coal plant. But as the conversation about the announcement continued, other nagging questions came up, [Jennifer Holloway] said. Like what’s going to happen to the plant’s sizable water portfolio? It uses more than 10 times more water than all of Craig’s residents. Like what’s going to happen to the plant’s sizable water portfolio? It uses more than 10 times more water than all of Craig’s residents.

    In the arid West, water, and access to it, is intertwined with local economies. Where water goes — to a coal plant, a residential tap, or down a river channel — says something about a community’s present and future economy, and its values…

    Holloway wants to see Craig make a transition plenty of other Western communities have attempted over the last century, from an extractive economic base to a recreation-based one. She’s quick to name drop the region’s new slogan — “Colorado’s Great Northwest” — and list the various draws, like Dinosaur National Monument, the nearby Steamboat ski resort and the relatively free-flowing Yampa River.

    “One idea that I fully support is switching Dinosaur National Monument into a national park,” she said. “And hopefully TriState would partner with that effort and maybe use some of that water as we legislated that park to guarantee that we had the water moving west.”

    The Yampa River, in Dinosaur National Monument. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Without local input into what happens to Craig Station’s water rights, Holloway worries it could hurt the Yampa, which is the coal plant’s current water source. Colorado has a long history of transmountain diversion, where water from the wetter Western Slope is diverted eastward to the populous Front Range.

    “That’s the biggest fear, is they’re going to go into the headwaters of the Yampa, make a pipeline going over to the eastern slope,” Holloway said.

    So far TriState hasn’t tipped its hand on what it plans to do with the water. Duane Highley, TriState’s CEO, said at a news conference shortly after Craig Station’s closure announcement that his company is already fielding calls from interested buyers, but didn’t elaborate as to who has inquired.

    “When you look at a typical coal facility it uses an enormous amount of water,” Highley said, “and the fact that that will be liberated and available for other reuse will be significant.”

    […]

    Craig Station uses on average 16,000 acre-feet of water each year… A 2019 Bureau of Reclamation report showed thermal electric power generation in the Upper Colorado River basin accounted for 144,000 acre-feet, or about 3% of all water consumed in the watershed in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and parts of northern Arizona…

    “As a legal matter, the owners of the water rights, at least in Colorado, could do something else with them. As a practical matter, there’s not much else they can do with them,” said Eric Kuhn, former head of the Colorado River District and author of Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.

    TriState has limited options with the water rights, Kuhn said. The energy provider could sell them to a local municipality, though communities along the Yampa River, like Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, likely wouldn’t be able to use that much water all at once. TriState could offer them to local farmers, though most of the easily irrigable land has already been irrigated for a long time. They could turn them into in-stream flows. Or they could sell them to a user outside the Yampa basin, like a Front Range city. Any project proposed to pump the plant’s freed up water more 200 miles eastward would face significant political pushback and a multi-billion dollar price tag, Kuhn said.

    According to Kuhn, these coal closures also have implications for broader Colorado River management. The recently signed Drought Contingency Plans task water leaders in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to begin exploring a conceptual program called demand management, where in a shortage, water users would be paid to use less. Coal plants using less water would alleviate the situation.

    “What it’s going to do is take the pressure off of these states to come up with demand management scenarios, because where does that water go? It’ll flow to Lake Powell,” Kuhn said.

    #YampaRiver Fund opens 1st grant cycle; applications due March 24 — Steamboat Pilot & Today #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver

    Niche ag, along the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Derek Maiolo):

    An endowment fund to protect the Yampa River opened applications for its first grant cycle Tuesday, Feb. 11.

    The Yampa River Fund, launched in September 2019, plans to award approximately $100,000 to $200,000 in grants during this cycle, according to its manager Andy Bauer. Applications will be accepted through March 24.

    A partnership of 21 public, private and nonprofit entities representing the entire Yampa River Basin collaborated to create the board that governs the Yampa River Fund. Its mission, according to Bauer, is to fund projects to improve river health, protect the water supply and boost river flow in dry years.

    This comes amid concerns over the health of the Yampa River, the supply of which is vital to local agriculture and a key component to recreation from rafting in the summer to snowmaking in the winter.

    Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs water resource manager and chair of the Yampa River Fund board, cited three primary issues the fund aims to address: warming waters, the proliferation of northern pike and the deterioration of riparian forests.

    Recent measurements have shown river temperatures are reaching dangerous levels. Romero-Heaney cited the 2018 Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan, which found that summer water temperatures were surpassing healthy levels by about 5 degrees. Such temperatures kill off cold-water fish species, namely trout.

    Non-native northern pike, which are aggressive predators, have decimated native species. Wildlife agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife encourage the fishing of pike through contests and the implementation of pike removal projects to limit their numbers.

    Asked about the deterioration of riparian forests along the Yampa River, Romero-Heaney pointed to the last century of land management as a major factor. The number of cottonwoods has seen a particular decline, which decreases the amount of shade over the water and contributes to further warming.

    Despite these issues, the Yampa River is healthier than many waterways in the country. The river remains largely free-flowing, unlike many rivers controlled with extensive dams. It is the largest, unregulated tributary remaining in the Colorado River system, according to the National Park Service. It also has been protected from extensive development along its banks, Romero-Heaney said…

    As manager of the fund, Bauer listed three types of projects that will be prioritized during the grant cycle. Those include projects to sustain healthy flows, restore riparian habitats and improve infrastructure along the river, such as diversion structure and irrigation systems.

    Eligible applicants include state and local government entities, public districts and irrigation entities, mutual ditch companies, homeowners associations and nonprofits, according to a news release from the Yampa River Fund. Bauer encourages private landowners to partner with these entities to secure funding.

    Grant applications are available at http://yampariverfund.org/grants.

    #SnowpackNews: #YampaRiver Basin off to a good start

    Yampa and White Basin High/Low graph January 17, 2020 via the NRCS.

    From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Bryce Martin):

    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.

    From The Denver Post (Chris Bianchi):

    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.

    Community Agriculture Alliance: NRCS and #conservation on private lands — Steamboat Today

    Bear River at CR7 near Yampa / 3:30 PM, May 16, 2019 / Flow Rate = 0.52 CFS. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    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.

    Northwest #Colorado ranchers grapple with state requirements to measure, record water use — @AspenJournalism

    Irrigated pasture at Mantle Ranch along the Yampa River. Ranchers in the Yampa River basin are grappling with the enforcement of state regulations that require them to monitor their water use. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Lauren Blair):

    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.

    A hayfield in the Elk River Basin, a tributary of the Yampa River. A first-ever call on the Yampa River in 2018 is leading state officials to enforce regulations about measuring water. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Government oversight

    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.”

    An irrigated hayfield along the lower Yampa River. If irrigators don’t install measuring devices on their diversions by the spring irrigation season, they could be fined $500 a day. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    No waste

    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.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    Anger and disappointment as #YampaRiver ranchers ordered to measure water — @WaterEdCO

    A lovely curve on the Bear River, which is really the headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

    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.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.

    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.

    Not anymore.

    “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.”

    Hay fields in the upper Yampa River valley, northwest Colorado. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Study: #ColoradoRiver water crisis could dry out Front Range, West Slope cities and farms — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

    Gross Reservoir, west of Boulder. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

    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.

    Palisade peach orchard

    “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.

    Scare tactics

    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.

    If drought and climate change continue to sap the river’s flows, and a legal crisis erupts with downstream states, six of the state’s eight major river basins could be forced to give up water. The Front Range and Eastern Plains are most vulnerable if shortages hit the river downstream and could lose as much as 97 percent of their Colorado River supplies. Credit: Chas Chamberlin via Water Education Colorado

    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.”

    Blue Mesa Reservoir

    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 jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

    This graphic shows the transmountain diversions in Colorado.

    The Yampa/White Basin Roundtable is developing a #YampaRiver integrated water management plan #COWaterPlan

    Serene corner on the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    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 gena@yampawhitegreen.com.

    #Wyoming Governor Gordon appoints Greg Lanning Wyoming State Engineer

    Lower Green River Lake

    Here’s the release from Governor Gordon’s office:

    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.”

    Lanning will start his new position November 25.

    Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

    Community Agriculture Alliance: Roundtable reaches out to community — Steamboat Today #COWaterPlan

    Niche ag, along the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From the Community Agriculture Alliance (Patrick Stanko and Mark Williams) via Steamboat Today:

    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.

    We 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 http://yampawhitegreen.com.

    Patrick Stanko and Mark Williams are with the Community Agriculture Alliance.

    Some diverters in the #YampaRiver and #NorthPlatteRiver basins get orders from @DWR_CO to install measuring infrastructure by November 30, 2019

    Ralph Parshall squats next to the flume he designed at the Bellevue Hydrology Lab using water from the Cache la Poudre River. 1946. Photo Credit: Water Resource Archive, Colorado State University, via Legacy Water News.

