Conservation Colorado: In Colorado, water gets real personal, real fast
Recently, over burritos and margaritas at Vallarta’s Restaurant, I was asked what the number one thing is that I should know about rivers in Colorado. Like a deer in the headlights, I sat in silence. His brusque follow up was, “the Yampa is the last wild river in Colorado, and it had better stay that way.” I quickly nodded in agreement.
The man is certainly not alone in his opinion. The Yampa has a dedicated following of boaters, anglers, sportsmen and conservationists who don’t want to see the heart of Northwest Colorado dammed and diverted. As Soren Jespersen, of the local group Friends of the Yampa, recently stated in a Steamboat Today article on the Colorado Water Plan, “The Yampa is one of the last major untamed waterways in the entire Colorado River system. If we were to start diverting its waters to the Front Range, we wouldn’t just be diminishing its flows; we’d be killing the very thing that makes the Yampa River unique.”
Unfortunately, there is good reason to be concerned about the future of the Yampa. In an era viewed by some as the last “water grab” in Colorado, attention is shifting towards the Yampa under the presumption of having water to spare. That opens up a debate about what qualifies as excess water. Anyone who has enjoyed a day on the Yampa will attest water left in the river is still water being put to good use, albeit a non-consumptive one.
It isn’t just about the quantity of water that places a target on the Yampa Basin. Colorado is a prior appropriation state, which means the seniority of a water right is everything. The older the date on a water right, the further towards the front of the line you get to stand. Some municipalities, such as Steamboat Springs, have junior water rights putting their ability to meet demand during drought conditions at jeopardy. Luckily the issue of a “call” from senior water rights holders on the Yampa is fairly rare occurrence, but in a warmer, drier future, things could get more complicated if we don’t have a plan in place.
So, to head off those problems here and to alleviate existing issues elsewhere, Colorado is in the process of crafting its first ever state water plan. This plan will shape how we manage water well into the future. Every interest group, from municipalities, agricultural producers, industries, outdoor recreation professionals and conservationists, is fighting for their interests to be protected within the plan.
Few would dispute that we need a Colorado Water Plan that protects agricultural, municipal and recreational needs — and the $9 billion economy river related recreation supports. However, when it comes down to how the water is managed, tensions rise quickly. The hot-button issues of cities buying agricultural water rights leaving an alfalfa field to wither and transmountain diversions creating huge reservoirs and pipeline systems to send water across the continental divide get most of the attention. The risks and consequences of both those ideas are just too great for rivers like the Yampa, so we need to look elsewhere.
The most obvious answer is to maximize the water we currently have available before looking to develop additional new supply. The idea of living within our means isn’t new, especially in a blue-collar town like Craig. Conservation is effective and costs significantly less than new, large pipelines and other projects. The bright new shiny thing might look good on paper, but the environmental damage and huge costs to taxpayers makes them a dream to developers and a nightmare for everyone else.
The Yampa is a unique, irreplaceable resource not just for the residents of northwest Colorado, but the nation. The last major free-flowing river on the Colorado Plateau deserves every bit of deference, because it’s the last of its kind. Many other parts of west slope and the west in general have their own “Yampa.” We’ve seen the Dolores turned into a trickle and the majority of the Fraser’s water sent over the divide, not to mention everything that has happened to the Blue, Eagle, Roaring Fork, etc.
With a draft of the Colorado Water Plan already in motion, it’s time to step up and protect local resources across our state. As Rep. Don Coram quipped at the closing of a CLUB 20 debate, “Empty your bladder before you go. No water leaves the Western Slope.” It drew a good chuckle from the crowd, but if we really want to protect our west slope rivers, we need to step up and make sure the plan prioritizes them too.
You can submit comments on the Colorado Water Plan at http://coloradowaterplan.com/.
Kristin Green is a field organizer for Conservation Colorado.