Local and regional representatives expressed "serious" concerns in the past two weeks about the recent Yampa River water right filing by Shell Frontier Oil & Gas.
Both the Moffat County Land Use Board and the Yampa/White/Green Basins Roundtable presented the same concerns to Shell officials - that their company's large water use potentially could close the Yampa River to any future development.
Shell's water right application presents a plan to take 375 cubic feet of water per second out of the river from two diversion points about three miles upstream from the base of Cross Mountain.
Roundtable members agreed that is not a lot of water to pull at once, as peak flows around springtime there usually exceed 11,000 cubic feet a second.
That said, the size of Shell's water consumption is worrisome, Roundtable chairman Tom Sharp said.
The company plans to pipe its water about 1.5 miles south to a 45,000 acre-feet reservoir in Cedar Springs Draw. Such a water body would be "substantial" in size, said Jeff Comstock, Moffat County Natural Resources Department director.
By comparison, Shell's reservoir would be more than twice as big as Elkhead Reservoir.
The water then would be pumped south to Rio Blanco County, into another site off Yellow Creek.
Shell officials said Yampa River water would be used along with water from the White River and other sources to aid in the production of fuels from oil shale, should that resource ever become feasible to produce.
Company officials also added the project is 10 to 15 years or more away from realization.
However, when Shell plans to begin drawing water isn't the biggest issue, Sharp said at the Roundtable's Jan. 21 meeting.
Shell's application did not include any limits on how much water it could pull from the Yampa River each year, he said.
Without a limit, Sharp added, the company could pull all the remaining water available for development, thus potentially closing it to any future uses without federal approval.
Any new rights filed between now and when Shell begins developing also may have to shut down or go through a federal review process.
"The draft on the river jeopardizes the entire basin," Sharp said. "It essentially makes us over-appropriated on the river from your diversion, upstream."
Development is not the only thing that lays claim to the river, Sharp pointed out. There are four species of fish in the river with the federal government's attention.
Four endangered fish species swim through the Yampa River.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established a recovery program in 1988 to help the fish survive in the upper Colorado River Basin, which includes the Yampa River.
The program uses a cooperative agreement to manage water usage instead of requiring regulations.
In 2004, U.S. and Fish and Wildlife released a Programmatic Biological Opinion that set a limit for how much water could be taken out of the river and not jeopardize the endangered species.
There is about 110,000 acre-feet of water taken out each year now, and about 54,000 acre-feet left for future development, said Dan Birch, Colorado River Water Conservation District deputy general manager.
Absent an unusual proposal, such as Shell's, the Yampa River likely could sustain another 30 years of development, he added.
But, if Shell fills a 45,000 acre-feet reservoir multiple times each year, its water use would take up everything left, Birch said.
Planning for the future
Oil shale is not a response to high oil prices, said James Thurman, Shell government affairs manager.
"It's a longtime commitment to providing energy," he said.
Similarly, his company's Yampa River water filing also is an anticipation of future needs, not only for Shell, but other water users.
"The reason we wanted to have a diversity of water sources - including the White River - is because we want to have the flexibility to meet our needs while minimizing the impacts on other users," said Tracy Boyd, Shell communications and sustainability manager.
The company cannot specify how much water it will use, or how many times it will need to take water from the river, because the project is years away, Boyd added. The application is open-ended on purpose for that reason, he said.
But, there will be natural limits on its ability to pump water, including Shell's obligation to get in line behind every other current water user on the river.
"Our water right is going to be junior to every other right on the river as of now," Boyd said. "Nature may take care of some of this, because when the river isn't at peak flows, we might not be able to take anything. I don't think it would even be realistic for us to believe we could take the whole 375 cubic feet (of water) out of the river at one time."
At its Jan. 12 meeting, the Land Use Board voted unanimously to recommend the Moffat County Commission file in opposition to Shell's application. Members stressed afterward, though, that the term "opposition" does not reflect the board's intent.
"That's just the word that's used so that we can be a part of the process," said T. Wright Dickenson, Land Use Board member and a former county commissioner.
Shell's project likely will have a profound impact on the river and its users, said Commissioner Tom Gray, who also is a Land Use Board member.
The county won't be able to file its opposition with the water court in Steamboat Springs for another few weeks, Gray added, so the Commission won't take a formal vote on the issue until a later time.
The Roundtable probably will never become officially involved, Sharp said, though it may vote to oppose the project.
Roundtable members, who hail from various government and water district authorities, also may urge their respective agencies to get involved via opposition papers, he added.
"We are not a regulatory body. We are an advisory body," Sharp said. "And it's too early to say what any of this will become. It's all very interesting, though, especially to all the people here."