    From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    Erin Light is the division engineer for the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the state agency that manages water rights. Light said she’s sent orders requiring 575 water users to install headgates and measuring devices as required by Colorado law. Most of these orders went to users in the Yampa River basin, though Light estimated about 100 of them went to users in the North Platte River basin in North Park.

    In March, water rights holders received notice that they would be required to install headgates and measuring devices. Light estimated fewer than 25% of the users who received notices actually installed the required infrastructure.

    Now, those water rights owners have been sent an order to install these devices by Nov. 30. After that date, they’ll be required to either have devices in place or stop using their water.

    “If you choose to not divert water and say ‘Fine, I only have a headgate, I’m shutting it. Again, I’m shutting it. I’m not going to put a measuring device in.’ That’s fine, as long as you don’t divert water,” Light said. “But if you have a headgate, no measuring device and choose to divert water contrary to that order after Nov. 30, next spring, May or whenever you turn on (your water), and we see that, we’re going to shut the headgate, and if necessary, we’ll lock the headgate.”

    If users break the lock or open the gate, the division could pursue enforcement actions with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, Light said.

    Without a headgate, users and engineers can’t shut off water. For users who divert water without a headgate, Light said the fine for diverting water contrary to the order is $500 each day water is flowing.

    Colorado water rights are a “use-it or lose-it” commodity. If a person is not using all of their water right, they can lose part or all of their water right through the abandonment process. Every 10 years, division engineers are required to provide the water court with a list of water rights they believe are abandoned partially or entirely. Light’s office is working through this process now. A preliminary list will be published on July 1, 2020.

    “We’re talking to people about the fact that their water right is being considered for abandonment, because we do have an initial list that we’ve developed,” Light said. “Our water commissioners are inspecting structures with water rights on the list and talking to water users, and there’s a lot of frustration (from users) about ‘How could my water right be on the abandonment list?’”

    Light said some users don’t realize they can lose part of their water right, but statute says water rights can be abandoned “in whole or in part.”

    Keeping accurate records can help. Light encourages water rights owners to track the water they’re using as her office works through the abandonment process. Light said water users should keep note when and at what flow they turn their diversions on or off, any time they adjust flows or anytime water levels in streams and ditches significantly fluctuate.

    “Maybe they did divert their water right, but we never got a record of it,” she said. “We observe something less because we weren’t out there at peak flow, and if water users would provide us accurate records of their water use, it’s possible that some of these water rights wouldn’t be included on the list. … It’s really critical that people start taking on that responsibility to protect their water right and keep records. It’s critical in many instances, but one of them is abandonment.”

    #YampaRiver: Water year recap

    From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    This water year was marked by above-average snowpack, a spring of precipitation at or near average and a summer that turned drier and, at least anecdotally, windier than average late in the season.

    Cool spring temperatures melted snowpack off slowly, giving irrigators time to use that water before it flowed passed. The river ran high and fast at about 1,000 cubic feet per second through Steamboat Springs from the time the snow started melting in late April until early July, according to U.S. Geological Survey data recorded at the Fifth Street stream gauge. A mix of rain and summer snow on the summer solstice brought the river one of its latest peaks on record at the Fifth Street gauge in downtown Steamboat, flowing at 4,180 cfs on June 21.

    This extended the rafting season on the stretch of river through town, but it delayed tubing season until July 15. The river also closed for only a day this summer, when flows fell below 85 cfs on Aug. 29. The city of Steamboat Springs and Tri-State Generation and Transmission released water to increase hydropower production at the dam at Stagecoach Reservoir and boosted flows through town, allowing the river to reopen the following day…

    The late runoff was a boon for [Jeff] Meyers, though Erin Light, the Colorado Division of Water Resource’s Division 6 Engineer, said that wasn’t the case across the entire Yampa River basin.

    “Some areas did really well, and other areas seemed like all the snow just soaked right into the ground,” Light said. “It would certainly make sense that would occur, given how dry we were the previous year, that a lot of snow just soaked right into the ground. That definitely was a factor in some areas.”

    Meyers said the snow-soaked ground helped his pastures recoup from a hot, dry summer in 2018.

    “Of course, it’s not just the hay crop, but it’s also the pastures,” he said. “After 2018, they really needed a break, and they got one. This year was really great that way.”

    A winter thick with snow and a spring full of rain broke a 20-year streak of drought conditions in the state of Colorado, though slight rainfall in late summer brought back abnormally dry conditions in late July, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Routt and Moffat counties are currently in abnormally dry conditions, according to the Drought Monitor.

    Colorado Drought Monitor October 1, 2019.

    #YampaRiver Fund launch

    A lovely curve on the Bear River, which is really the headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    On Thursday, Steamboat Resort announced that it plans to donate $500,000 to the Yampa River Fund as a founding donor to the new endowed fund, which will pay for projects to protect the Yampa River’s flow…

    The Yampa River Fund will pay for three types of projects aimed at benefiting all water users, from South Routt ranchers to Steamboat rafters to people drinking water from Craig faucets and the endangered fish living in Dinosaur National Monument. This includes leasing water to boost flows in dry years, actions to restore the river health and water infrastructure improvements.

    The $500,000 donations will be matched dollar for dollar under a million-dollar matching challenge grant, boosting the amount raised by the money to $1 million…

    The Nature Conservancy will lead management of the fund until at least 2021.

    Perlman said the resort is “putting their money where its mouth is” in supporting its core values, particularly collaboration and environment. This donation is the largest single cash donation since the resort was founded in 1963. Last week, Steamboat Resort also announced it has created a new department focused on environmental sustainability

    The resort will donate $100,000 per year to the fund for the next five years.

    Smith said Ski Corp.’s donation “lays a strong foundation for the effort to be successful.” Ski Corp. will participate in the fund’s board of directors and the smaller steering committee that will make funding decisions…

    Ski Corp. will join about 20 other local governments, companies and organizations overseeing the fund’s operation. Other entities range from agricultural organizations, such as the Moffat County Cattleman’s Association and Community Agricultural Alliance, to nonprofits, such as the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council and Friends of the Yampa, to businesses, including Smartwool and Tri-State Generation and Transmission…

    [Nancy Smith] also noted there’s still $2 million needed to reach organizers’ fundraising goal of $4.75 million over the next five years.

    From the Craig Daily Press (Clay Thorp):

    On Thursday, Sept. 19, community members gathered in Steamboat Springs for the launch of the Yampa River Fund, an endowed fund that will be used to fund projects to improve river health, protect the water supply, and boost river flow in dry years.

    Currently the fund has about $2 million, but organizers plan to build the fund up to $5 million.

    The Yampa River Fund specifically directs its money to goals included in several Northwest Colorado river management plans, including those created by the Yampa, White and Green River Basin Roundtable, and many others. These goals include protecting water users on the Yampa from curtailment, finding ways to address water shortages, and keeping water infrastructure up to date.

    Another factor that instigated the water fund are the reservoir releases that are becoming a regular occurrence to increase river flow in dry years…

    Other signatories that have joined Craig and Moffat County in the fund include the Colorado River District, the Colorado Water Trust, the Community Agriculture Alliance, Friends of the Yampa, Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, Northwest Colorado Chapter of Parrotheads, Routt County, Smartwool, Steamboat Ski Resort, the Nature Conservancy, and the towns of Dinosaur, Hayden, Oak Creek, and Yampa…

    The fund would have a steering committee of nine members along with a four-member board and the Nature Conservancy has apparently taken the lead on dispersing the funds. Any decision made on the board must be by unanimous consent, meaning if Moffat County doesn’t agree, it won’t happen…

    Craig City Council signed the agreement at their Sept. 10 meeting. The city is interested in using the fund to possibly finance a diversion structure on the Yampa River near Loudy-Simpson park.

    Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

    @COWaterCongress Annual Summer Conference recap #cwcsc2019

    The headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Steamboat Pilot (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    Water leaders from across the state converged on Steamboat Springs this week as part of the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference.

    The Colorado Water Congress is a group of people who work and live in water, explained Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger…

    In a legislative update, attendees heard about three proposals that could change water management in the state. Reps. Dylan Roberts, Jeni Arndt and Donald Valdez and Sens. Kerry Donovan, Jerry Sonnenberg and Don Coram sat on the panel.

    “As somebody who represents Routt County and other Western Slope counties, we know what a dry year looks like,” Roberts said. “We just had one last year, and we’re fortunate to have a wet year this year, but we have to continuously plan for those dry years and look at any legislation that helps us to preserve and conserve as much water as possible, prevent forest fires and protect agriculture, because they’re the ones that really lose out when we have dry years.”

    Changes to a program that increases river flow in dry years

    The instream flow program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to designate water rights to preserve or improve the natural environment of a stream.

    In the Yampa River, this program has been used to release reservoir water to boost flows through Steamboat in dry summers.

    Under the current law, the program allows people who hold water rights to temporarily loan reservoir water to the state to boost flows in a stream three times over the course of a 10-year period. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has already used loaned water for an instream flow in the Upper Yampa River three times in 2012, 2013 and 2017.

    Though reservoir water has been released in other years, including last summer, it was under a different legal mechanism.

