A dry, dry year: Northwest Colorado ranchers get Yampa River wake-up call

Lauren Blair/For the Craig Press
Water from the Yampa River in Juniper Canyon is diverted into a ditch built between 1899 and 1903, taking water into the Maybell Valley west of Craig. A new measuring device and automated gate will increase the efficiency of the ditch resulting in less waste. Pictured are Ditch President Mike Camblin and his dog, Brass, at the head gate for the irrigation canal.
Sasha Nelson/staff

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a four-part series exploring the wide-ranging impacts of the 2018 drought on Northwest Colorado residents and ecosystems.

When it comes to ranching, Northwest Colorado is no place for lightweights. Rugged terrain, frigid winters, and hot, parched summers are par for the course. But 2018 challenged even the hardiest of ranchers, as extreme drought prompted the first-ever call on the Yampa River. Between the forces of nature and the enforcement of water law, many ranchers lost access to that most precious of resources: water.

An estimated 100 ditches in the lower Yampa River Basin, primarily in Moffat County, were shut off in the midst of the call, according to Moffat County Water Commissioner Lauren Berrien. The call was initiated Sept. 4 after a warning call two weeks earlier. Even more users would’ve been shut off, except their water had already dried up. Many tributaries that feed the Yampa were reduced to a trickle or nothing at all early in the season.

Even the Yampa River ran dry for a spell in late summer, when a water user tried to pump water out of the very low river to fulfill water rights.

“Down near Deerlodge, there was a period of time there was no water there,” said Erin Light, division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “(That’s) what pre-empted the call. … There was a stretch of river that was dry.”

A call is placed on a river when a downstream water user isn’t receiving his or her full allocated portion and “calls” on water administrators to send more water downstream to fulfill the legal right. In so doing, water commissioners shut off water to upstream users with junior water rights so water flows to users with senior rights.

This year, many users were curtailed, not because they didn’t have priority rights, but because they lacked measuring devices or headgates to monitor and control how much water they were diverting into their ditches.

The call took many ranchers, who rely on irrigation water to grow hay and water livestock, by surprise. The drought and resulting call made it a tough year to survive, with lower crop yields and thinner livestock, equating to higher expenses and lower profits.

“That call was pretty historical, being the first call on the river,” said Mike Camblin, rancher and Maybell Irrigation District board president. “To be honest with you, I didn’t see it coming.”

The Maybell ditch lucked out, Camblin said, as it had just installed a $54,000 measuring device for its 18 users in 2017. It previously had no such device.

Others weren’t so fortunate.

“We didn’t need the measuring box on some of the smaller streams (before), because there was never a call on the river,” said long-time Moffat County rancher Dave Seely, who runs sheep and cattle south of Craig. When the call happened, “there was a run on measuring devices, so we started building them out of plywood so we could turn our water back on,” he said.

In wetter years, ranchers like Doug Camilletti, pictured here cutting hay on his ranch north of Craig, are able to grow enough hay to feed their livestock. But drought has made for low crop yields and has driven hay prices up, making 2018 a very costly year for many Northwest Colorado ranchers.

Seely is president of the Deep Cut Ditch and is involved in a total of 11 ditches, some of which were curtailed during the call. He accused water administrators with the state’s Division of Water Resources of being unfair.

“They got really aggressive in some places they shouldn’t have done,” he said, claiming they improperly curtailed some of his ditches that not only had priority, but were also equipped with the necessary devices.

Berrien is one of two water commissioners in Moffat County whose job it is to enforce the call, and she disagreed with the accusation.

“I’m very thorough with my job… and if you’re not in compliance, unfortunately we have to do what we have to do,” Berrien said. “We’re not out there just turning people off for the sake of it because we do care about peoples’ water rights. We really try to do the best that we can to protect everybody.”

Water users had a chance to air their questions and complaints at a Division of Water Resources meeting Tuesday night in Craig designed to explain the complicated mechanics of water rights and the river call.

All told, it was a costly year for many ranchers, between buying feed and installing the required measuring devices and headgates, which Seely complained could be expensive.

“As far as the ranching goes, it was a disaster for everyone,” Seely said. “Our hay fields — when it turned so hot and dry and windy, even though we were irrigating, we’re about 30 percent short on all our production on all our fields. … All our calves are probably 40 pounds lighter than normal. That affects every rancher in the checkbook.”

Ranchers like Seely rely on growing their own hay to feed their livestock, but drought forces them to pay top dollar for expensive hay to make up the difference. Even the forage on permitted Bureau of Land Management grazing lands lacked its usual nutrient value due to the dry conditions, Seely said.

Some ranchers also had to haul water to quench their animals’ thirst.

“It affects everything, including the merchants in town. We spend our money on hay instead of other things,” Seely said.

Irrigation is the single largest use of water across the state, followed by power generation. In 2012, another dry year, irrigation accounted for about 65 percent of recorded water use in Division 6, which covers Northwest Colorado, according to a report by the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

The Yampa is unique compared to other rivers around the state for how long it’s avoided a call. Some, like the Arkansas River, have been under administration, or on call, for years or even decades on end, Light said.

The Yampa was only under administration for about three weeks this year, from Sept. 4 to Sept. 26. It is now in “free river” status again, and just because it was administered this year doesn’t mean it will remain under administration next year.

“If we get average precipitation, we will not go on call next year,” Light said.

Still, ranchers are worried.

“All of a sudden, peoples’ water rights are worth a lot more than they were in the past, and I think people will start paying attention to that and start using it differently,” Camblin said. For his part, he plans to make sure he irrigates early to ensure his fields are wet before any future calls happen.

Cool fall temperatures and early snowfall offer reason to hope that next year will be wetter and better. Northwest Colorado and much of the state has received higher-than-average snowpack this fall, according to a Nov. 24 report from the Colorado Climate Center.

But seasoned ranchers know there are no guarantees.

“Our submoisture in our soil is gone, so it’s going to take several years to replenish it,” Seely said. “If we don’t get some moisture, we’re really going to be in trouble next year.”

Contact Lauren Blair at or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.

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