Colorado seeks to close water gap |

Colorado seeks to close water gap

Tom Ross
Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, explains the modern history of water politics affecting the Yampa River to a group of conservationists and policy makers near the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers in Dinosaur National Monument in June 2013.
Tom Ross

Even as water officials across Colorado were working overtime in April to refine plans to meet their water needs for the next 35 years, and California Governor Jerry Brown was calling on the people of his state to reduce their water use by 25 percent, a team of federal hydrologists in Salt Lake City was spreading the word about one of the lowest snowpack seasons and mildest winters in years.

The month of March was particularly concerning to the hydrologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric’s Administration’s Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“On March 2, we were very optimistic a storm would come through, but it just didn’t pan out,” Paul Miller, a senior hydrologist with the Forecast Center, said during an April 7 webinar attended remotely by more than 30 interested people from across the Colorado Basin. “March was very, very dry except for portions of the eastern Green (River Basin) and the tip of the Colorado headwaters. Especially in the Great Basin, you can see that Utah is well below average.”

But the story of this year’s water supply in the Intermountain West really lies in the uncommonly mild March temperatures that have caused what snowpack there is to melt at a time when snowpack should have been growing, Miller said.

When the snow melts to early, it rushes down streams and rivers before the time to irrigate crops has arrived. Those rivers drop to late summer levels, stressing municipal water supplies all over the Intermountain West.

In Steamboat Springs, 13 miles and 3,500 feet in elevation from one of the most productive snowpack sites along the Continental Divide, there were 18 days in March when afternoon temperatures exceeded 50 degrees and nine of those were warmer than 60 degrees. Thanks to the wet summer of 2014, reservoirs here are sure to fill, but river flows will be below average.

The unprecedented warmth, which has hammered the snowpack in the Rockies, may have served to focus public attention on the efforts underway to make plans to meet Colorado’s water needs decades into the future.

Over the water shortfall without a paddle?

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper issued an executive order in the spring of 2013 requiring water officials and citizens serving on the state’s nine river basin roundtables to turn in their plans for meeting their water needs through 2050 by December 2014.

At the time he issued the order, Hickenlooper noted the fact that the preceding two decades had been the warmest on record since the 1890s. He also pointed out that Colorado faced a gap between water supply and demand that could grow to 500,000 acre-feet by 2050 (the current capacity of Dillon Reservoir in near the Factory Outlet Stores in Silverthorne is a little more than half that amount).

The governor’s first deadline has been met. Now, with a published draft of Colorado’s water plan published, the pressure is on for water officials to meld the goals and perceived needs of each river basin and bring them into alignment to meet the governor’s expectations by December.

In Northwest Colorado, where Steamboat Springs and Craig are the two largest cities in a sparsely populated three-county area, water users are concerned that thirsty water districts on Colorado’s Front Range will come after the remaining unappropriated water in the Yampa River.

And indeed, the giant South Platte Water District, without naming the Yampa, is anticipating that a new, unspecified transmountain diversion of West Slope Water to the East Slope will be a necessary component for meeting its water needs to 2050.

The language in the plan calls for developing “new unappropriated Colorado River supplies for the benefit and protection of all of Colorado, both now and in the future.”

Kevin McBride, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservation District, is sensitive to the phrase “for the benefit and protection of all of Colorado,” in the portion of the South Platte’s plan. He interprets it as saying that the water on the Western Slope belongs to all of Colorado.

A sense of place in the Yampa Basin

Included in the sense of place, is the wild desert section of the Yampa where it flows through the sandstone canyons of Dinosaur National Monument in Moffat County. The relatively unrestricted flows of the Yampa there have withstood numerous threats to build dams there. The unusual community of plants and animals in that section of the river, including endangered fish like the Colorado Pikeminnow, are adapted to and depend upon the rise and fall of the river through the annual spring runoff.

In the meantime, the population of the semi-arid West continues to grow, as the water supply appears to shrink.

So, how will Colorado meet its water needs over the next 35 years, and how will the Yampa Valley, home to Routt and Moffat counties, fare in the process? Before that question can be considered, it’s important to understand how Northwest Colorado and the Yampa Valley fit into the much greater Colorado River Basin.

Colorado’s obligation

Lakes Powell and Mead, the giant reservoirs on the Colorado River that straddle the Utah/Arizona border and store much of the water required by tens of millions of people, are less than half-full this spring, and people across the region are paying attention.

Arching over the debate about water supplies like an 11th Commandment is the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

McBride said water managers in Colorado feared that plans for a major reservoir on the lower Colorado (ultimately realized in the form of Hoover Dam) might deprive them of their ability to use the river’s flows under the water law doctrine of prior appropriation (first in time, first in line). That’s the same governing principle for managing water rights that Colorado still clings to tightly.