    Roberts, a Democrat who represents Routt and Eagle counties, introduced a bill that would allow for more instream flow releases.

    “Once the 10-year period is done, you’re done forever, and you can never do it again,” Roberts explained. “So while city of Steamboat and the Yampa River has taken advantage of that program, they’ve started their 10-year clock. Once we hit 10 years in 2022, they won’t be able to use it again, so if we have a really low water year on the Yampa in 2023 or 2024, we won’t be able to use the instream flow to keep the Yampa running through town.”

    The bill, as currently proposed, would allow these loans for five of every 10 years and allow it to be renewed twice once those 10-year periods end.

    This would improve stream habitat, Roberts said, as well as limit economic impacts due to river closures placed during low flows that impact tubing outfitters, fishing shops and the businesses that benefit from recreation in the area.

    Monger, who sits on the board of the Upper Yampa Conservancy District, said the program has “been a great thing.” The district operates Stagecoach Reservoir.

    “(The district’s) actually been fortunate enough to have some available wet water that we can send down through to the city of Steamboat Springs, and it helps with water quality as well as water temperature,” he said. “It’s been a great thing, and the upper Yampa sells a little bit of water for its revenue sources to be able to take care of the water, so that’s a good thing.”

    It would also expand the program by allowing more water to be released to create more habitat for aquatic species, whereas currently, these releases are smaller releases designated only to preserve the existing natural environment…

    Ballot measure to legalize sports betting with tax revenue funding water projects

    Earlier this year, the legislature passed a measure that will ask voters to legalize sports betting with tax revenue from the practice funding the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan.

    If approved by voters, Colorado would allow some casinos to offer a sports book, essentially a room with a betting board and “every game known to man” on television screens, as Donovan put it. Casinos could also contract with online sports betting companies, such as DraftKings and FanDuel, to operate web-based sports betting. People could bet on college, professional and Olympic games.

    While sports betting has taken place in the state, it’s currently illegal.

    “This is a chance to legalize an action that we know is happening on the ground and to provide regulation protection under that act if people choose to bet on sports betting,” Donovan said.

    A 10% tax on each wager would be paid by casinos, with the bulk of the revenue funding the Colorado Water Plan. Some revenue would be directed to administrative costs, a hold harmless fund and a gambling crisis hotline.

    The Colorado Water Plan outlines a number of actions such as conserving more water used by cities and industry, storing more water, establishing plans to protect critical watersheds and increasing public awareness of water issues. The Yampa-White-Green River Basin Roundtable would implement the plan locally.

    Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis requested $30 million to fund the plan and statewide drought planning. The legislature granted $8.3 million to fund the water plan and $1.7 million for drought planning…

    Using new technology to trade water rights in real-time

    Another law, passed earlier this year, establishes an advisory group to study possible uses of blockchain technology within agriculture.

    Blockchain is a way to track transactions, and it uses the same record-keeping technology as bitcoin. Each transaction within the network, whether the blockchain network is trading water or money, is recorded in a block and includes data about transactions under a unique signature, sort of like a username. Each transaction is verified by the network of computers in the blockchain.

    Evan Thomas, director of the Mortensen Center in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, presented on possible applications of blockchain in the world of water rights. Blockchain could create a system to trade water by using sensors that track how much water is used or conserved to create “water credits.”

    “(Those water credits are) entered into the blockchain,” Thomas said. “Somebody requests a transaction. They say ‘I need to buy more water this month, so I want to buy somebody else’s water credits.’ You enter in that transactionm, and they buy and sell points. The sensor identifies water use and water consumption, (and) turns that into a blockchain node.”

    Thomas said this is a worthwhile tool to study in its applications for water rights, but that it is one part of a “suite of tools” that should be examined to update how water is traded.

    A feverish stream, a legion of volunteers, a $1.7 million grant. Is it enough to help the Yampa River keep its cool? — @WaterEdCO

    The headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Here’s a report Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith). Click through for the photos and the graphics:

    Could something as simple and natural as a ragged corridor of expansive, towering shade trees help a river arm itself against a world in which temperatures are rising?

    In northwestern Colorado’s Yampa River Basin, a 300-person-strong army of volunteers is banking on it.

    The Yampa River historically has produced so much abundant, clear, cool water that its fish, kayakers, and the farmers along its banks were rarely left wanting.

    But climate change is altering that dynamic. Last summer the river’s flows shrank sharply, and its formerly cool waters became dangerously warm, threatening the fish. Its high fever prompted the City of Steamboat Springs to close the popular stretch through town to fisherman and boaters on multiple occasions to avoid further stressing the mountain white fish, which is found in few other Colorado regions.

    The shut-down was a huge blow to the city and to local rafting and tubing companies who rely on the river for their livelihoods.

    The disturbing heat added urgency to a small program that has been gaining supporters and clout in the Yampa River Basin. The Yampa Sustainability Council (YSC), aided by $175,000 from local donors and some state grants, has ramped up a broad-based tree planting program along the river’s banks known as ReTree. Additional funding from a new $1.7 million Nature Conservancy water fund will add even more muscle to the effort.

    On a hot Friday afternoon in late June, Sarah Jones, executive director of the YSC, parks at a trailhead just east of town, slathers herself in sunscreen, and loads a white plastic bucket with small calipers, a measuring stick, a GPS device and wooden stakes to take down to the river’s edge. These are the tools she and others will use to carefully locate and measure the progress of trees planted in recent years.

    The reforesting work is conducted with a careful, slow precision. Each tree that is planted along the banks, and there are hundreds, is assessed, measured and located each season, even as more are placed in the ground.

    The trend of warming rivers is creating a need for new science and reams of field data. “This is a new, not well-understood problem,” Jones said.

    She and her partners, including the Colorado State Forest Service and the City of Steamboat, are taking the long view, carefully evaluating each year what has worked, discarding practices that have failed, and boosting those that have succeeded.

    They once used elaborate planting protocols for placing the young saplings in the ground, but the trees respond much better when their small root balls are poked into the side of the bank, almost casually, supported by simple twigs. The starter trees also like being planted in the fall, they’ve learned, not the spring.

    The Yampa River, in some ways, is a blessed stream, with more water than most Western rivers, and a community of hard-working, often wealthy, advocates.

    This year The Nature Conservancy announced it had raised $1.7 million in a long-term water fund to restore and protect the Yampa River. The goal is to raise another $4.3 million to protect the watershed.

    It is an unheard-of sum in this remote, northwestern corner of the state.

    But those who know the Yampa understand the significance of protecting it, not just for the sake of this region, but for the state of Colorado and even for the greater American Southwest.

    The river sits near the headwaters of the drought-stressed Colorado River system and is one of its last, mostly free-flowing tributaries. Because it is relatively unhindered, with only a few small reservoirs high on its mainstem, it serves as a kind of benchmark for scientists seeking to understand natural river dynamics and mimic them elsewhere.

    Keeping the Yampa healthy also helps a much broader effort in the West to bring the Colorado River system back from the edge of a crisis precipitated by population growth, a nearly 20-year drought, and rising temperatures.

    Jones and her colleague Caroline Manriquez, assistant district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, walk slowly along a public stretch of the river. Each of them notes the young trees planted two or three years ago that are outgrowing the metal cages put in place to protect them from beavers, who are both a curse and a blessing on the river.

    “On the one hand we want them,” said Manriquez, because their work on the river creates natural dams and habitats. “But on the other hand, they’re cutting the trees we want to preserve.”

    Each tree that outgrows its anti-beaver cage will need to be visited, its protective metal enclosure cut off and a bigger one put in place.

    The re-treeing effort anticipates a Johnny-Appleseed kind of longevity, with some 200 shade trees planted annually over the next 20 years.

    “This is a huge project, and we are planting very small trees,” Manriquez said. “But given the water issues climate change is creating, we decided we had better start now.”

    Like other river basins around the state, the Yampa Basin has developed a state-funded management plan for the river. Some of that funding went toward several years of studies and planning to develop the science to support the reforestation effort, said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for Steamboat Springs.

    “We’ve done a tremendous amount of modeling to look at what this river will look like in the future,” Romero-Heaney said.

    Just downstream of the work zone, on the opposite bank from the workers, is a nursery which houses hundreds of delicate, young willow, cottonwood, and box elder trees. These varieties are known for growing tall and spreading a generous shade canopy.

    The young seedlings have been sprouted in a nursery in Fort Collins, then transferred up to the Steamboat nursery early in the summer, all in preparation for the fall planting season.

    These seedlings will be planted in the public stretches of the river, but reforesting there alone won’t be enough.

    Jones and Manriquez know that the key to success for the project will be to bring the private landowners who control most of the land on the river’s banks into the program.

    And that’s not easy. Western ranchers are notoriously government-averse, skittish about letting federal and state environmental officials onto their property, they said.

    Rancher Steve Williams is an exception. He owns 200 acres of land along a critical reach of the Yampa east of Steamboat Springs, one that has been degraded by heavy cattle grazing, its cottonwood canopy gone, its streambed wide and much shallower than it once was.

