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Powerful water interests eye rural river

Tom Ross

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS (AP) Standing in a high-mountain meadow on a June morning in the summer of his 94th year, John Fetcher likes what he sees.Sand Mountain and its lingering snowfields dominates the view from the upper Fetcher Ranch. Fetcher is irrigating his cattle pasture, and the world seems right. But the early summer breeze that rustles the willows along the creek whispers of changes to come.Isnt that beautiful? Fetcher says with a note of boyish enthusiasm. I get water up here to the pasture from the creek by gravity. In three weeks, or two weeks, this creek will be way down. We usually run out of water on July 4. Pretty soon, well start haying.Never one to not work, Fetcher still goes to his office at the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District several days a week when he isnt working on the ranch. Lanky and with powerful hands, he expresses dismay at the dead timber he encounters near one of his irrigation ditches. He threatens to return the next day and clean it up with a chain saw.Fetchers ranch sits high in the watershed, tucked against the 10,000-foot mountains that store moisture in the form of snow. The peaks of the Elk Range ensure there will be adequate moisture for his hay fields for generations to come. But Colorados water supply is finite, and demand is increasing across the state.

The river system that sustains the people of the Yampa Valley faces an uncertain future. Powerful water interests are focusing their gaze on the Yampa River. They are looking for ways to satisfy unmet demand for water enough for the next 30 years.As water managers and politicians look for answers, the Yampa is conspicuous for its abundance of water. Steamboat Springs attorney Tom Sharp, who holds posts on several boards that oversee water planning in this part of the West, says the Yampa River system yields about 1.2 million acre-feet of water every year. But Northwest Colorado communities and residents use just one-tenth of that, or about 120,000 acre-feet.Put those facts together, and its plain to see why the Yampa is the subject of increasing attention.Russell George, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, spelled it out during a speech he gave on June 1. He said that in the future, the Yampa River and its tributaries may be needed to help satisfy the needs and obligations of the state. That could involve cross-basin shifting of water, George said, and construction of new water storage facilities. He was blunt in saying that resisting the coming changes would be an exercise in futility.Under the Colorado Water for the Twenty-first Century Act, George said Colorado would reach water management decisions by looking at the overall state water supply.That has scared the daylights out of a couple of basins, and one of them is right here, George said. Why not put it on the table and face it? Face our fear. Face our enemy, who could be our neighbor.Three and a half years after the record drought of 2002 forced water issues to the surface of Coloradans collective consciousness, the signs of change are hard to mistake in the Yampa Valley.The $19.5 million expansion of the Elkhead Reservoir near Craig is within a year of completion. The expansion required the cooperation of numerous government agencies, but what stands out is the marriage of dam builders and conservationists determined to restore populations of struggling fish that are native to the Yampa and the Green rivers. When complete, the Elkhead expansion will provide water to restore minimum flows needed to sustain the Colorado pikeminnow. But it also will give the Colorado River Water Conservation District permission to look for new water storage projects in the basin. And there will be more water for the city of Craig.The economics of putting water to work in the Yampa Valley also are evolving. Affluent vacationers and second-home owners will pay several hundred dollars a day for the opportunity to fish on private waters and be photographed holding a trophy trout. Fishing guide Kent Vertrees said fly fishing shops will pay rod fees of at least $185 a day to landowners for every sport they are allowed to chaperone for a private angling experience. The price can go up if there are above-average trout in the water, or even when the fish are allowed to rest for a day or two between visits.Steamboat also has joined other Colorado mountain towns that have successfully acquired junior water rights to ensure that a minimal amount of water for kayakers continues to flow through manmade whitewater play parks. The city went to water court to assert its right to do so.

The thirst for Rocky Mountain water doesnt end in Northwest Colorado or along the Front Range. Hundreds of miles downstream, cities and farmers in other states have a long-standing right to the majority of the water in the Colorado River system. Its a right theyve had for almost 85 years.Compacts that determine how Colorado is to share water with its neighbors downstream govern all the major rivers that flow out of the state. The old way of managing each river system independently of the others was not efficient, George said.Our neighbors have liked that weve been inefficient in how we use our water statewide, he added.Colorados flexibility to meet the demand for water is limited by the Colorado River Compact of 1922. It determines how much of the water that flows out of the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains can be retained by upper basin states Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah, and how much water they must allow to flow to the lower basin states Arizona, Nevada and California. A smaller amount of water also goes to Mexico.Simply put, Colorado is obligated to allow about 75 percent of the water generated by the Colorado River system to flow to the lower basin states, said Rick Brown, acting deputy director of a state agency called the Colorado Water Conservation Board.Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, estimates that of the waters bound by the compact, there remains just 250,000 acre-feet that could be stored behind new dams. Other water experts dispute Kuhns numbers. But if he is right, Colorados margin for growth is small.Kuhns estimate takes into account another 250,000 acre-feet already tied up in planned water projects. His agency was formed to balance Western Slope water interests with those of the Front Range.Brown said he agrees with Kuhn on some significant points, but he estimates the state still could develop between 450,000 and 1.2 million acre-feet of water for consumptive use. But there are tradeoffs to be weighed, he cautioned. If the state comes close to developing all the water it is entitled to, it must weigh the risk that a prolonged drought could force it to cut back on use to fulfill its obligations. That could result in economic hardship.The constraints of the Compact are significant to the future of the Yampa.Weve begun to outgrow, in many places, the water supply, George said. If there is more demand than supply, how do we address it? Were not going to be able to stop demand in excess of supply.This story from the Steamboat Pilot & Today via The Associated Press.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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