Steamboat Springs American Rivers, the national conservation organization, on Wednesday ranked the upper Colorado River Basin — and by implication the Yampa River with it — among its 10 most endangered rivers in the country.
The Colorado was named the most endangered river in the U.S. in 2013, but the deepening drought in California has supplanted it, and the San Joaquin River, which feeds a key agricultural region and now runs dry in some segments, is at the top of the list in 2014.
A nearby tributary of the Colorado, the White River, is No. 7 on the list because of the amount of energy exploration taking place along its length, American Rivers’ Director of the Colorado River Basin Program Matt Rice said Wednesday.
The threat of future trans-mountain diversion that would export water from the upper Colorado to the state’s Front Range is the reason the basin ranks high among the top 10 again in 2014. However, Rice said, it’s also the process already underway to establish a new water plan for Colorado that is putting the focus on the Colorado and Yampa rivers.
“We want to make sure common-sense principles are included and prioritized in Colorado’s new water plan. We want healthy rivers to be a core component,” Rice said. “And we want to make sure this plan doesn’t support a new trans-basin project. That’s why it’s No. 2 on our list this year.”
Steamboat resident Ken Vertrees is uniquely situated in the ongoing discussions about the future of the Yampa as it fits into the Upper Colorado Basin and the water needs of all of Colorado. He sits on the combined Yampa, White, Green river basin roundtable that was tasked by Gov. John Hickenlooper in May 2013 with coming up with a water plan for this basin that will be incorporated into a statewide draft plan in December 2014 and ultimately into the finalized Colorado Water Plan due to be completed no later than Dec. 10, 2015.
In addition, Vertrees sits on the board of the Steamboat-based nonprofit, Friends of the Yampa, which is a partner with American Rivers on its 10 most endangered project. He said the rivers of the upper Colorado have in-basin needs of their own to meet before other basins come after their water.
“The state has a 20 percent gap in water supply going out to 2050. That’s the whole impetus for everything we’re doing right now,” he said.
Vertrees thinks there is potential for the people of the Yampa Basin to become a “complete loser” in the statewide planning process as water officials seek to close that gap either by redirecting water across the state or conserving, or both.
One presumption is that the Front Range, where 82 percent of the state’s population is located, will seek the last great trans-mountain diversion, with water now leaving the state in the Yampa, on its way to the Green and ultimately the Colorado, one of the primary targets.
The possibility of spending several billions of dollars to capture some of the water leaving Colorado in the Yampa and pumping it eastward across the Continental Divide to the Front Range surfaced in the middle of the past decade. But two proposals to do just that since have languished.
Rice said this week that does not mean the concept has gone away.
“There are very powerful water interests that really want a new trans-basin diversion,” he said. “A multibillion dollar project is hard to comprehend in this economic climate. But as long as the Yampa has ample water in it, I would suggest it’s going to be a threat.”
Vertrees said the White/Yampa/Green river basin has been dealt a couple of trump cards — climate change and endangered fish.
The unappropriated water in the Yampa that is allowed to leave the state may offer Colorado’s best assurances that in times of protracted drought, Vertrees said, it will be able to meet its obligations to lower basin states such as Nevada, Arizona and California under the 1922 water compact.
When it comes to the endangered fishes in the Colorado Basin, like the Colorado pikeminnow, U.S. Fish and Wildlife has determined that the ongoing recovery of the fish would be disrupted if more than a fixed amount of water is removed from the Yampa and its tributary, the Little Snake River. A pump-back that exceeds that amount certainly would meet with resistance from the federal government.
Ultimately, Vertrees said, he’s hopeful that the state of Colorado as a whole will recognize the intrinsic value of the Yampa in its lower reaches as a wild desert river that supports a rare community of plants and animals.
“It’s a very scary time, in some ways, for our river and our basins,” Vertrees said. “Our non-consumptive water rights are critical to the health of the river. It maintains globally rare habitats and federally endangered fish that are found nowhere else. Isn’t that critical for us, as the state of Colorado, to protect forever?”
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1