Yampa River waters a hot commodity | CraigDailyPress.com

Yampa River waters a hot commodity

Northwest Colorado residents, legislators discuss future allocation

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, District 6, speaks to attendees of Wednesday's Water Resource Review Committee meeting in Craig. A range of Northwest Colorado voices — including Moffat and Routt County commissioners, ranchers and agriculture proponents, conservationists and water managers — shared concerns about the second draft of the Colorado Water Plan, released July 7. The waters of the Yampa River are being eyed for both diversion to the Front Range and for downstream users.

— The debate is heating up as the first-ever Colorado Water Plan moves through a second-draft phase before it goes to the governor's desk this December.

Both legislators and members from the Colorado Water Conservation Board appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper visited Craig on Wednesday to present information on the plan and listen to public input.

Northwest Coloradans have a major stake in the plan, which could allow for the eventual diversion of water from the Yampa River to the Eastern Slope to quench the thirsty lawns of a rapidly growing urban and suburban population.

Several local leaders from the water, agriculture and conservation arenas voiced their opposition to a trans-mountain diversion of Yampa waters.

"The state water plan has probably caused as much angst and apprehension as anything that's happened in my lifetime," said Ken Brenner, member of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District board of directors and also part of a third-generation ranch family in Routt County. "I am opposed to any new trans-mountain diversion. I don't believe the water supply exists, and we are certainly having enough trouble meeting our compact obligations."

Besides meeting needs within the state, the waters of the Yampa River — a tributary of the Colorado River — also help to meet the needs of water users downstream. A 1922 compact between Colorado River Basin states, including Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, ensured every state would get some portion of the flow.

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"The Yampa/White/Green Basin is part of Colorado River Basin, and is caught among the needs of the downstream states, the needs of the urbanized east slope of Colorado, and its own in-basin needs," according to the Yampa/White/Green Basin Implementation Plan cited in the Colorado Water Plan.

Local leaders are also concerned local water use could be curtailed in order to meet the needs of water users downstream.

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District board, which includes Brenner and eight other members, issued a letter Wednesday to the CWCB asking for "an equitable apportionment of the native flow within the Yampa," relative to native flows used by other basins in the state that empty into the Colorado River.

The concern is that, because Colorado is only allowed to use a certain portion of its river flows, and because Northwest Coloradans have junior water rights relative to regions that developed earlier, the state may limit local use of water in the Yampa/White/Green Basin in order to meet its obligations downstream.

State water planners are seeking public comments on the plan through Sept. 17. The legislative Water Resource Review Committee is also currently juggling how to weigh in on the plan. Committee-sponsored bills are due in October, two months prior to the deadline for the final water plan's completion.

"As legislators, myself included, we feel very strongly that the water plan will only be successful if we have widespread public input," said Committee Chair, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, District 6.

Roberts, who is one of a four-person Western Slope majority on the committee, hopes the visit to Craig and other locations will help better inform legislative water policy in the future.

"Getting them over here, driving our roads, seeing our forests and seeing that agriculture really is strong and viable. … They're not necessarily aware of that if they live in the urban corridor," Roberts said. "I think part of the value of the water plan … is to make urban dwellers more conscious of the tradeoffs that have occurred and that we live in a high altitude, arid environment."

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.

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