    As a result the water temperature here each summer threatens to exceed the state’s standard for the stream. If Williams can cool down his reach of the river, it will help everyone farther down and closer to Steamboat Springs.

    To achieve this, he has partnered with federal agencies to shore up the river’s banks, deepening it as it curves, snakelike, through the wetlands and pastures above Lake Catamount.

    This land hasn’t been grazed in 10 years, Williams said, and he’s hopeful the bank restoration work, as well as the re-treeing effort, will give this stretch of the river the assistance it needs to heal.

    Williams understands the magnitude of the work that lies ahead and the challenges, the discrepancy in scale between young trees and a sprawling Western river, and the global dilemma of warming. “We will see how this goes,” Williams said. “It is a Band-aid, but it’s one I think will last at least through my lifetime.”

    Romero-Heaney and other river advocates know that they will likely never see the final results of this reforestation effort, but based on the preliminary studies, they see it as an important tool for helping this playful, powerhouse of a river flourish in a very different world than it has inhabited up until now.

    “I have to believe that if any river can persist through climate change, it will be the Yampa,” Romero-Heaney said.

    This story is made possible, in part, by The Water Desk, an initiative of the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

    Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

    #Runoff news: #YampaRiver streamflow close to average

    From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    On Monday afternoon, the river was flowing at about 200 cubic feet per second at the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge at Fifth Street, falling over the course of the past week from just under 300 cfs on Monday, July 22. Saturday’s rainfall boosted flows back up to 300 cfs on Sunday, though the river fell back to 200 cfs by Monday.

    The river typically levels out after its peak, but city water resources manager Kelly Romero-Heaney said that level varies year to year.

    “We see the hydrograph tail off after the peak snowmelt, and then it hovers above 100 cfs typically for the majority of the summer, but it can depend on what’s happening with releases out of Stagecoach Reservoir and irrigation diversions upstream from town and the weather,” Romero-Heaney said…

    So far this July, the area received 1.06 inches of precipitation at a National Weather Service Cooperative Observer Network weather station, below the long-term average of 1.52 inches at the same location.

    #YampaRiver: The more things change the more they stay the same

    From email from Scott Hummer:

    Please note the attached newspaper article from, the “Yampa Leader”, May 18, 1923…

    Kind of ironic…Given the fact, we’re still attempting to deal with the same issues in 2019 as they were on the ground in the Yampa Valley in 1923, and before…

    #Runoff news: #Tubing season starts on the #YampaRiver

    The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

    From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    The Yampa River has finally fallen to a level that allows for commercial tubing.

    On Monday, the river dropped below 700 cubic feet per second through downtown Steamboat Springs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the flow rate that typically kicks off tubing with commercial outfitters…

    Though lower than it has been all summer, the river is still running quickly, with water temperatures around 60 degrees. The city of Steamboat Springs — and commercial outfitters — recommend wearing a life jacket on the water, even when on a tube.

    #Runoff news: “Farmers are happy. Farmers and ranchers seem to be a lot happier this year” — Brian Romig

    Hay fields in the upper Yampa River valley, northwest Colorado. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Craig Daily Press (Clay Thorp):

    fter several weeks of rising water on the Yampa River, homes near the waterway might see drier river banks soon as river level continues to fall.

    “We had a big snow year,” said Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the Colorado River District. “Then we had a cool, wet spring even into summer as you saw in Steamboat with their snowfall.”

    Officials say much of the snow in Steamboat Springs and other highland areas of the Yampa Valley hasn’t melted yet. So, unless there’s a series of exceptionally hot days, the Yampa River should stay steady…

    That standing water has caused some mosquito issues in Moffat County. At least one mosquito tested positive for West Nile Virus near the South Beach boat ramp in Craig. No official human cases of West Nile Virus have been reported anywhere in Colorado yet, but officials want residents to be proactive in protecting themselves during the peak mosquito feeding times of dawn and dusk…

    Though it breeds mosquitoes, much of that water has made things green up at ranches across the Yampa Valley as cows and other livestock are having their fill of the foliage.

    “It’s been a great year, especially compared to last year,” [Brian Romig] said. “Farmers are happy. Farmers and ranchers seem to be a lot happier this year.”

    From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    Nearly 5 inches of June precipitation and 2 inches of June snow have contributed to keeping the Yampa River flowing near peak levels since the beginning of the month.

    Since the river rose to 2,300 cubic feet per second at the Fifth Street gauge in downtown Steamboat Springs on June 5, the river hasn’t fallen below that level, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

    “It’s a good year, and that’s no surprise to anybody at this point,” Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District General Manager Kevin McBride said. “It’s a good thing that it comes off and stays at that level for a long time, because the last thing we want to see is one big peak because that means flooding.”

    […]

    Scott Hummer, Colorado Division of Water Resources water commissioner serving water users in South Routt, said the ranchers he works with say it’s peaked, but he’s still waiting to see.

    “Some of my water users have told me they think the river’s peaked,” Hummer said. “I’m not particularly sold that it’s peaked. I think that everything is still totally temperature dependent. We may see a very sustained, higher-flow rate.”

    Hummer added that water users in the southernmost end of the district have seen high water — with the Yampa spilling out of its banks and pooling up in fields — that hasn’t been seen for a lifetime.

    “We are light years ahead of where we were last year at this particular point in time,” Hummer said. “Last Saturday (June 22), we saw record all-time inflows into Stagecoach (Reservoir). On Sunday, we saw Stagecoach spill at an all-time record amount, so it’s a much different season than last season, simply based on the snowpack.”

    On Thursday, about 200 cfs of water was flowing into Stagecoach Reservoir. The mean for this date — the average of the 31-year record — is 90 cfs…

    These higher flows are a boon for river runners who are still catching big waves on the Yampa and to ecosystems that rely on fluctuating flows. While ranchers are glad to have enough water to irrigate hay, the moisture and low temperatures have likely pushed back the growing season, meaning they’ll cut hay later in the season, Romero-Heaney said.

    For those who hope to hit the river, it might be a better bet to rent a raft instead of a tube for awhile yet. Commercial outfitters typically start renting out tubes when the river falls below 700 cfs. The Yampa is still flowing at four times that rate.

    Romero-Heaney guessed — based on data from 2011, a similar runoff year — that the river might fall to a tube-able level in mid- to late-July.

    And while the water is high now, McBride cautions that it doesn’t remedy years of low flow in the greater Colorado River Basin, which the Yampa is a part of.

    “As they say, don’t get too comfortable with just one year of good runoff in the Colorado Basin as a whole, but for users in the Yampa, it looks like a banner year,” he said.

    Stagecoarch Reservoir outflow June 23, 2019. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    Community Agriculture Alliance: Rivers rise as rain and snow hammer #YampaRiver basin — Steamboat Pilot & Today #runoff

    Here’s a guest column from Kent Vertrees that’s running in the Steamboat Pilot & Today:

    For all snow, water and river junkies out there, last weekend’s weather was one of the most intense and bizarre we have seen in some time. Twenty or more inches of snow in the high country, inches of rain, massive lightning, cold temps, snow in downtown Steamboat Springs marked the official beginning of summer in the Yampa Valley.

    Since 1983, the year of all water years in the Colorado Basin, 2011 was the next wettest on record. This year is now very comparable.

    This is a reality of ours. Living on the spine of the continent, high up in elevation, this offers extreme variability in our climate as is. We have always experienced broad shifts in annual snowpack, rain, temperature and river flow, and the perfect scenario like last weekend is never out of our reality. We already had a deep snowpack remaining from winter and spring. Then, throw in a low front with adequate moisture and low temperature and residents woke up to snow on first day of summer.

    The trick with last week’s storm is that is wasn’t all snow. We typically see river levels drop when we get cold fronts, because they shut down the snowmelt with colder temperatures. But in this case, it poured rain leading up to the snowfall which spiked our rivers, creeks and streams to their seasonal peak flows.

    River flows in the Yampa Basin are notorious for having large fluctuations in their seasonal flow. With limited storage reservoirs in the basin, there isn’t the capacity for water managers to store the runoff. When the conditions are right, and Mother Nature sends us her wrath, it’s not out of the ordinary to see river levels spike.

    In early June at the Yampa Basin Rendezvous that was held in Steamboat Springs, we learned all about snow, water, rivers, climate modeling and the resiliency of communities to handle shifting climate aridity. We learned from scientists that the future we can expect in the Yampa and greater Colorado River basins in general, will only continue to be more variable, extreme and a bit wilder than what we are all used to.

    Years of hotter and dryer climate, drought and low river flow, followed by periods of extreme snow and rainfall along with heavier flooding seems probable in our future, and it is what many of the modeling trends are indicating. What we saw last weekend is just a glimpse into our extreme weather reality and is something that we will all have to get used to.

    Kent Vertrees is the board president of the Friends of the Yampa.

