Water resource officials express concern over Yampa River rights

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It is time to start working on a plan for water conservation that would benefit northwest Colorado while the state is in remission from the heavy drought period of last summer.

That was the consensus of a meeting held at the Moffat County Courthouse this week in which 17 people gathered to discuss the future of the Yampa River and water conservation.

Many present possess or represent entities that possess water rights on the Yampa, including the city of Maybell, Deep Cut Ditch and the city of Craig.

One issue discussed was "placing a call" on the Yampa River during drought conditions. This could cause a cascade of problems for people who seek new water rights, according to three members of the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

A call on the river is a request by an individual or an entity that possesses water rights on the Yampa River to divert the share of water to which they are entitled. The Yampa River is the only river in Colorado that has never had a call placed on it, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

"Everyone (who has rights) has the legal right to place the call, but no one is prepared for the impact of placing that call," said T. Wright Dickinson, a former Moffat County commissioner and member of the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

Anyone wishing to place a call on the river would have to call the Colorado Division of Water Resources and request the water. Before a call on the river would be honored, however, the persons placing that call would have to prove that they have the measuring equipment and the capacity to take in their legal amount at their access point, Dickinson said.

So far, Colorado communities in the northwest have proven to be good neighbors and have not called on their water rights, said Bob Plaska from the Colorado Division of Water Resources. Certain people took less water last summer than their legal claim to help out others, Plaska said.

"I think that we (the city of Craig) always had enough water," said Jim Feree, city manager, who explained that last year the city made a conservation plan that went all the way up to and included putting a call on the Yampa River.

If the river were over-appropriated in the future, people who wish to apply for well permits would only be able to procure in-house use unless they had an augmentation plan. This would include future building projects, unless they were able to procure augmentation, which is a court-approved plan to divert water out of order, according to Plaska.

"Technically once the system (Yampa River) has gone under administration there is a problem issuing well permits," Plaska said. "It (a call on the river) is serious from the standpoint that it triggers other actions."

But not everyone at the meeting agreed with that view.

Dickinson said that while in the short term it might be a challenge that no one is prepared for at this time but, from a policy standpoint, it would be a good experience.

A call on the river can be for a year or can be for a shorter period of time, Plaska said.

Other issues discussed at the meeting included the development of a small reservoir system for more small water storage and looking into the possibility of developing a contained aquifer.

"It is essential that we as water users push for more small reserves," said Moffat County Commissioner Darryl Steele.

"We are going to see the draught again," said Dan Birch of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. "There is a draught usually every 20 years but in my opinion it is just a matter of time (until a call is placed on the Yampa). I am a little concerned with what will happen in the water court system."

Right now most applicants have no legal council and there is no opposition to their applications but that will change.

According to Birch, challenges already have occurred in some places in Colorado.

"I want people to know fundamental rights will change, it is in everyone's interest to delay the inevitable (the administration of the Yampa) as long as possible," Birch said.

In the end, those who attended the meeting agreed to meet again and try to iron out possible plans for future water conservation in northwest Colorado.

"It would benefit us to see where all our cards are," Dickinson said of the opportunity to start looking into the water issue before drought conditions return.

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