Lower, middle Yampa River officially designated over-appropriated
Decision primarily affects wells in Moffat County and western Routt
State Engineer Kevin Rein from the Colorado Division of Water Resources in Denver officially designated on Wednesday the lower and middle portions of the Yampa River as over-appropriated.
The newly designated area covers the section of the Yampa River stretching from the 13th Street bridge on the northwest side of Steamboat Springs to the river’s confluence with the Little Snake River just before entering the east side of Dinosaur National Monument. The designation becomes effective March 1 and includes the reach of the Yampa River and all its tributaries upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake.
Division 6 Engineer Erin Light at the Steamboat Springs DWR office explained that the designation now brings the vast majority of Routt County, except for some areas in north Routt County, under the over-appropriation designation. That means well permits in the newly designated area will also fall under more restrictive rules starting March 1.
The Upper Yampa River Basin has been designated over-appropriated in some areas in South Routt County since the 1970s, Light noted. The stretch of the Yampa River through Steamboat Springs has been designated over-appropriated since 2006, and the Elk River Basin in Routt County since 2011. After March 1, Routt County overall will become 90% over-appropriated, as compared to 57% currently.
The newly added area of over-appropriation has been under official review since March 2021, and there were multiple public input meetings last year. Light said the most heavily impacted water users will be well water users or properties seeking new wells in Moffat County.
The comprehensive DWR report from 2021 that outlines how the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake is over-appropriated will be available online at dwr.colorado.gov/division-offices/division-6-office.
“My determination recognizes the climate, hydrologic and administrative call conditions that are now present on the Yampa River for the affected area,” Rein said in the Jan. 19 notification letter. “The designation does not impact the legal ability to appropriate water from the Yampa River nor does it change administration of surface water rights on the Yampa River.”
Rein went on to explain what over-appropriation signifies.
“For the purposes of the DWR’s administration and well-permitting decisions, a stream is considered over-appropriated when ‘at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of said stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system,’” Rein said.
State water officials have been closely monitoring Yampa River water shortage issues since 2002.
The Yampa River Basin includes thousands of decreed water rights, and some of those water rights cannot be honored when the Yampa River drops considerably during dryer times, Light said.
In addition to already decreed water rights, new appropriations are decreed every year. During the past 10 years, approximately 70 water court applications on average were filed each year in DWR Division 6, and the majority of the cases are associated with water rights located in the Yampa River Basin, Light said.
In short, the amount of water in the basin is no longer able to keep up with growth, development and needs of water rights holders throughout the entire basin during dryer months.
“In the past 20 years, the Yampa River has experienced four years of extreme drought, in 2002, 2012, 2018 and 2020,” Light said. “In 2002, the Yampa River neared hydrologic and administrative conditions where its first call could have occurred at either the Maybell Canal or Lily Park structures (east of Dinosaur National Monument). However, communication between the water commissioner and upstream water users, including with Tri-State Generation and Transmission, resulted in water users electing to reduce diversions.”
Rein explained that, for Yampa River basin applications for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells, DWR staff will treat the affected area as over-appropriated when evaluating applications filed on or after March 1. For applications to permit existing wells in use prior to March 1, a reasonable period of time will be allowed for the owners of existing wells to obtain a permit. DWR will accept applications to permit those existing wells and evaluate the applications without treating their impacts as injurious through Dec. 31 of this year.
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