    #GreenRiver: #Wyoming Conservation Pilot Program wraps up — Wyoming Public Radio #DCP #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The Little Snake River as it passes under Wyoming Highway 70 near Dixon. Photo credit: Wikimedia

    From Wyoming Public Radio (Melodie Edwards):

    For the last four years, Green River and Little Snake River basin ranchers have been getting paid not to irrigate in late summer to conserve Colorado River water. But the pilot phase of the program is now over. The next step is developing the technology to measure how much water is actually saved.

    Big Piney Rancher and water engineer Chad Espenscheid said the key to making sure the program succeeds is proving the water was really making it down to the Colorado River…

    As part of a new drought contingency agreement, Upper Basin states like Wyoming will now be able to store as much as 500,000 acre feet of conserved water to fill lower basin demands. But that’s only if they figure out how to quantify the saved water.

    Espenscheid said the program is definitely worth keeping. He said it made it worth his while to participate, paying him enough to expand his cattle herd.

    But as for quantifying how much water he really conserved?

    “How much? Who knows,” he said. “But for sure there was water going down the creek that we probably would have used.”

    Espenscheid said he plans to work on possible methods to answer that question, like developing computer models or creating measuring devices to install in streams.

    Wyoming’s Trout Unlimited Director Cory Toye says the test run was popular with ranchers and translated to real benefits for native trout.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin #drought contingency plan depends on rights holders bypassing water #COriver #aridification

    The looming possibility of mandatory curtailment of water use has raised concerns among Western Slope water managers, who feel that such cuts could harm Western Slope agricultural, such as this hay filed in the Yampa River basin. However, as water levels continue to drop to record lows in Lake Powell, mandatory curltailments are being discussed as a real possibility, especially by Front Range water managers. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Eleanor C. Hassenbeck):

    The collective group of [recently signed] agreements is called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan.

    It aims to raise the unprecedented low water levels in the largest reservoirs on the Colorado River system, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, to enable them to continue to deliver water and produce hydropower.

    In Colorado, it calls for three possible actions:

  • Creating a bank of stored water in federally owned reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell. This water would be released into Lake Powell in order to make sure Colorado continues to meet obligations to deliver a certain amount of water to downstream states under the Colorado River Compact.
  • Increasing cloud seeding and removing deep-rooted, invasive plants that take up a lot of water, such as tamarisk.
  • Creating a voluntary program that would temporarily pay agricultural water users to fallow their land and send water they have a right to downstream. This is called demand management.
  • Of the options on the table, demand management — the option that would pay farmers not to use their water — is the one most likely to impact Routt County…

    Demand management is still only a hypothetical, so the Yampa River Basin could opt out of a program if it doesn’t work for the area.

    The Colorado Water Conservation Board has assembled workgroups on topics related to demand management. These groups are now meeting behind closed doors to develop preliminary reports outlining how the program might work.

    Brown said once these reports are completed and released to the public, there will be opportunities for community members to provide input on the idea. She said there will be the “opportunity for a real, thoughtful conversation, especially in the Yampa and White (river) basins.”

    Community Agriculture Alliance: Upper #YampaRiver Habitat Partnership Program

    The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.”

    From Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Jack Taylor) via Steamboat Pilot & Today:

    Are you familiar with Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Habitat Partnership Program (HPP)? If you are in the livestock/agriculture business or a landowner in Routt County you should be.

    CPW’s HPP program works to reduce wildlife conflicts, particularly conflicts associated with forage and fences, and to assist CPW in meeting game management objectives. HPP efforts are primarily aimed at agricultural operators and focus on problems and objectives for deer, elk, pronghorn and moose. HPP is funded by receiving 5% of the deer, elk, pronghorn and moose license revenue from each HPP area. This results in millions of dollars annually that can be spent on projects on both private and public land across Colorado.

    The local HPP committee in Routt County is the Upper Yampa River HPP committee. The committee is comprised of several local agricultural producers, local sportsman and agency representatives (CPW, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Serivce). This combination of local knowledge allows for innovative project ideas and novel solutions to problems specific to Routt County.

    The Upper Yampa River HPP committee has recently funded several habitat improvement projects, specifically projects that enhanced the amount of water available to both wildlife and livestock on private property. These projects allowed for better grazing practices that will benefit wildlife and livestock into the future.

    Other common projects for the Upper Yampa River HPP committee involve assisting landowners with fencing projects. This could be providing materials for a strong welded wire hay stack-yard that can stand up to the snow loads in Routt County or supplying vinyl-coated top wire. The vinyl-coated top wire program helps to reduce the damage that deer and elk can cause to fencing while they are crossing it because the vinyl-coated wire is more visible, which also results in fewer deer and elk fence entanglement issues.

    The possibilities do not end there. In addition to fence and forage type projects, the Upper Yampa River HPP committee also assists landowners with funding a portion of the transaction costs for conservation easements.

    HPP looks for a 50/50 cost split to approve the project being submitted. This means if you are asking the HPP committee to contribute $2,000 to a habitat improvement project on your property, they would be looking for a contribution from you worth $2,000.

    The Upper Yampa River HPP committee also considers any other partners associated with the project, like a neighbor, if the project can span multiple parcels of property.

    To submit a project with the Upper Yampa River HPP committee, contact your local district wildlife manager directly or call the CPW Steamboat Springs Service Center at 970-870-2197. Upper Yampa River HPP meetings are typically held once a month. Contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife to learn more.

    Jack Taylor is a district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    #Drought/#Runoff news: Routt County benefits from the wet weather this water year

    Yampa and White Basins High/Low Precipitation Summary May 31, 2019 via the NRCS.

    From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Eleanor C. Hasenback):

    According to data from a National Weather Service cooperative weather station, Steamboat Springs receives a long-term average of 2.15 inches of water in May.

    Data from that station shows the area received nearly double that average, with a total of 4.26 inches in May. This data is preliminary, and the National Weather Service will release its official tally of May precipitation later this month.

    Steamboat received 9.3 inches of snow in May, well over the long term May average of 2.8 inches at the station.

    That snow hasn’t melted off the mountains, either. The Natural Resource Conservation Services’ snow telemetry site atop the Continental Divide on Buffalo Pass measured 115 inches of snowpack on the ground on Sunday. There were 35 inches at the Rabbit Ears Pass site…

    “This has been a pretty active year — a pretty wet winter and spring. … I think that’ll have some influence on the temperatures too because as the sun is melting the snow, it’s not able to heat the ground as much. That could be a reason why our temperatures could be at or below normal for this short-term forecast,” said Erin Walter, a meteorologist at the Weather Service Forecast Office in Grand Junction…

    “The warmer temperatures are just going to increase the runoff, so that’s kind of the big threat right now for Western Colorado,” she said.

    The river runners’ adage states that the Yampa River peaks when two brown spots atop Storm Peak meet. Those brown spots have yet to make an appearance this spring.

    The Yampa River sees an average peak in early June around 2,250 cubic feet per second at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Fifth Street gauge in downtown Steamboat, though the peak has ranged from 1,570 to 5,200 cfs in the last ten years.

    For much of the last month, the river has flowed relatively consistently between 1,000 and 1,500 cfs through Steamboat, though the Weather Service forecast that the Yampa will rise to about 3,600 cfs later this week amid sunny weather starting Tuesday.

    Walters said the forecast for June looks to see average temperatures and a slightly above average chance for “wetter than normal conditions.”

    While this year is shaping up to be a good water year so far, climatologists and water managers are still concerned by a trend of drought intensified by warmer temperatures and an earlier spring in the West.

    “Just because we have one good year … doesn’t negate the realities we’re seeing with consistent warming trends,” Taryn Finnessey, a senior climate change specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board told the Durango Herald on Wednesday…

    The Yampa River flows into the Colorado River, and then into Lake Powell, where it helps fulfill Colorado’s annual obligation to provide a certain amount of water to downstream states. As of Saturday, Lake Powell was only 43% full, and even with Colorado’s healthy snowpack, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimated that Powell would fill to 54% of its storage capacity this water year. The lower Powell falls, the more concerned water managers become about meeting obligations to other states.

    “If you don’t own a water right or rely on water for your paycheck, [water management] is usually an afterthought…Until it isn’t” — Nicole Seltzer

    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.

    South Routt County Water Users Meeting, May 29, 2019 — Colorado Division of Water Resources #YampaRiver

    Here’s the notice from the the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Scott Hummer):

    South Routt County Water Users Meeting

    Bear River at CR7 near Yampa / 3:30 PM, May 16, 2019 / Flow Rate = 0.52 CFS. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    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 of Steamboat Springs has supply enough for new development on the W. side of town

    Fish Creek Falls. By Roy Brumback – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4099590

    From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    “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.

    Yampa River call in 2018 shuts down senior rights without measurement infrastructure

    The Yampa River had almost no flows at Deerlodge Park, at the entrance to Dinosaur National Park, when this photo was taken in mid-August, 2018. Photo/Erin Light via The Mountain Town News

    From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    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.

    More information can be found online at http://www.upperyampawater.com/projects/grants.

