Craig City Council members said they would put a call on the Yampa River, causing upstream users to lose their water, before they would release water from city reserves, but irrigators aren't in jeopardy of losing water yet.
The Craig City Council authorized city staff members to decide whether to release water from Elkhead Reservoir, put a call on the river, which prevents users with rights junior to the city's from using it, or both if the need arises, which it nearly did last week.
Low flows on the Yampa River caused the state water commissioner to threaten the closure of the Deep Cut Ditch, the city's most senior right to the river. If that were to happen, the city's only options would be to call the river or release from Elkhead.
City staff members, including Public Works Director Bill Earley, recommended the city make it a policy to put a call on the river before releasing reserves from Elkhead despite the potential political backlash from that decision.
"At this point now, I'm a little hesitant to use our reserves just so junior users can irrigate," he said.
The first week of September, the U.S. Geological Survey had charted zero natural flow on the Yampa River, meaning all the water coming down was being released from reservoirs.
As of last week, 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water was being released from Stagecoach Reservoir Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Another 15 cfs were released from Steamboat Lake by Excel Energy and Tri-State and its partners for the Craig Station Power Plant were releasing 20 cfs from Elkhead.
Tri-State has since stopped the release from Elkhead Reservoir.
Of that water being released, only 24 cfs was measured below Elkhead on Sept. 10, meaning the water released is being lost somewhere many think to irrigators along the river who own junior water rights which means the people who own the water are not getting it.
"We may have to call the river just so we get the water we release," Earley said.
Five cfs were measured running below the Craig Station Power Plant.
"That's very little water," Earley said.
On Sept. 6, the city was next in line to be told to close its intake, release from Elkhead or make a call on the river.
Luckily, timely rains prevented the need for a decision, Earley said, but there continues to be a threat.
"The rains saved us," Earley said. "Luckily we haven't had to make that decision."
According to Earley, there are seven Colorado communities that are totally without water.
"I really don't want to be one of those," he said.
He asked the council to give him direction as to what decision to make if ever faced with extreme low flows again.
Council members agreed placing a call on the river was the most prudent thing to do.
"When you put a call on the river, you're protecting your reserves," Councilor Bill Johnston said. "At this time of year, I think we have to be looking forward to next year."
Early said surviving this month was the key. Next month irrigation will taper off, decreasing the demand on the water coming down the Yampa River.
"We're not that far away from irrigation being totally stopped," he said.
In handing the decision to call or release to its staff, the Craig City Council also offered guidelines.
Once a decision to place a call on the river has been made, city residents will automatically be placed at Phase III of the water conservation plan, which means outdoor watering will be limited to every third day.
Violators of the restrictions outlined in Phases III will incur a fine of $15 to $300.
The city of Craig uses 6 million gallons of water a day during peak usage in the summer months and 1 million gallons per day during the winter. That shows what can be saved by banning, or even restricting, outdoor use, City Manager Jim Ferree said.
Council members debated the level of conservation that should be linked to a release or a call on the river.
"My gut tells me Phase III is the way to go," Johnston said. "If we're putting a call on the river, we ought to be more restrictive."
Going directly to Phase IV would be too restrictive, City Parks and Recreation Department Director Dave Pike said. At that level, residents who have invested tax dollars in landscaping parks would lose what they've paid to build.
"We have a big investment in landscaping," he said.
There is already opposition to the city's decision to call the river before it makes a release. The Colorado River Water Conservation District has asked the city not to place a call on the river because the river will then become adjudicated, meaning there is more demand than there is water. Once a river is adjudicated, those developing in a place where they would have to use the river as a water source would be forced to create a plan of augmentation showing the development won't interfere with any other user's water rights. That means developers would have to purchase water from a reservoir so they could release an amount of water into the river that would be equal to what would be taken out for the development.
A river is adjudicated forever after a call is placed on it. According to Earley, the Yampa is one of the only major rivers that has not been adjudicated.
Johnston said he doesn't see that as a problem in his decision to place a call before releasing reserves.
"Isn't it also prudent to plan for where you're going to get water for future development?" he said.
Early said the immediate danger of having to make that decision has passed with recent heavy rains, but he said it is good he now has the authority to make a quick decision if one needs to be made.
"With all this rain, we won't have to worry about it," Councilor Don Jones said.