Valley looks north for more water
Buyers in Eagle County are in line for $5 million of Routt County water, but the project that would provide it has yet to be approved and is facing concerns from water users and officials.
The Flat Tops Water Co. is working out the details of a deal that would send 1,250 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River Basin. The water comes from return flows left over from irrigation on a few thousand acres of ranchland near Toponas.
The deal is being watched by water experts because it involves a transbasin diversion of Yampa River water to users in the Colorado River Basin. Because of the lay of the Toponas ranchland involved, that transbasin diversion has long happened through irrigation, the company asserts, saying now it simply wants to claim and sell the return-flow rights.
Water users on the Yampa River side fear more water could be diverted to the Colorado River than happens through irrigation. They also fear the project could set an unwanted precedent.
Water users on the Colorado River side fear faulty accounting could mean nonexistent water is sold and bought, leaving other water users high and dry.
The water deal takes advantage of a unique land situation and a historical irrigation pattern. Bear Valley, where the Yampa River starts, is the origin of the project.
Flat Tops Water owns storage and direct-flow water rights in the Yampa River drainage. The company has 20 members across the nation and was formed to file for return flow rights, said Kirk Shiner, a Toponas rancher and local member of the company.
Much of its water is diverted downstream from Yamcolo Reservoir by the Stillwater Ditch, according to a water engineering report.
The ditch, which carries water from nearby reservoirs and the Bear River, climbs for about 18 miles out of the valley and onto Five Pine Mesa, where Shiner has grown hay and grazed cattle since 1985. Water from the ditch and other sources has been used to irrigate Five Pine Mesa for more than 70 years, said water attorney Glenn Porzak, who represents Flat Tops Water and plan co-sponsor, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority.
When the water is applied at the northern portion of the mesa, leftovers end up back in the Yampa River, where it is available to downstream users. But when the water is applied to southern portion of the mesa, leftovers seep through the ground and within a couple months, feed into Egeria and Smith creeks, or Wohler Gulch, which drain into the Colorado River.
Since the return flows end up in another basin, they are especially valuable: They are senior to all other water rights, and can be used and reused to extinction.
The engineering report states that almost 1,400 acre-feet historically has been transported to the Colorado River basin. Flat Tops Water wants to claim and then sell most of that water.
In wet years, the water would be used to irrigate fields and the return flows would collect in the Colorado-side creeks. But in dry years, water will not be used for irrigation, and instead will go straight to storage and to the end-users in the Colorado River drainage, the report states.
At $4,250 an acre-foot, the deal could bring in $5.3 million if it is approved, Porzak said.
Eagle Park Reservoir, a 2,000-acre-foot reservoir at the headwaters of the Eagle River, along with the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which serves eastern Eagle County, filed in December to purchase the Flat Tops Water rights.
The project is well on its way, attorney Porzak said, and could wrap up in the next year.
“It’s very much in the technical and engineering phase,” Porzak said. “We have met with all of the parties and answered a lot of their questions.”
If opposing parties are not content with Flat Tops Water’s answers, the case could go to a water court for resolution, he said. Shiner said that while many water deals end up drying ranches to supply thirsty cities, this one will not.
“We’re going to continue to irrigate with it, or ranch with it, and that’s the most important thing,” Shiner said.