    #Snowpack news: The #YampaRiver Valley is seeing earlier snowmelt as #Colorado warms

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map March 31, 2019 via the NRCS.

    From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C Hassenback):

    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.

    Longterm drought
    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.

    #Snowpack news: All basins above 100% of median for now

    Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

    From The Craig Daily Press (Sasha Nelson):

    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.

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 11, 2019 via the NRCS.

    Northwest #Colorado water users wary of potential water cutbacks by state — @AspenJournalism #DCP #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    A fleet of rafts makes its way down the Green River toward its confluence with the Yampa River. Future potential releases of water out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir to boost levels in Lake Powell shape the flows on the Green River, although it’s not clear how the releases may change flow levels. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smity

    From Aspen Journalism (Lauren Blair):

    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.”

    Yampa River

    Demand management

    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.

    #Snowpack news: Yampa and White basins = 112% of normal

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 29, 2019 via the NRCS.

    From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    Snowpack in the Yampa and White river basins is at 110 percent of its long-term median snow water equivalency, which is a measure of how much water is contained within the snowpack. Snowpack typically peaks in April, so snowfall — or lack of it — could still force that number away from the median.

    … the city of Steamboat Springs has enough water to provide for current demands for a decade under 2012 conditions — the third worst drought episode in Colorado’s history — according to city water resources manager Kelly Romero-Heaney. Romero-Heaney said this would be a “doomsday scenario.”

    “I don’t know if there are many communities in Colorado that can say that,” she said in an update to the Steamboat Springs City Council on Jan. 15.

    One of the ways managers seek to minimize the risk of a compact call is demand management, she said. This is a spot where Steamboat has hit beyond the mark. In 2011, the city’s water conservation plan sought to reduce water consumption by 5 percent, said Michelle Carr, city water and sewer distribution and collection manager. The city exceeded this goal, and as Steamboat’s population has grown, it’s demand for water has fallen, she explained.

    Little Snake River Dam backers forge ahead with $11 million, seek more from feds — WyoFile.com

    Proposed dam site on West Fork of Battle Creek, Little Snake River watershed S. of Rawlins, Wyoming via the Wyoming Water Development Office.

    From WyoFile.com (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

    The plan to impound 10,000 acre feet of water on the West Fork of Battle Creek barely survived a legislative roadblock earlier this year when the Wyoming House stripped $40 million from a water bill that had been earmarked for the project. A compromise with the Senate saw $4.7 million in appropriations restored, but with caveats requiring further legislative approval for expenditures and pro-rata financial participation from potential beneficiaries in Colorado.

    Dam backers are not for the moment returning to Wyoming’s financial well. Neither of two draft 2019 water bills that propose more than $28 million for water planning and development statewide include funding for the project, according to a review of draft bills posted online. But two water districts — one in Colorado and one in Wyoming — are asking for a total of $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct environmental reviews of the dam and reservoir that would be constructed in the Medicine Bow National Forest, officials say.

    Meantime, dam backers failed to win full-throated support for the $80 million project from a water coalition in Northern Colorado. Instead, members of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable said they supported further evaluation of the proposed dam, but not yet construction of the facility itself (see letter below).

    Dam backers also must figure out whether Wyoming and Colorado’s new governors — both of whom were elected in November — will support the project and to what degree. Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde said he continues to work with his counterpart in Colorado to obtain support and money but the election means dam backers have to undertake a new round of lobbying.

    “Every time there’s a new governor, all those conversations start over,” he said in a telephone interview.

    Show-me tour wins tepid Colorado support

    To build Colorado support, Wyoming officials took members of the Colorado roundtable on a tour of the dam site and surrounding area last summer. LaBonde drafted a letter of support that the Colorado group could consider signing its name to in late November, group chairman Jackie Brown said. “We require[d] that,” she said of the draft correspondence.

    It proposed that the roundtable, a coalition of water users that includes irrigators, municipal interests, and recreation representatives, write the following; “We would like to offer this letter of support for the project and look forward to working with your office to continue to move this project forward for the mutual benefit of water users in both states.”

    LaBonde’s version stated that the project would have $92 million in benefits. It said the Wyoming Legislature has already appropriated $11.3 million to build the dam and that Colorado irrigators could have a chance to buy some of the stored water. The $11 million figure comes from a $7 million planning appropriation, very little of which was used, plus the conditional $4.7 million appropriation earlier this year.

    “As the project is currently configured approximately 4,000 – 5,000 acres of irrigated lands in Colorado would be potentially eligible to purchase supplemental irrigation water from the project,” LaBonde’s draft said.

    The Colorado roundtable adopted most of the proposed language. But “the group stopped short of supporting the project,” LaBonde said, backing an investigative process only.

    “At our November 14th meeting, the Roundtable unanimously approved the support for the process of reviewing a reservoir at the west fork of Battle Creek,” the final roundtable letter, dated Nov. 27, reads. “The membership would like to be clear that this is not support of the reservoir itself, only the process of the exploration, as approval of a reservoir would need to come before the membership in a final format, after [National Environmental Policy Act analysis] has been completed.”

    The roundtable also dropped proposed language that stated it “would like to continue … identifying other funding opportunities for this project.” Instead, the Colorado group said it “supports the development of water resource in the basin and would be happy to work with local water users in Colorado and Wyoming and the State of Wyoming.”

    The proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek would serve 67 to 100 irrigators, studies commissioned by the Water Development Office say. The most likely beneficiaries in Colorado would appear to be members of the Pot Hook Water Conservancy District that joined the Savery-Little Snake district in applying for the $1.2 million federal grant.

    That district appears to be relatively small. In 2017 it held a successful election to impose a four-mill property tax that would raise $12,831.48 in 2018, and similar amounts in subsequent years. The tax money will “meet the future needs of landowners within the district” and “proactively protect … existing water rights,” according to a description of the measure. It passed on a 13-7 vote.

    O’Toole agreed with LaBonde that the fresh administrations in Cheyenne and Denver will require a renewed effort securing support — support that backers couldn’t find in their home House of Representatives. “I’m going to watch and see who gets picked for positions and go from there,” O’Toole said.

    Among the considerations is the announced retirement of Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell who has held the cabinet-level position since 2001. A gubernatorial appointee who’s considered the state’s water czar, his office resolves conflicts among users and represents Wyoming during inter-state negotiations. When Tyrrell retires in January, he will have served under four governors.

    Meantime, conditions in the Little Snake River Basin are deteriorating, O’Toole said, as a 19-year-drought is forcing water users to plan for shortages. “We saw the [Little Snake] River in a state I’ve never seen,” he said. This summer, for the first time ever, there was a call for regulation on Colorado’s Yampa River as water users asked state regulators to enforce prior appropriation doctrine and law. Those ensure that during low flows the holders of earlier water rights get their allocation before holders of more recent rights can divert river flows.

    Backers want federal funds but not oversight

    West Fork Dam supporters want a land exchange that would give Wyoming some 100 acres of federal property in the Medicine Bow National Forest to construct the proposed dam and impound the reservoir. Such a deal would exempt the project from some aspects of the demanding NEPA process, likely making it easier to accomplish. So far, the federal agency hasn’t received any formal requests for development, forest spokesman Aaron Voos said in a telephone interview from forest headquarters in Laramie.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    #Drought news: Elkhead operations review

    Elkhead Reservoir “teacup” graphic illustrates who owns water stored at Elkhead, measured in acre-feet or AF, both before and after it was expanded in 2006. Credit: The Craig Daily Press

    From The Craig Daily Press (Lauren Blair):

    …in dry, hot years like 2018, owners of Elkhead water were glad to have the backup.

    “The reservoir served a good purpose for multiple reasons in Moffat County,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District.

    Both the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and Tri-State Generation & Transmission had to call on their water stored at Elkhead this year. They are among four major owners of water in the reservoir, which also includes the city of Craig and the river district. The city drew ample water from the Yampa and didn’t need Elkhead water this year.

    The Fish Recovery Program owns 5,000 acre-feet of water, which it procured when the reservoir was expanded in 2006 in exchange for a $13.5 million contribution to the project. An acre-foot is enough to cover one acre, about the size of a football field, with one foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons.

    The Recovery Program also has the option to lease an additional 2,000 acre-feet from the River District, bringing its total to 7,000 usable acre-feet of water…

    The Recovery Program utilized every drop of its 7,000 acre-feet, releasing water into the Yampa beginning in late July — unusually early — and continuing until October.

    With the prolonged summer drought, Yampa flows dropped to a precipitously low 38 cubic feet per second by early October in Maybell, where the United States Geological Survey operates a stream gauge. The Maybell gauge is used to determine how much water is making it downriver and how much to release from Elkhead. For comparison, the Recovery Program ordinarily aims to keep flows at 93 cfs or greater, Anderson said.

    Drought poses some obvious challenges to native fish populations. Colorado pikeminnow can reach lengths of 2 to 3 feet, according to Tom Chart, director of the Recovery Program, and low flows in the river can make it difficult for them to swim…

    When river flows dropped too low this year, Tri-State called on its water in both Elkhead and Stagecoach reservoirs to keep the plant operational.

