A dry, dry year: The future of the Yampa River basin
Editor’s note: This is the final article in a four-part series exploring the wide-ranging impacts of the 2018 drought on Northwest Colorado residents and ecosystems.
The water begins in the Flat Tops Wilderness, where snow melts and runs into the fields and valleys below to become the Yampa River. On it runs, gathering water from other rivers, streams, and tributaries as it goes, until the water of the Yampa joins the water of the Green River, then the Colorado River.
Water users along the water’s path depend on it for drinking, irrigation, industry, recreation, and numerous other uses. In this way, the river is a kind of connective tissue between those at the beginning and those at the end. Water also connects micro with macro, as the health of the river is every bit as important to the individual rancher as to entire states, whose populations depend on it for drinking water and power.
The 2018 drought, the latest icing on a drought cake that’s been baking for 20 years, has stirred heated debates about how water is managed and how it’s going to be managed in a potentially drier future with increasing demand. Yampa River water is no exception, and the basin is on the brink of several potentially dramatic changes at the direction of local, state, and basin-wide decision makers.
For Northwest Colorado water users, 2018 was already a season of major change, with the first-ever call on the Yampa River. But the call raised the question of whether the basin will be designated “over-appropriated” by state water engineers next year, essentially indicating there is no longer enough water to go around and inciting major shifts in century-old water use practices.
At the same time, the Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable is securing funding to create its first-ever Integrated Water Management Plan. The collaborative plan aims to identify specific projects and priorities to support sustainability for all water users in the basin.
Finally, as water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop to alarmingly low levels, leaders from all seven Colorado River Basin states are preparing drought contingency plans, or DCPs, to avoid a much larger call on the river. A compact call, under the 1922 Colorado River Compact agreement, would require upper basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico — to curtail water users in order to send more water to lower basin states — California, Arizona, and Nevada. On the Western Slope of Colorado, water users could be asked under the DCP to send some of their water downstream in exchange for compensation.
A basin over-appropriated?
Across Colorado, the Yampa River Basin is unusual in that it is one of few regions that has not been designated over-appropriated, said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
“The entire southwest has been over-appropriated for probably a century — the Arkansas River, probably at least as long — and nearly the entire Colorado main stem and a huge section of the Gunnison have been designated over-appropriated,” Light said. “It means there’s no longer enough water available to meet everybody’s water rights in the system.”
Once the designation is made, it’s irreversible.
“It’s a big basin to look at, and neither myself nor the state engineer will take this decision lightly,” Light said. “The mere fact that there’s been a single call does not mean it should be considered over-appropriated.”
This winter, Light will evaluate streamflow data during the most recent drought years — 2002, 2012, and 2018 — to see if flows are consistently low enough during dry years that all water rights can’t be met. She will then make a recommendation to the state water engineer, who makes the official determination.
Some water users have expressed grave concerns about what the designation would mean for them.
“If the river is truly over-appropriated … life changes like it has never changed in our history,” said Ken Brenner, board president of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
But Light said the biggest change would be to how new well permits are issued, impacting primarily individual domestic water users, who account for less than 0.05 percent of water use in Moffat County, according to recent data. A well draws groundwater, which is considered to be a tributary to surface, or river, water.
Of course, the designation would only add to the imperative for water users to properly measure and control the amount of water they were diverting — a change prompted by this summer’s call on the river — spurring a monumental shift in the region’s water practices that have remained much the same for generations.
“In the past, you just diverted as much water as you wanted,” said Brenner, who grew up on a working ranch in Steamboat Springs. “But if there’s drought or the basin is over-appropriated (and) you need water, your only option is to go buy water that’s stored (in a reservoir) from a vendor.”
Brenner and the district penned a letter to Light on Nov. 19 asking for details and clarification about the call on the Yampa this summer and also to participate in discussions about whether the basin will be deemed over-appropriated.
But, “if 2002, 2012, and 2018 all show water needs were not being met, I’d have to lean towards designating the basin over-appropriated,” Light said. “I don’t want people to get overly frightened about it becoming over-appropriated. Just because it’s over-appropriated doesn’t mean someone can’t come get a water right; it just means (they won’t have water) every year.”
Roundtable launches new water plan
Statewide, water planning has become a serious endeavor since the 2002 drought, which prompted the creation of nine basin roundtables to address specific needs in each basin, as well as foster collaboration between basins. Fast forward to today, and those efforts have culminated in the Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable’s decision to create an Integrated Water Management Plan.
With a price tag of about $650,000 and a timeline of 3.5 years, the plan breaks the basin into four regions — from the headwaters above Stagecoach Reservoir to the lower basin covering Moffat County — and aims to create implementable, “shovel-ready” projects to solve the most pressing needs of water use and river health.
“The end goal for each of these regional plans is to say … ‘here are our biggest priorities and here’s how we accomplish them,’” said Jackie Brown, chair of the Basin Roundtable.
The 34-person roundtable is already comprised of diverse interests, from local government officials to representatives of industry, agriculture, recreation, and environmental needs. But the plans will invite even more stakeholder and public input to identify needs in the basin.
Contrary to the state and many other basins’ plans focused on protecting mainly recreational and ecological needs in streams and rivers, Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable members will seek to integrate and value equally both “non-consumptive” uses, such as recreation and aquatic wildlife, and consumptive uses, such as irrigating and industry.
“The objective of all of this, of everything we do at the basin roundtable, is to sustain the current uses up and down the valley in an uncertain future,” Brown said. “Best case scenario, in 50 years, water users have water to use, our rural communities are thriving, and we have a healthy Yampa River. … It’s important to plan for that proactively instead of reactively.”
The roundtable will seek a $235,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, according to Nicole Seltzer, the plan’s project coordinator. The remaining funding will come from in-kind contributions of staff time and field work from regional organizations, matching donations from nonprofit and water organizations, and likely some of the roundtable’s own funds, which are provided by the state.
Plan could signal changes
As water shortages across the Colorado River basin grow more dire, the real possibility of a “compact call” is coming into sharper focus. A compact call would require upper basin states, including Colorado, to involuntarily curtail water use.
The scenario is an undesirable one and has prompted all seven Colorado River Basin states to negotiate drought contingency plans to avoid a call.
The state of Colorado declared its support for the upper basin plan earlier this month ahead of a mid-December meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas, where lower and upper basin states will seek consensus on the plans.
The DCP entails sending more water downriver to Lake Powell and creating a new storage pool to keep reservoir levels from dipping too low. To do this, Colorado water managers may compensate water users for leaving some of their water in the river.
“We’re talking about a voluntary, compensated, temporary plan,” Brenner said. “Say I’m an ag user, and I normally use 10 cfs (cubic feet per second), and now, I only use 5, and I sell — voluntary, compensated, and temporary — this water to bank it in Lake Powell to help meet this shortage.”
The Yampa White Green Basin has a big role to play, as it contributed more than 50 percent of the water that reached Lake Powell during spring runoff this year. State officials have yet to hammer out the details of how this plan will be implemented but will do so early next year. Should mandatory cutbacks ever become necessary, the state promised to undertake extensive public outreach before implementing such measures.
No one knows quite what would happen in the case of a compact call or mandatory cutbacks. Water rights are based on seniority, and agriculture holds a majority of the oldest rights in Colorado, many of which pre-date the 1922 Colorado River Compact and, therefore, at least theoretically, could not be curtailed in a compact call, Light said.
As local, state, and basin-wide planning efforts continue in earnest, water users hope they’ll never have to find out.
Contact Lauren Blair at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.