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Additional Elkhead Reservoir release aims to gather info, buy time

Suzie Romig
Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Yampa River basin has experienced calls for senior water rights for two of the past three dry summers, and the Colorado Division of Water Resources currently is reviewing a formal request to declare the lower basin over-appropriated as is the case across most of Colorado.

In mid-March, as part of a 30-day public comment period, Moffat County commissioners submitted a letter to the Division of Water Resources state engineer asking for a two-year extension before the start of the over-appropriation status.

“This feels like a fast-paced decision, without time being allowed to thoughtfully develop localized solutions to really address the issues at hand,” the commissioners’ letter stated. “The number one comment coming from our water users and landowners is a desire to understand what the impacts of the Yampa over-appropriation means.”



This week, officials from the Colorado River District, headquartered in Glenwood Springs, committed to contributing grant funding for up to 1,500 acre-feet of additional water to be released this summer from Elkhead Reservoir northeast of Craig. The release is intended to ease concerns of agricultural water users with junior water rights, who can lose their water supply when a call is placed by those who own more senior, or older, water rights when there is not enough water in the system to allow all diversions.

The river district board unanimously approved $50,000 toward Elkhead Reservoir water releases through a Partnership Project Funding Program. Other anticipated donors to the overall $171,300 pilot project include $107,300 from the Colorado Water Trust and contributions from the Upper Yampa Conservancy District and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.



Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller said the funding for one year will include completion of a river modeling study by Wilson Water Group, which will guide future releases of water and help the community understand the consequences of future calls.

The additional 1,500 acre-feet release will likely happen in mid- to late-August across 30 to 45 days and could add 50 to 150 cubic feet per second to the Yampa River. Mueller said this summer’s pilot is “designed to better understand and quantify the current and likely future need for additional water supply in the Yampa River basin in order to provide water security to historic water users, the environment and the endangered fish populations.”

Mueller said water resources in the Yampa River basin are becoming increasingly threatened from the warming and drying trends of climate change and the regional growth in population.

“This year, the poor snowpack, low soil moisture and what appears to be yet another hot spring and summer are combining to make it probable that, without strategic reservoir releases, there may be a call on the Yampa River again this year,” according to a river district quarterly meeting memo.

The Colorado River District and partners are providing funding for additional, summer water releases from Elkhead Reservoir, located 9 miles northeast of Craig, in order to support Yampa River flows in late summer. (Photo courtesy of Colorado River District)

Last August during the call, the river district together with Tri-State and Colorado Water Trust organized an impromptu release of 720 acre-feet of additional water “in order to have the call released and to alleviate some of the economic pain the call caused small family ranchers who were already suffering from a historic drought and pandemic-inspired low beef prices,” according to a district memo. That release was on top of an increased 6,500 acre-feet of water — 1,500 acre-feet more than usual — released to help protect endangered fish species.

Erin Light, local division engineer for the state’s water resources, said the area under consideration for over-appropriation is the main stem of the Yampa River and its tributaries from the west side of Steamboat Springs to the entrance of Dinosaur National Monument. Light said an over-appropriation designation would be most impactful on the well-permitting process for new residential well permits on land less than 35 acres and for ground water use beyond indoor residential use.

State water resources officials have alerted water users about the possibility of the over-appropriation since the call during the summer of 2018. An over-appropriation status means a river basin does not have enough water to meet the needs of all the water rights holders.

Moffat County commissioners say water users are concerned and confused about issues ranging from change of use permits for wells to water augmentation plans, which are approved by state water court to allow diversion of water from a convenient location in exchange for providing an equivalent amount of water to a stream at another point.

Mueller said the river district, state water resources, Moffat County and the local cattleman’s association will work together to provide educational outreach and meetings starting in June.

River district officials also are concerned the lower Yampa River basin does not have a comprehensive augmentation plan, which is developed in over-appropriated basins in Colorado. This summer’s study could help devise solutions for the long-term water problems in the lower basin and buy time for water users to understand specific implications of the pending over-appropriation.

“We see this as an opportunity to help solve water supply and storage issues by really helping the local community learn the extent and timing of the issue and to design solutions, such as a blanket augmentation plan or a historic user pool,” Mueller said.

The 900-acre Elkhead Reservoir straddles the border of Routt and Moffat counties and can hold up to 25,550 acre-feet of water.


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