    From Elkhead, it used 341 acre-feet of water, according to the River District, though it owns much more. Tri-State secured 2,500 acre-feet of water when the reservoir was expanded, plus it owns a portion of an 8,408 acre-foot pool shared by owners of Craig Station Units 1 and 2. Additionally, Tri-state owns 4,000 acre-feet of storage in Yamcolo Reservoir and 7,000 acre-feet in Stagecoach, according to the 2004 Yampa River Basin report.

    Tri-state would not divulge how much water it used from Stagecoach this year. According to historical data provided in the 2004 report, however, Craig Station’s annual water use averaged more than 11,000 acre-feet per year between 1985 and 1991. Again, Tri-state declined to provide more recent data.

    Decisions about how much water to release out of Elkhead are evaluated in a weekly phone call between the reservoir’s partners and users, state officials, meteorologists, irrigators, and other stakeholders, all led by Anderson. Water levels in the reservoir dropped slightly lower than average this year, down to 12 feet instead of 14 — revealing more shoreline than some are used to seeing — but recreational use of the reservoir by fisherman and boaters wasn’t significantly affected.

    The reservoir collects water from a 205-square-mile basin and reliably recharges with spring runoff each year. Water managers worry about what would happen if drought persisted for several years, but so far, Elkhead has offered a measure of security to Moffat County’s biggest water users.

    Elkhead Reservoir

    The Yampa River set records for low flow in water year 2018

    Floating the tiger, Yampa River, 2014. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck) via The Craig Daily Press:

    The past water year, which began in October 2017 and ended in September, broke records on the Yampa. Average temperatures in much of the Yampa River basin were the warmest on record, and for the first time ever, the main stem of the Yampa River was placed on call, meaning use of Yampa water was curtailed.

    This summer, the portion of the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs city limits was open to summer recreation — including tubing, fishing, and paddling — for about 40 days, one of the shortest summer seasons on this stretch of river. For much of the summer, the river was under a voluntary closure as the water was too hot, too low or without enough dissolved oxygen to meet streamflow standards set by the city and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to protect river habitat.

    Warm and dry summer

    The Yampa and Colorado rivers peaked in mid-May, and according to long-term averages of daily flows, both rivers normally peak in June. This led to the second earliest start to tubing season on the Yampa in 10 years.

    A warm spring played a role in this — as snow melted off the mountains earlier, water flowed downhill into the river and its tributaries earlier. This water year was the warmest on record in the state, according to the Colorado Climate Center.

    In Routt County, about half of the county saw its warmest water year on record, while parts of central and south Routt saw temperatures in ranges that placed it among the top 10 percent of the record.

    Most of Routt County received below normal precipitation this year, though the area fared better than other parts of Colorado. The National Weather and Climate Center’s snow telemetry sites in the Routt County area received 70 to 80 percent of average precipitation this year, through July, August and September saw lower rainfall compared to historic averages.

    “Statewide, this was the fourth driest year in the 123-year record,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs. “It was fourth only to 2012, 1934 and 2002.”

    This year was the driest water year on record in southwest Colorado, western Moffat County and parts of the San Luis Valley, according to the Colorado Climate Center.

    Human-caused temperature increases and drought have caused earlier spring snowmelt and shifted runoff earlier in the year across the southwest, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

    “Not only are we in situations where we get less water, but we get it earlier, which makes for a longer season of need,” said Kevin McBride, district manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.

    His agency operates Stagecoach and Yamcolo reservoirs.

    The early runoff means producers kicked off the irrigation season earlier, too. Producers are also seeing longer growing seasons in Colorado, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    Reservoir water keeps flows up

    Drought conditions and warm temperatures have made supplementing the Yampa River’s natural flow with releases of reservoir water a consistent practice in recent years.

    Since 2012, the Colorado Water Trust has purchased reservoir water to supplement flows in the Yampa River. This year, Tri-State Generation and Transmission also released water from Elkhead Reservoir to keep up power generation at Craig Station.

    The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program releases water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide habitat for bonytail, razorback suckers, and humpback chub. These releases are determined based on the amount of water flowing by the U.S. Geological Survey’s stream gauge near Maybell in western Moffat County.

    “Obviously, when you have low flow years, you have warmer stream temperatures and then less habitat available to aquatic life,” Romero-Heaney said.

    In Steamboat, the river dropped to 50 cubic feet per second — low flow — during spawning season for brown trout, she added. That made habitat more difficult to come by, and Romero-Heaney said it could have impacts to fish populations in the upper Yampa.

    The Yampa Valley suffered major droughts in 2002 and 2012. In 2002, the USGS reported less than 10 cubic feet per second of flow at the Maybell gauge at the Yampa River’s lowest points in the summer, said Erin Light, area division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

    Reservoir releases likely kept the water higher than that mark this summer. The USGS streamflow gauges can’t show how much water is natural flow and how much is reservoir water, so stream gauge measurements don’t reflect the full picture when it comes to water…

    When the call was administered for about two weeks in September, the water at the Yampa’s lower reach through Dinosaur National Monument fell to about 18 cfs — its long-term average for the same time frame is about 260 cfs. At Lily Park, near the Little Snake River’s confluence with the Yampa, irrigators’ pumps were sweeping the river, Light said earlier this year.

    Planning for the future

    Romero-Heaney said flows on the Yampa in Steamboat were “extremely low,” falling below 34 cfs at the gauge at the Fifth Street Bridge in Steamboat…

    The city outlined its plans to purchase reservoir water on contract to boost flows in dry periods in the Yampa River Streamflow Management Plan released this summer. The plan also seeks to implement voluntary projects that would pay water users to participate in projects enhancing the health of the river.

    Earlier this year, some of the city’s water rights were curtailed in the call. As droughts and warm temperatures become more common, releases to augment river health will likely have to be balanced with releases to augment municipal water.

    A first-ever ‘call’ on the #YampaRiver as the climate veers warmer & weirder — The Mountain Town News

    Floating the tiger, Yampa River, 2014. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    In late August, as reservoirs levels declined across the American Southwest, Erin Light issued something common in most river basins of Colorado but which had never been done on the Yampa River. She issued a “call.”

    When a call is issued, those with newer or younger water rights must cease their diversions from the river and its tributaries until the older or more senior rights are satisfied. This system is called prior appropriation. Eighteen states in the West use aspects of prior appropriation to sort out who gets how much water and when.

    Light, as the division engineer for Colorado Division of Water Resources, administers the labyrinth of water rights in the Yampa River Valley. Water goes to ranches, a power plant, and other purposes, each occupying a specific place in the pecking order as determined by volumes, locations and, above all, date of adjudication. That’s the way it works when a river is under administration. Some Colorado rivers have been under administration since the late 1800s.

    Until this summer, the Yampa was different. Those with legally adjudicated water rights took what they thought was theirs. Calls had been placed on tributaries, but not the river itself.

    Then in late August, Light announced that those with water rights on the rivers’ main stem awarded since 1951 would have to cease diversions until those older, or seniors, had been satisfied. By mid-September, as irrigators slowed their demands and cooler temperatures eased losses from evaporation and transpiration, Light edged the call back to those rights junior to 1960. Last week, she suspended the call altogether.

    Droughts hit the Yampa and many other river basins in Colorado hard this year. But this drought may best be viewed as part of an extended 21st century drought caused more by temperature increases than precipitation declines. It’s part of a clear trend of a warming and more erratic climate.

    Ted Kowalski says the water call on the Yampa should be understood within the context of these hotter, drier times in the American Southwest. A former Colorado water official who is now senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative, Kowalski calls the Yampa River the first domino to fall.

    Lower streamflows in all the rivers of the Colorado River Basin that produce declining reservoir levels represent the additional dominoes.

    This is starkly demonstrated, says Kowalski, by the fact that reservoir storage in the Colorado River Basin has reached its lowest level since the late 1960s. That’s when the newly created Glen Canyon Dam was starting to create Lake Powell.

    “All of this underscores the importance of developing and adopting and agreeing to drought contingency plans so that we can effectively manage if and when there is less water in the system,” says Kowalski. The work begins, he says, with conservation.

    Conserving water in the 20th century

    Far into the 20th century, conservation had a different connotation in the West. Managing water in the Colorado River Basin meant building dams and creating reservoirs, all with the intent of ensuring none of the water was “wasted” by flowing into the ocean.

    Hoover Dam plugs the Colorado River on the Nevada-Arizona border. Photo December 2012/Allen Best

    Nearly all this major hydraulic engineering was done on the tab of the federal government. Downstream, first Powell and then Mead, the second largest and largest reservoirs in the nation, respectively, provide most of the storage. If separated by 300 miles and the Grand Canyon National Park, the two reservoirs fundamentally operate in tandem, as a Colorado River Research Group report in August noted. They are “essentially one giant reservoir (bisected by a glorious ditch),” the report said in a nod to the Grand Canyon.

