Snow lingers around Stillwater Reservoir in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in this August 2006 photo. A regional water board is addressing the use of state funds for improvements to Stillwater. Funding for small water projects is creating local debate after a Moffat County rancher on Wednesday requested state dollars for a private project.

File photo

Snow lingers around Stillwater Reservoir in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in this August 2006 photo. A regional water board is addressing the use of state funds for improvements to Stillwater. Funding for small water projects is creating local debate after a Moffat County rancher on Wednesday requested state dollars for a private project.

Rancher asks for water funds

Request raises eyebrows at Yampa/White River Basin meeting

— A leading Northwest Colorado water official received initial support Wednesday to use state funds for a study assessing a potential private reservoir on his family ranch.

T. Wright Dickinson is a rancher, former Moffat County commissioner and a member of Colorado's Interbasin Compact Committee, which addresses statewide water issues. On Wednesday night at Olympian Hall in Steamboat Springs, Dickinson asked the Yampa/White River Basin Roundtable - a regional water oversight group - to recommend approval of $16,000 in state funding for a feasibility and geotechnical study for Sparks Reservoir. If built, Sparks Reservoir would store 1,200 acre-feet of water on Vermillion Ranch, owned by Dickinson's family for 123 years. Dickinson is a member of the roundtable but did not vote on the decision.

The roundtable's recommendation of approval will be included in Dickinson's application to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which has the final say on such funding allocations.

Steamboat Springs attorney Tom Sharp said Dickinson's proposal - which would use state funds for a single-entity, private water project - is the first of its kind in the region but complies with state statute.

Vermillion Ranch is more than 50 miles northwest of Maybell in Moffat County and extends into Wyoming and Utah.

"It's a huge family ranch," said Sharp, who has served as a director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District since 1977 and leads the Yampa/White roundtable group.

Vermillion Ranch Limited Partnership has 11 holdings of various sizes filed with the Moffat County Assessor's Office.

Dickinson declined to state the size of his family's ranch - "That's not a polite Western question," he said - but stressed the importance of securing its water future.

"Given the current financial state of agriculture, rising costs and our changing climatic conditions, it is essential for me to try to find a way to shore up my water supplies," Dickinson said. "SB 179 was developed specifically to address the water needs and assist the water users in the state of Colorado."

Senate Bill 179, sponsored by Hesperus Democrat Jim Isgar and signed into law by then-Gov. Bill Owens in 2006, uses severance taxes to create a fund for, according to the bill, "the development and conservation of the state's water resources."

In a Capitol report to the Cortez Journal in April 2006, Isgar wrote that SB 179 "provides funding to the Colorado Water Conservation Board so that they can make grants or loans to entities that need financial assistance with the upfront costs of water development projects. It is difficult for small entities to fund feasibility studies and environmental permitting costs."

Conflict question

Roundtable member and Phippsburg resident Dan Craig cast one of three votes against Dickinson's proposal, citing Dickinson's influence in regional and state water decisions.

"You've got the inside track on all this stuff," Craig said to Dickinson. "To be honest, I'd be embarrassed to bring one of these (proposals) in here, just because of the conflict of interest."

Dickinson refuted that idea Thursday morning.

"No, there is no conflict of interest. While the roundtable is a quasi-governmental entity, I followed all the legal and ethical practices of disclosure that is required when a member of a board would benefit by any action taken by that board," he said. "I am no different than any other citizen of Colorado or water user in the state of Colorado."

Before the vote, roundtable members acknowledged the proposal could set a precedent.

"We're going to be opening ourselves up to every private landowner in Northwest Colorado to do the same thing," roundtable member Geoff Blakeslee said.

But Sharp said Thursday that other proposals are unlikely, given the huge challenges of constructing a reservoir as an economically viable project.

"You can't afford to build a reservoir for just hay and cows," Sharp said.

Should Sparks Reservoir be built, Dickinson did not deny the possibility of selling some of its water to rapidly growing energy interests on the Western Slope.

"We're not at that stage yet. First, I've got to see if I've got a viable reservoir site," Dickinson said. "Potentially, these projects can serve multiple uses, yes."

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