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White River dam and reservoir project headed for water court trial

Heather Sackett / Aspen Journalism
The White River runs between Meeker and Rangely. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the state of Colorado are headed to a water court trial because they can’t agree on whether the district actually needs the water it claims it does for a reservoir and dam project.
Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

A water court case is headed toward trial because the state of Colorado and a water conservancy district still cannot agree on whether the district actually needs the amount of water it claims it does for a large dam and reservoir project in the northwest corner of the state.

Expert reports from an engineering firm, an aquatic ecologist and an economics firm outline how they say the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District can and will put its water storage rights to beneficial use. But even after Rio Blanco reduced the amount of water it’s asking for by more than 23,000 acre-feet, a report from Colorado’s top water engineers indicates the district still largely has a project in search of a need.

In their expert report submitted Aug. 31, Deputy State Engineer Tracy Kosloff and Division 6 Engineer Erin Light outline 11 instances where they say Rio Blanco has not met the requirements of state law by showing it has a specific plan and intent for the water it says it needs.

According to the report, Rio Blanco has not shown a need for water above its current supply in the categories of irrigation, municipal use, recreation, maintenance and recovery of endangered species or a back-up water supply to protect against a compact call. State engineers are asking that part or all of the water claimed for these uses be removed from the court’s final decree and deducted from the total water rights claim.

A pre-trial readiness conference is scheduled for Nov. 13. The case is scheduled to go to a 10-day trial starting Jan. 4 in Routt County District Court in Steamboat Springs, but the parties could still reach a settlement before then.

In 2014 Rio Blanco applied for a 90,000 acre-foot conditional water-storage right on the White River and proposed a dam and reservoir between Rangely and Meeker, known as the White River storage project or the Wolf Creek project. The district has now reduced that claim to either 66,720 acre-feet for an off-channel reservoir or 72,720 acre-feet for an on-channel reservoir.

There are two proposed versions of the project: one that would construct a dam and reservoir on the White River (the scale of this project is now rare in Colorado) or an off-channel reservoir at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch, in the arid sagebrush hills just north of the river.

The conservancy district would prefer to build the off-channel option: a 66,720-acre-foot reservoir, with a dam that is 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long. An off-channel reservoir would involve pumping water uphill from the river into the reservoir.

Rio Blanco is a taxpayer-supported special district that was formed in 1992 to operate and maintain Taylor Draw Dam, which creates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely. The district extends roughly from the Yellow Creek confluence with the White River to the Utah state line.

Disputed amounts and uses

Rio Blanco says the project should store 7,000 acre-feet annually for irrigation. But Light and Kosloff’s report says according to the 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan, the irrigated acres in the White River Basin are projected to decrease in the future, and that this storage project, because it is situated low in the basin, cannot serve the majority of the irrigated lands anyway, which are concentrated upstream along the mainstem of the White River near Meeker and along tributaries like Piceance Creek.

“Per the proposed decree, the applicant is once again requesting the court award irrigation use,” the engineer’s expert report reads. “The engineers continue to contend there is no evidence to suggest that there is a future water need for this purpose.”

Rio Blanco says some of the water would also be used in a future augmentation plan to replace depletions within the district that are out of priority due to a Colorado River Compact curtailment.

Rio Blanco is proposing that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance in case of a compact call. According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to Lake Powell for use by the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). If the upper basin doesn’t make this delivery, the lower basin can “call” for its water, triggering involuntary cutbacks in water use for the upper basin.

By releasing this replacement water stored in the proposed reservoir to meet these compact obligations, it would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.

But state engineers say compact compliance is a problem to be tackled by the state and not individual water users. And since no one knows exactly how compact compliance would unfold (that’s still to be decided by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the state engineer) it’s not possible for Rio Blanco to have a plan in place for this augmentation water.

Light and Kosloff’s report says there is no recognized beneficial use that allows a water right “to provide water to users outside of Colorado for the purpose of allowing ongoing diversions of water rights within Colorado.”

Rio Blanco claims it needs three years-worth of drought contingency storage for uses within the basin. But state engineers say that there has never been a call on the White River below the town of Meeker, even in the driest years, and the likelihood of the reservoir being able to fill during the runoff season every year is extremely high. Light and Kosloff point out that not even Denver Water or Aurora Water have three times their annual demand in reserve.

The state also says Rio Blanco has overestimated the amount of water the town of Rangely will need, and that the need for the full amount claimed for recreation water is unsubstantiated, as is the need for water for the recovery of endangered fish species.

No comment from engineers, district officials

State engineers declined to talk to Aspen Journalism about their expert report.

Rio Blanco District Manager Alden Vanden Brink also declined to comment on the state’s opposition, citing concerns about litigation. Vanden Brink also is chair of the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

But another roundtable member says the project doesn’t hold water. Deirdre Macnab owns 4M Ranch, which is adjacent to the proposed project site, and was until recently the sole remaining opposer in the case. She recently pulled out of the formal water court process, citing mounting legal costs, but still opposes the project.

“Families living in western Rio Blanco County should be aware that a project that the professionals say doesn’t show any justification would put them in debt for years, and not just paying for the hundreds of millions in construction costs, but also almost a million dollars every year in electricity costs to pump the water up and over the dam,” Macnab said in a written statement. “Do Rio Blanco citizens really think this is in our economic best interests?”

Despite the state opposing the current project proposal, since 2013 it has also given roughly $850,000 to Rio Blanco in the form of Colorado Water Conservation Board grants to study the project. The Colorado River Water Conservation District has also given Rio Blanco $50,000 to investigate the feasibility of the project.

River District General Manager Andy Mueller said the multi-purpose water uses outlined in the project is the way water projects should be put together.

“Identifying the right-size project for the White River is still very important,” he said. “The specifics about the White River storage project as it’s currently proposed I think are things that still need to be worked out.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers.


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