    Reservoir levels rise after big snow years, but in the 21st century the more common trend has been decline.

    Evidence emerging in recent years suggests the Colorado River’s decline can best be explained by rising temperatures instead of reduced precipitation. In a 2017 paper, Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, and Jonathan Overpeck, the dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability, attributed two-thirds of water declines to temperature rather than precipitation. Not only is more water evaporating, they said, but plants have been transpiring more water.

    “This is the kind of drought we will have to deal with in the future,” Overpeck said at a water conference in Santa Fe during April.

    Doug Monger testifies to the warmer weather. A native of the Yampa Valley, he remembers 45-below temperatures, once in the 1980s for two days straight. Down the valley in Maybell, the temperature in that same cold spell hit 61 below. (It had also hit that same low in 1979.)

    “I always prayed for climate change and global warming,” he jokes.

    Now, he’s getting that warming. “We never had 90 degrees, and now it’s nothing to have 90-plus days for five or six days in a row.”

    That heat has been taking a toll on the snow. About three-quarters of the precipitation in the Colorado River Basin originates as snow. Colorado itself provides 70 percent of the water in the river.

    In the Yampa Basin, most of the snow collects in an elevation band of between 8,000 to 10,000 feet. The river originates on the flanks of the Flattops Wilderness Area as the Bear River, gurgles playfully along at the foot of the Gore Range and then, drawing more water from the usually snow-laden Park Range, hooks westward at Steamboat Springs for a 100-mile journey to Dinosaur National Monument.

    Beyond Dinosaur, the Yampa’s water eventually flows into the Utah desert and Lake Powell.

    The Park Range has a reputation as the snowiest place in Colorado. A gauge at 10,285-foot Buffalo Pass, located northeast of Steamboat Springs, reported 80 inches of water contained in the much deeper snowpack by early May on a recent, snow year.

    When spring arrives in years such as that, the Yampa gushes through Steamboat Springs well into summer. Flows needed for commercial tubing during summer represent one measure of winter’s legacy. Tubers are not allowed to use the river until flows drop below 700 cubic feet per second. That commonly isn’t possible until after the Fourth of July.

    This year, snowpack was better than in Southwest Colorado. Still, it came weeks early and was altogether modest in its surge. Tubing season in Steamboat began June 11. Commercial tubing season ended a month later, when it is usually starting. City and state wildlife officials asked all tubers and others river users to stay out. The river was dropping to 85 cfs, considered a critical threshold, and warming as it did, hitting 75 degrees, reported the Steamboat Pilot at the time.

    “If the river’s getting above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the aquatic life is severely stressed, and this is the time of year when they’re feeding, and they’re getting ready for winter,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the city water resources manager for Steamboat Springs.

    No relief came with summer, hot and dry. Clouds produced just a few drops.

    Water infrastructure in 21st century

    Light, the water engineer on the Yampa since 2006, tells a complicated story of why the first call was made this year and not during prior years. Water rights always get complicated. The immediate repercussion will be that investments will necessarily be made in the devices that assure flows. In the Yampa River it was a point of pride that there was no call, unlike places like the South Platte Basin. But almost everybody agrees it was inevitable.

    The Yampa River had almost no flows at Deerlodge Park, at the entrance to Dinosaur National Park, when this photo was taken in mid-August. Photo/Erin Light via The Mountain Town News

    That inevitably stems in large part to trends in hydrology. In 20th century hydrologic records, three drought years stand out: 1935, 1955, and 1977. Now, in this still young century, there have been three more: 2002, 2012 and 2018.

    “When you look at temperatures that were 5 to 10 degrees above average every day, that has to raise eyebrows about what the climate is saying,” she says.

    Changes in the Yampa River Basin have not been well documented, but anecdotally at least comport with statewide trends reported in a 2015 report to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. That report, “Climate Change in Colorado,” says statewide average temperatures had increased 2 degrees F during the previous 30 years, with daily minimum temperatures warming more than maximum temperatures. Timing of snowmelt and peak runoff had shifted earlier in spring by one to four weeks. Snowpack as measured by April readings had been mainly below-average since 2000.

    Anecdotal evidence of this abounds around Steamboat. Local ranchers long measured a winter’s severity by how deep it accumulated on their barbed wire fences. The 20th century produced many three-wire winters, enough snow to hit the top strand. Three-wire winters seldom come anymore. Last winter snow failed to reach the bottom wire. In some places, the was no snow at all on the ground, says Ken Brenner, who grew up on a ranch south of Steamboat Springs and is now president of the Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District Board of Directors.

    Light says the Snotel automated snowpack measuring sites fail to tell the full story. The stations maintained by the federal government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service record snow and water content at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. Some years, they report robust snow that cannot be seen in snow depths on the valley floor. This leaves locals wondering how this snowpack could be anywhere near normal. The rising levels for snowpack argue for a different monitoring system, says Light, one that captures dynamics of the low-elevation snowpack.

    Water infrastructure for 21st century climate

    Climate change models predict sharply increased temperatures in coming decades, Models also predict greater variability of precipitation, more extremes of both wet and dry. That could provide an argument for more reservoirs. The Yampa River has just 2 percent of Colorado’s reservoir capacity, but the river provides a much larger percentage of the state’s overall flows. The Gunnison River, with about the same runoff on average, has three giant federal dams, part of the same Congressional authorization in 1956 that created Lake Powell.

    The Yampa, White, and Green Basin Roundtable, a decision-making body created by the Colorado Legislature, agree that instead of giant reservoirs, the basin could benefit from smaller reservoirs, discretely located, such as on tributaries, to serve specific needs, reports Light, the state’s liaison to the roundtable.

    Monger does see the need for storage on the Yampa River. It could help Colorado manage its water so as to ensure it can meet its commitments to other states in the Colorado River Basin. “Let’s keep it in my backyard rather than sending it down to Lake Powell and have it be subject to the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Interior,” says Monger, a Routt County commissioner as well as a delegate to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Higher elevation storage, he says, will reduce evaporative losses from Lake Powell, about six and a half feet a year off the surface.

    About 90 percent of the Yampa’s total annual flows go downstream out of Colorado, ultimately to Lake Powell. That reservoir provides Colorado and other upper-basin states in the Colorado River Basin the ability to meet requirements for delivery of 8.3 million acre-feet annually to Arizona, California, and Nevada at Lake Mead.

    That obligation of 7.5 million acre-feet plus the upper basin’s share for Mexico was derived by negotiators who met at a resort near Santa Fe in 1922. Disregarding contrary evidence, they assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet average annual flows in the river and probably more. That rarely has been the case. In the hotter, drier 21st century, flows have been just 12.4 million acre-feet, say Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

    At a recent conference called “Risky Business on the Colorado River,” Kuhn warned against overdrawing Lake Powell, Lake Mead, and other reservoirs.

    “When you build reservoirs, you have to have some water. You have to have a little bit of money in the bank. We can’t bankrupt the system. We have to find ways to cut back before we bankrupt the system.”

    In Vail on Wednesday, Kuhn took his vision of difficulty for the Colorado River a step further. As long as greenhouse gas emissions go untamed, he said, “there is no bottom” to how hot and how dry the Colorado River Basin could become.

    It’s not that the past hasn’t also been drier. Kuhn looks to the past to warn against even more difficult times on the Yampa River and in the Colorado River Basin altogether. The evidence comes from examinations of batches of trees at eight different sites in the Colorado River Basin above Lee Ferry, located just above the Grand Canyon and below Lake Powell.

    Dendrochronologists can estimate precipitation by the growth of tree rings. Using that technique, they have charted wet and dry periods since 1434.

    Tree-ring research indicates there have been much more severe 19-year droughts in the Colorado River Basin than the current one—and without the impact of human-induced higher temperatures. Graphic via The Mountain Town News

    “A number of folks claim that the current 19-year period of 2000-2018 is the driest 19 year period on the Colorado River. That’s nonsense,” says Kuhn, pointing to the graph. In the past there have been droughts both longer and deeper. (Above, see estimated river flows at Lee Ferry, at the top end of the Grand Canyon, from 1434 to 2018. For underlying data, see http://treeflow.org).

    Those droughts occurred without the rising temperatures of today. “If these past 19-year droughts were to happen with today’s temperatures,” he adds, “things could be much worse.”

    This article was published in the Oct. 4 issue of Mountain Town News, a weekly e-magazine. To subscribe, see options in the red boxes in the top-right corner of the http://mountaintownnews.net webpage.

    #Drought news: #YampaRiver is closed again through Steamboat Springs

    From Colorado Public Radio (Natalia V. Navarro):

    The Yampa River in northwestern Colorado has closed again. Ongoing drought has drastically reduced water levels.

    Colorado Park and Wildlife instituted restrictions on commercial and public activity on the Yampa River this week. An earlier closure ended just 10 days previously.

    Commercial tubing companies have been instructed to suspend operations. Officials are requesting that public river users, including tubers, swimmers and anglers, adhere to the “voluntary closure” and stay out of the river.

    West Drought Monitor August 28, 2018.