Legislators listen to local water advocates | CraigDailyPress.com

Legislators listen to local water advocates

Tom Ross

Colorado State Rep. Randy Fischer, of Fort Collins, who is chairman of the legislature's Interim Water Resources Review Committee, speaks to a large crowd at the Bud Werner Memorial Library Tuesday morning who gathered for a Yampa-White-Green River Basin Water Plan meeting.

— Jeff Devere, of Rangely, told a panel of nine state legislators gathered in Steamboat Springs on Tuesday to talk about the challenge of meeting Colorado's future water needs that people in Northwest Colorado expect to be treated with dignity and respect if the Front Range comes after their water.

Water policy discussions are typically rife with jargon, and at first Devere, a member of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable that is contributing to a new statewide water plan, resorted to some of the same. Devere, who is a dean at Colorado Northwestern Community College, told members of the legislature's Interim Water Resources Review Committee that people who live in the Yampa, White and Green river valleys expect "equitable apportionment" of their water. But then he decided to speak plainly.

"Equitable apportionment is a very defined legal term," Devere said. "But in general, what we're talking about is the idea that local communities want to be treated with dignity and respect if water from their basins is moved out, and they no longer have that water for their own uses."

Members of the legislative committee in attendance included: state Reps. Edward Vigil, Don Coram, Diane Mitsch Bush and Randy Fischer and Sens. Gail Schwartz, Mary Hodge, Matt Jones, Ellen Roberts and Greg Brophy.

The Yampa-White-Green Roundtable is one of nine around the state representing Colorado's major river basins whose members spent the summer drafting water plans for their own regions. These regional plans will be taken into consideration in a new statewide water plan intended to help ensure Colorado has enough water to meet its needs through 2050.

Devere, who has a master's degree from the University of Denver in environmental management, said the Yampa-Green-White Roundtable is determined to maintain and protect historical water uses in the basins as well as preserving enough water for future demands. The plan calls for increasing the number of acres irrigated for agriculture in Northwest Colorado and also anticipates developing unspecified new water projects here to give the basin flexibility to manage for growth in the future.

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But the Basin Roundtable isn't relying simply on pleas for equitable apportionment of water to provide for the region's future waters needs, according to Devere. He said the meat of the Basin Roundtable's plan relies on mathematical models to forecast, in understandable terms, the implications of future water policy decisions.

For example, the model is designed to be able to illustrate how the impacts of new development of either water projects or energy development might impact the three-county area, which includes Moffat and Rio Blanco counties and a majority of Routt County, in an era when water might be in short supply.

"It's a methodology for understanding tradeoffs in a dry future," Devere said. "The idea is to look into the future and visualize how those shortages might be dealt with using various projects."

The impacted areas will be more readily understood by linking the data to a color-coded map showing where water shortages are likely to pop up from a variety of scenarios, including the possibility of energy development in different parts of the region. For example, the Piceance Basin (pronounced Peeyance), roughly between Meeker and Rifle, is an area that already has many natural gas wells and relies on small creeks, some of them seasonal in dry years, for water.

Mary Brown, an agricultural representative from Steamboat Springs on the roundtable, emerged from a breakout discussion saying her group observed there is a tendency by policymakers to focus on the supply side of the water equation and her group was interested in flipping that around.

"Perhaps more attention paid to the demand side rather than just looking at 'How much water can we provide?'" was the group's sentiment, Brown said.

Speaking during a public comment period, Ken Brenner, of Steamboat Springs and a member of the board of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, suggested it was most important to conserve some of the Yampa River's water to meet obligations to lower basin states like California.

"The best and highest use of the Yampa is as a means of helping the state of Colorado basin to meet its obligations to the 1922 Compact," Brenner said. "Those seven states (in the compact: Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming) have an alliance and an obligation to one another. We do not want federal intervention in this situation."

Brenner called the Yampa River the cornerstone of the economy in Northwest Colorado, but he said it also supports the environmental integrity and quality of life in the valley.

Soren Jespersen, of the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of the Yampa, said the many economic considerations surrounding future demands on the rivers of Northwest Colorado are important, but a preoccupation with economic issues tends to obscure the natural qualities that define the rivers of the region.

"There is more to a wild river than just the economic benefits it can provide," Jespersen told the legislative committee. "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."

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