A letter sent out recently to farmers and ranchers between the Elkhead River and Dinosaur National Monument by the Colorado Division of Water Resources has raised concerns with many river water users in Moffat County.
Part of the $7 million expansion of Elkhead Reservoir, scheduled for completion this fall and reopening in summer 2007, is intended to aid the recovery of a number of endangered fish species in the Yampa River. Five thousand acre-feet of the new storage at the reservoir is reserved by the fish recovery program to augment late summer flows in the river.
To ensure the fish are getting the amounts of water being released for their survival, the division has asked water users downstream to add either partial flumes or weirs to gauge the water flow into their ditches or irrigation systems.
A weir is a device that slows the water flowing into a diversion to an exact amount.
"A large part of the Elkhead expansion project was to store water to be released later," water engineer Erin Light said. "Water must remain in the stream to protect the fish populations. When released, we want insurance that it will get where it's intended to go."
Light works for the State of Colorado Division of Water Resources, and was the originator of the letter.
Water rights on the rivers of Colorado have been a point of contention for over a century, and this next round is shaping up to be no different.
Moffat County Commissioner Darryl Steele is fighting any effort to have the landowners pay for construction projects or measuring devices placed on the river.
"It is not fair if the United States wants to save endangered fish, to put the burden on local water users," Steele said. "We were assured by the fish recovery group that the program would not cost the users."
Steele said a group of river users checked into costs of fish screens, head gates and measuring devices for the irrigation ditches, and its lawsuit was shelved when it received assurances from the fish recovery group that no cost would fall to the users.
Water rights to Yampa River water often came with property being homesteaded in the valley more than 125 years ago. The older the ranch, the more senior the water rights.
If a rancher with senior water rights is not getting the water he is entitled to receive, he can place a "call" on the river, where the holders of junior water rights upstream are required to stop their diversions and allow the water to flow to the senior rights holder.
If the river is not under a "call" administration, those with junior water rights or no rights at all can pump water from the Yampa to use, even for lawn watering.
The Maybell Ditch, which supplies irrigation water to its 15 irrigation district members, was constructed in 1896, and is a senior water rights holder to anyone coming after that year.
Steele said river water users have been getting along with each other for well over a century without problems, by just being good neighbors.
"Historically, there has never been a call on the Yampa River," Steele said. "By communication and negotiation, people have always cooperated when it comes to water issues."
He said there are a number of problems with the idea of putting measuring devices on every tap into the river.
The cost estimated for constructing a weir on the inlet for the Maybell Ditch runs near $6,500 for the device, and an additional $4,500 for the installation, Steele said. That $11,000 total is more than the entire yearly operating budget of the ditch.
Another problem is that for someone to put a call on the Yampa River, they would need to be able to totally divert the river and accurately measure the water in that diversion, Steele said.
The letter from the Division of Water Resources states that a formal order may be issued if head gates and measuring devices are not installed voluntarily, and Steele said most users will be forced to comply.
"Financially, people can't afford not to take water out of the river," he said. "People will really try to comply."
Water issues in Colorado are becoming increasingly important as demand increases and supplies fluctuate with drought periods sometimes lasting for decades.
Light points out that growth and other developments are putting an increasing strain on the river. She estimates that by the year 2030, Grand Junction will not have enough water for its citizens, and the gas and oil development in the Piceance Creek area already is shifting water ownership as companies such as Exxon begin to buy up water rights from local ranchers.
"We are seeing a shift from agricultural to industrial use for water in the Piceance Creek area," Light said. "It's an area under great change."