Yampa Pumpback project discussed

Public comments heard at roundtable meeting

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Douglas Wellman came to the Yampa/White Basin Roundtable meeting Wednesday in part to express his opinion about the proposal to build a reservoir near Maybell and pump the water back to the eastern Colorado.

"By taking that water, you dilute the political and economic ability on this side of the divide," said Wellman, a roundtable member. "I want to see an acre-foot of water stored on this side for every acre-foot leaving the Western Slope."

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The nine basin roundtables were created to facilitate discussions on water issues and encourage locally-driven solutions in each of the state's major river basins and the Denver metropolitan area.

Wellman was not alone in his concerns about the Yampa Pumpback project, currently in the early proposal stages of development.

When opponents of the project were asked to stand at Wednesday's meeting, about 15 of the 60 spectators present took the opportunity to be counted.

The $4 billion proposal calls for a 500,000 acre-foot reservoir to be constructed near Maybell in either the Sand or Spring Creek drainages.

The reservoir would be 20 times the size of Elkhead Reservoir, or comparable to the size of Lake Granby.

Water from the reservoir would be pumped via a 200-mile long pipeline to a location near Barr Lake on the Front Range, where pipelines already are being built to Denver.

"Eastern Colorado is experiencing agriculture dry-up, where the farmer's water rights have been purchased by municipalities," said Carl Brouwer, project manager for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. "The fact that those farms can never irrigate again concerns us as a district."

Brouwer noted that the output of all of the rivers on the Front Range doesn't equal the volume of water leaving the state on the Western Slope.

The Maybell storage site makes sense, he said, as it is below most recreational use, and the flow is great enough for diversions during high runoff periods.

There are many questions yet to be answered about the Yampa Pumpback project, and Brouwer admitted a number of studies have not even started.

"Have you done a study on the wildlife impact?" asked Catherine Carson of Steamboat Springs. "There are many elk-sensitive areas and migration routes where these pipelines need to go."

"No," Brouwer answered.

"Are you looking at lawn-watering changes in Denver? What about limiting growth there?" Turner DuPont of Moffat County wanted to know. "You're saying we pay the price for Denver's lawn-watering?"

"Yes," Brouwer replied.

Also questioned was the recently expanded Elkhead Reservoir, enlarged in part to help the recovery of endangered fish species, while siphoning water out of the same river for pumping east.

Brouwer explained that no pumping would occur during low-flow periods in the river, the same time period in which Elkhead would be releasing water for the endangered fish.

A lot of "ifs" have to be answered before the project can move forward, Brouwer said, but he also called the proposed project "realistic."

A rough timeline shows the system delivering water to Denver by 2023, with financing and the Colorado River Compact big obstacles still remaining ahead.

Brouwer said the size of the project makes it cost prohibitive to private investors, and many questions remain about the impact on down-stream states that are members of the Colorado River Compact, an agreement on water rights between seven states dating back to 1922.

"During the severe drought of 2003-04, farmers were paid to not use water. With the agriculture dry-up, eastern Colorado is experiencing, that bumper goes away," Bouwer said. "This is an economically feasible alternative to agriculture dry-up."

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