Prepare for a dry year

The bad news is it's going be another dry year.

The good news is it won't be as dry as 2002, when the Maybell irrigation ditch ran dry for two weeks.

Such were the predictions of speakers at the Yampa River Basin Water Forum on Thursday night in Hayden. Billed by organizers as a water 101 course, the forum focused on water law and the current and future issues facing water in Colorado.

"It appears 2004 is going to go in the history books as an especially dry year," Lori Jazwik, director of the Routt National Resources Conservation Service, told the 65 people at the forum.

Snowpack for the Yampa and White River basins is estimated at 33 percent of average, Jazwik said. That puts the basins in a situation similar to 2001, when stream flow in Moffat County fell 70 percent below average.

However, the Yampa Valley is in better shape than many parts of the state, if only because it's one of the few basins where water is under appropriated, said Margaret O'Donnell, a Steamboat water attorney.

Water is appropriated to users according to the year in which they received their water rights, O'Donnell explained. A family that received water rights from the state at the turn of the century has priority over a user who received rights 25 years ago.

But these rights are administered only when there isn't enough water to meet right-holders' needs. This is the case at Fish Creek and Walton Creek in Steamboat, but in most of the Yampa River Basin, there is more water than residents can use, O'Donnell said.

Moreover, kayakers have won in-stream flow rights in South Routt County. In-stream flow rights ensure that a certain amount of water will not be diverted from a stretch of river. In this case, enough water will remain in the South Routt stretch of the Yampa River to maintain the current conditions of kayak courses.

This is good news for Moffat County, which is downstream from the kayak courses.

"The in-stream flow creates new opportunities for rights downstream. It ensures pretty sizable flows will continue," O'Donnell said.

But if much of the Yampa River's water remains unappropriated, the residents of the Yampa River Basin could be harmed in the long-run, said Moffat County Commissioner Darryl Steele. Steele is also a board member with the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, a group dedicated to planning the future of water in each of Colorado's basins.

If residents of the Gunnison and Colorado river basins appropriate their water before Yampa River Basin residents appropriate theirs, Steele said he could foresee a scenario in which the Yampa River Basin is forced to provide most of the water for downstream users in California and Arizona.

"We need to be very diligent to make sure the state doesn't do that," Steele said. He suggested each basin provide the historic percentage from previously established downstream agreements. This would ensure no single basin shouldered the responsibility for providing another area's water.

Steele said the initiative predicted that agricultural land in Moffat County could increase by as much as 40,000 acres if the beef market becomes more profitable. Because agriculture uses more water than any other group or industry, an increase in agriculture would require a substantial increase in water.

Steele said the initiative is looking for unused areas along the Yampa River that could store the needed water. Small reservoirs could be established along Williams Fork and Fortification Creek, he said.

But because the agriculture industry couldn't afford these expansions, Steele said the increased storage areas could be used for multiple uses, such as recreation, wildlife and fish, and entities interested in these uses could help fund the project.

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