Routt County agencies, agriculture groups refocus on irrigation water measuring devices
February 28, 2013
Steamboat Springs — The snow banks piling up across Steamboat Springs belie the fact Northwest Colorado still is in an extreme drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. And with the memory of last summer — when some farmers and ranchers holding senior water rights had their irrigation head gates shut down because they lacked proper flow-measuring devices — local officials already are preparing for smoother administration of area streams and rivers this summer.
Routt County CSU Extension agent Todd Hagenbuch said that as the drought continues into 2013, area water rights holders need to be prepared for continued administration of their water rights.
He is one of the organizers of a March 5 meeting in Steamboat intended to help irrigators better understand what steps they need to take, and what equipment they need to conform with Colorado state laws pertaining to accurate measurement of irrigation water being taken out of rivers.
"Because the Yampa Valley has been the land of plenty for so long, we've been a bit lax in how all of us have approached diversion and the legalities of diversion," Hagenbuch said. "I think last year was a real wake-up call that we won't always be the land of plenty. This year, we want to get ahead so people are aware of what steps they need to take prior to any (water) administration occurring."
The water stored in the snowpack above the combined Yampa/White river basins is looking better than last year, at 76 percent of average. But Hagenbuch observed that the Drought Mitigation Center is taking into account low soil level moisture that must be replenished by spring runoff this year.
In late August, with the Elk River flowing at just 29 cubic feet per second, water commissioner Brian Romig ruffled some feathers when he shut down eight irrigation ditches in the Elk River Valley because they didn't have flow-measuring devices to confirm the water rights holder was not taking more water from the Elk than he or she was entitled to. In addition, he pulled 20 pumps from the river because the pump owners did not have a decreed water right, did not have a measuring device or were removing water under a right that was junior to the state's right to protect a baseline flow to protect the health of the river.
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"Appropriate water-measuring devices, operable head gates and adequate diversion structures are not only necessary for landowners to make use of their water, but are also required by state law," Hagenbuch wrote.
But that doesn't mean it was easy for ranchers to come to terms with the need to comply with state laws that previously did not have to be enforced because of an abundance of water.
Last summer marked a new era in the Yampa/Elk river valleys when irrigators no longer can assume there is ample water, and Division 6 Water Engineer Erin Light praised Romig for following through on a tough job.
This year, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the Extension office, the Community Agriculture Alliance, the Routt County Conservation District, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and Trout Unlimited are hosting this week's meeting to get ahead of the drought.
They will discuss possible funding opportunities for bringing irrigation structures into compliance, Hagenbuch said. And vendors of irrigation measurement and control devices will display their products.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com