Herbert Hoover, who served as U.S. secretary of commerce in the early 1920s, suggested the basin be divided into an upper and lower half, with each granted the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre feet of river water annually. And that division of 15 million acre feet of water was based on 20 years of streamflow records. What everyone understands today, with the help of tree ring science, is that the compact overestimated the amount of water in the Colorado, and with current climate trends, the gap may be widening.

But Colorado and the other upper basin states — Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and far northern portions of Arizona, still owe 7.5 million acre feet of river water annually on a 10-year rolling average. It is in Lake Powell that the upper basin states store compact water, buffering them against the potential for a series of drought years.

Should they fail to send sufficient water to the lower basins states of Nevada, California and Arizona in any 10-year period, the upper basin states could be subject to a call for more water.

The 10-year rolling average is an important concept to grasp. It protects the upper basin states from a water call during short-term droughts. Scarce snow years like the winter of 2011-12 and 2014-15 are buffered by abundant winters like those of 2010-11 and 2008-09 (400-inch snow winters in the Park Range east of Steamboat).

But every time a dry winter rolls around, it’s touch and go as to whether that bad snowpack year will be followed by more like it, leading to a compact call on water.

“This water in the Yampa in the spring of 2015 will still count (a decade from now) in 2024,” McBride pointed out. “The water in the Yampa leaving the state is good for Colorado.”

McBride serves on the Inter Basin Compact Committee that is working to synthesize the varying approaches taken by the basin roundtables toward meeting the state’s future water needs and is looking out for future water supplies in Northwest Colorado.

What about the Yampa and the future of Northwest Colorado?

Since the 1930s, the growth of Colorado’s Front Range has been enabled by transmountain water diversions.

Today, there are 24 major tunnels that send West Slope water under the Continental Divide to the East Slope, most of them delivering water from the Colorado River Basin. The amount of water diverted from the Western Slope to the Eastern Slope varies annually from 450,000 to 600,000 acre feet.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy reports that 38 percent of Roaring Fork River headwaters above Aspen are diverted on average each year, and 41 percent of Frying Pan River, a tributary of the Roaring Fork, is diverted.

Among the nine river basin roundtables is the combined Yampa, White and Green River Basin comprising Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, which have thus far been spared from transmountain diversions. But people here are concerned that the new statewide plan could include a diversion of water involving the Yampa. And they have reason to be wary.

In 2006, the Northern Water Conservation District advanced a bold $4 billion plan to capture unappropriated water from the Yampa in a new storage reservoir off the main stem of the river near Maybell, then pump it more than 200 miles east across the Continental Divide to a lake north of Denver.

The tentative plans included three proposed pipeline routes, all of which would have passed through Routt County. An engineering study for the project contained an estimated completion date of 2023, but Northern put the plan on the shelf in 2008.

Ask water officials how much unappropriated water remains in the Yampa, and it’s difficult to pin them down. When asked by Soren Jespersen of the Wilderness Society during a float trip down Yampa Canyon in the water abundant year of 2013, Ted Kowalski, of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, whose job it is to ensure that Colorado holds onto all of the 1922 Compact water the state is entitled to, answered:

“You have huge amounts of available water to meet the compact (obligation) in the Yampa River,” Kowalski said.

So, other basins are looking for more water to close the 500,000 gap, and that could the Yampa in the bullseye.

Yampa White plan

The Yampa/White/Green River Basin was due, along with the other basins around the state, to turn in “Basin Implementation Plan” (BIP) to the Colorado Water Conservation Board by April 17. The deadline for public comments is May 1.

McBride confirmed the BIP includes tentative plans to store more water from Morrison Creek, a tributary of the Yampa that flows into the Yampa (at above) Stagecoach Reservoir, either by diversion into Stagecoach or by a new dam on the creek. And the White River has tentative plans to build a new reservoir in that drainage.

From the Wasatch Front in Utah to the ponderosa pine forests of Northern Arizona to the irrigated hay meadows of Northwest Colorado, peoples’ lives are linked by the scarcity of water.

In 2015, with the deadline for the state water plan looming, McBride and other members of the Yampa/White/Green river roundtable feel strongly that as Colorado decides how to meet its future water needs, the wisest uses of the remaining unappropriated flows in the Yampa, which leave Colorado soon after the river flows into the Green River in Moffat County, remain intact — serving as a hedge against a future day when California, Nevada and Arizona call for water they are entitled to but not receiving.

The roundtable is also seeking to bring more acres of land in Northwest Colorado under irrigation, pointing out that much of the water applied to the soil ultimately returns to the main stem of the river through alluvial flows.

“Really, right now is when the water in the Yampa is important to the state in terms of the compact,” McBride concluded.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Craig and Moffat County make the Craig Press’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.