Kent Vertrees, of The Friends of the Yampa, steers a paddle boat down the ancient sandstone canyons carved by the Yampa River in Moffat County.

Photo by Tom Ross

Kent Vertrees, of The Friends of the Yampa, steers a paddle boat down the ancient sandstone canyons carved by the Yampa River in Moffat County.

New urgency in planning water needs

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OARS rafting guide Russell Schubert knows the currents and the moods of the Yampa and Green rivers in Dinosaur National Monument like few others. He can navigate the river’s rapids with finesse while at the same time rowing a heavily loaded 18-foot raft.

The question mulled around the evening campfires by the members of the Yampa River Awareness Project expedition was not only whether the Yampa is worth preserving in its current state but also how that might be done while meeting the West’s demand for more water for human consumption.

Less than a month before we launched our rafts at Deer Lodge Park, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order calling on the Colorado Water Conservation Board to act on the state’s grass-roots Basin Roundtables process to draft a statewide water plan by December 2014 and finalize that plan by December 2015.

Hickenlooper’s executive order issued in May takes note of the fact that the past two decades have been the warmest on record since the 1890s and that the state is faced with a gap between water supply and demand that could grow to 500,000 acre-feet by 2050.

To put that number in perspective, Dillon Reservoir’s capacity is a little more than half that amount at 257,304 acre-feet. And the capacity of Stagecoach Reservoir in South Routt County is just 33,275 acre-feet. One acre-foot is the equivalent of 325,851 gallons

Ted Kowalski, a participant in the Yampa River trip, is the chief of the interstate and federal section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. It’s his responsibility to make certain that Colorado gets all of the water to which it is entitled under the 1922 compact that divides the water for the Colorado Basin among the seven upper and lower basin states.

Although Kowalski was guarded in his comments to his fellow rafters, he pointed out that the basin roundtable process has been ongoing since 2005 and that the report requested by the governor will conclude that process.

“We will have a statewide plan by 2015,” Kowalski said.

“What role does the Yampa play now?” Soren Jesperson, of the Wilderness Society, asked Kowalski.

“You have huge amounts of available water to meet the compact (obligation) in the Yampa River,” Kowalski replied.

Governor Hickenlooper expressed concern this spring that the prolonged drought will hasten the widening of the water gap.

The 1922 Colorado River Basin Compact divides the available water in the Colorado River system among the upper and lower basin states. It provided for the upper basins states — including, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — to send 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually to the lower basin states — including California, Arizona and Nevada — while keeping an equal amount for themselves.

Complicating the position of Colorado along with the other upper basin states is the realization that the Colorado River Basin historically has not produced as much water as people thought in 1922.

Modern scientists have determined by studying tree ring growth on the Colorado Plateau that the 1922 compact was based upon a period of years when the Colorado River system carried an unusual abundance of water. Going forward, there is not likely to be 16.5 million acre-feet to share (including 1.5 million apportioned to Mexico). California has grown accustomed to using surplus water leftover from other states to meet its needs. That includes substantial water leaving Colorado in the Colorado and the Yampa rivers.

“What we all know now is that 16.5 million is certainly higher than the normal amount of water in the Colorado Basin,” John Sanderson said. He is the director of conservation science for the Colorado Nature Conservancy.

The actual requirement placed on the upper basin states is that they send 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the lower basin on a 10-year rolling average.

Ken Brenner, of Steamboat Springs and a board member of Friends of the Yampa and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, pointed out that basing the upper basin states’ obligation to the lower basin states on a 10-year average creates opportunity for filling reservoirs.

“On a year where there is 10 (million acre-feet), they get their 7.5,” and the upper basin can store water. “We’ll never renegotiate it better,” Brenner said.

Sanderson compared the terms of the 1922 water compact to the Microsoft computer operating system that nobody loves but begrudgingly accepts as the standard.

“Most of us accept that the compact is here to stay,” he said.

Protecting water rights

The governor in his executive order pointed out that the state need to be ever vigilant in protecting its interstate water rights.

Further, he observed that Coloradans find unacceptable the rate at which productive agricultural lands in the state are being dewatered by commercial sales for other uses.

Hickenlooper called on the Colorado Water Conservation Board to draft a water plan that would “streamline the state role in the approval and regulatory processes regarding water projects,” but in the same paragraph, he called for an emphasis in the new plan on expediting permit processes for water projects that stress conservation, innovation and collaboration.

“Efficient infrastructure that promote smart land use, healthy watersheds that support Colorado’s rivers and streams, and smart water conservation practices that utilize demand management are examples of criteria that are to be considered,” the governor’s order declares. But the new water plan also must fully honor the doctrine of priority of appropriation of water rights contained in the Colorado Constitution, which essentially gives priority to senior water rights over junior water rights.

The implications of Hickenlooper’s order for the Yampa aren’t clear, but the question of the week could be boiled down to: “Will the new plan result in new water storage projects or the expansion of existing storage projects on the Yampa River system?”

Seven years ago, two water developers were looking at hugely expensive plans to pump unappropriated Yampa River water hundreds of miles eastward to the hungry Front Range of Colorado.

Matt Rice, director of Colorado conservation for American Rivers, said in the midst of last month’s float trip that those proposals are not the immediate threat that they once appeared to be.

“Right now, the Yampa pumpback project is not (economically) feasible, and there is no proponent,” Rice said.

And the Colorado governor’s mandate for a water plan comes against the backdrop of a profound announcement by former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar about six months earlier.

Salazar announced that findings in a new Colorado River Basin study essentially concluded that over the next 50 years there won’t be enough water in the Colorado River Basin to always meet demand. Or as the study funded and prepared by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the seven basin states prefer to put it, we can look forward to water supply and demand imbalances during the next five decades.

That especially will be true in a scenario of rapid population growth fueling more industrial and municipal demand for water than ever before.

The study assumes that the population served by the Colorado River Basin will grow from the current 40 million people to as many as 76.5 million by 2060.

This year, the Bureau of Reclamation began taking meaningful steps toward keeping water in the Colorado by awarding grants to local governments and water districts with creative approaches to water conservation.

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Warm Springs Rapid with OARS Rafting company

Yampa River Awareness Project 2013

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