State water engineer discusses potential for call on Yampa River |

State water engineer discusses potential for call on Yampa River

Over-appropriation could lead to a reduction in access to the water source for this region

Tracie Detwiler takes advantage of a scenic autumn day to test the waters of the Yampa River in downtown Steamboat Springs Thursday. The river just opened to fishing after being closed since July 8 because warm water temperatures caused by high water temperature and low flows.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Representatives from the Colorado Division of Water Resources visited water rights owners in Craig Monday to discuss over-appropriations of the Yampa River.

Over-appropriation is a term used when there is not enough water in a river system to meet the demands of all the decreed water rights within that system. At certain times over the past three years, the Yampa River has had a call put on it in roughly the same location: upstream of the Little Snake River.

Kevin Rein, State Engineer for the Division of Water Resources, said that engineers in the division have seen conditions change in the Yampa River Basin. Earlier this year, engineers in the division put together a report that showed conditions of the river could result in a call. These conditions include a decrease in the amount of water available and changes in the local climate, which could affect the river’s conditions leading to a call on the river.

Rein said that before he could comfortably make the decision, he wanted to reach out to local water users to hear concerns and inform them on what rights and uses are affected by calls. To do that, Rein said he and others in the division have put together outreach events to inform water users about their rights.

“What brings us all together is the fact that in order to do that, before I can make that decision that the basin — the Yampa River in confluence with the Little Snake — is over-appropriated, we want you to fully know what that means and what that does and does not impact, because there might be some things that you think it impacts, but it doesn’t,” Rein said.

Currently, the majority of the state of Colorado is already considered over-appropriated, with very small portions not under that status, said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer. This will affect areas of the Yampa River basin upstream of the LIttle Snake River that are not already considered over-appropriated.

Division 6 covers much of northwest Colorado including water district 44, which includes river basin. Right now, the confluence of the Yampa and the Little Snake is considered a “new critical area,” meaning it is at risk of being over-appropriated.

“The question is: has the supply gone down and the demand gone up?” Light said. “We can pretty much say yes to both of those questions.”

At the gauging station in Maybell, observers have seen a steady decrease in the average volume of water flow over the last century. In 1920, the location read at about 1.35 million in annual runoff (AF), but in 2020, that flow was down to 1.1 million AF.

When it comes to demand, Light said there was an increase, putting further stress on the supply of water that this district has. She said, on average, there are around 70 new water rights applications filed in Division 6 every year. The majority of those applications are for rights in the Yampa River Basin. They’re not all new water rights (there are many different types of applications), but the majority of them are.

So, when the Yampa River is considered over appropriated, what is affected?

The first thing to know is that senior water right holders will have priority. Their rights will be protected from impacts of future groundwater development over those of junior water rights holders.

Just because a certain area is considered over-appropriated does not mean it would affect someone’s ability to obtain a new surface water right. It does, however, mean that those applying for those rights should understand that at some times, water may not be available for them, Light said.

“In an over-appropriated basin, for existing lots — lots that have already been approved by the county — less than 35 acres, use is limited to in-house use only, absent a plan for augmentation allowing additional uses,” Light said

Lots over 35 acres are not affected by over-appropriation.

While people can still apply and gain junior water rights, issuance of new well permits could be affected. Light said all wells are considered tributary to surface water, meaning that pumping from wells is going to affect surface water.

Over the past 10 years, 626 new wells have been constructed in northwest Colorado water districts. Calls on the river do not affect existing well permits. However, if someone wanted to change their uses under their existing well permit, then a call could affect whether they change their permit unless there’s a plan for augmentation. Augmentation plans are designed to replace depletions of surface water to protect water rights holders.

For clarification, a general purpose well permit — or wells used for commercial use — can be obtained without a plan for augmentation when there’s no call. When there is a call, permit-seekers will need that plan.

Since wells can’t just be turned off, Light said, there are other ways to make sure they aren’t depleting resources from surface water. Depletions from wells are delayed, meaning that pumping can affect water levels weeks or months in advance.

“It doesn’t do us any good to just come shut them off,” Light said. “What does help us is a plan for augmentation.”

The decision to put a call on the river would be to protect the senior water rights. Light said it’s mainly the new well permit holders that will be affected.

Rein said it’s an administrative balance to make sure that levels of the river are still where they need to be to support rights’ holders.

“Could we wait two years? Well, the point is that would allow more wells to be developed, and as they develop, they’ll have a continuous impact on the stream, so we’re curtailing rights, possibly from 1960 or more junior, to allow those wells to develop for the next two years,” Rein said. “We want to recognize the county’s need to react, but then we need to consider how much more of an impact will occur to these surface water rights in that two-year period.”

Rein added that if the decision is going to be made, the division will need to set a date for the call to begin in the future, which could be anything between “one month and two years.”

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