CRAIG — After 19 years of extended drought in the Colorado River basin, water users in Northwest Colorado are concerned that the region could become a “sacrificial lamb” as the state seeks to reduce water use to meet downstream demands.
As Colorado water officials begin work on a new “demand management” system to reduce water consumption, members of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, which met Jan. 9 in Craig, are seeking to make sure the cutbacks don’t disproportionately impact their river basins, including the Yampa, White and Green rivers. The concerns prompted the creation of a new Big River Committee, which met for the first time Jan. 9, to advocate for the basin on state and regional issues across the Colorado River system.
“We’re already doing our fair share,” said Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, a basin roundtable member and fourth-generation cattle rancher. “[In the Yampa basin] we already use only 10 percent of our water — 90 percent of our water goes to Lake Powell.”
There is relatively little reservoir storage on the Yampa River — less than 72,000 acre feet of water on the main stem and a total of 113,000 acre feet in the basin — compared to other major rivers in the West, meaning most of the water feeds into the Colorado River system and eventually Lake Powell.
“Such a small part of our native flow is developed, and there are concerns about how much should fall on the shoulders of our basin to send past the state line when we already don’t use very much,” said Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable Chair Jackie Brown, who is the natural resources policy advisor for Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
Indeed, data shows that consumptive water use in the Yampa basin averaged about 182,000 acre feet of water annually between 1990 and 2013, or about 10 percent of the basin’s total 1.74-million acre feet of average annual stream flow, according to hydrologic models used by the state.
By comparison, upper Colorado River stream flows averaged about 3.8 million acre feet of water over the same time period, not including the Gunnison River. Consumptive use equaled about 908,000 acre feet, or about 24 percent of the basin’s total water, according to the same data source.
But Colorado water law doesn’t account for such discrepancies across basins, and prioritizes water use according to a system based on dates tied to the initiation of a water right, often described as “first in time, first in right.”
“The Yampa and the White both were settled at such a later time period than the Front Range and some other areas, and we’re that much further behind in priority dates,” Monger said. “If we want to go forward on the prior appropriation system for allocating future water — last one in is the first one cut — that absolutely doesn’t work for us.”
Many roundtable members believe the Yampa and White river basins should have the right to develop their water resources further in the future.
“We’re the sacrificial lamb if they were to lock things in the way they are now,” said Kevin McBride, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a member of the Big River Committee.
However, such worries are largely speculative at the moment, as the mechanisms of a demand management program are far from decided and drought contingency planning hasn’t yet been finalized.
“This is the very, very beginning of the demand management conversation,” said Brent Newman, the interstate, federal and water information section chief for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The board has already committed to avoiding “disproportionate negative economic or environmental impacts to any single sub-basin or region within Colorado while protecting the legal rights of water holders,” according to a policy statement adopted by the agency’s board in November.
“We want to make sure no basin is a target basin, and as best we can, make sure reductions are shared equitably across the state, across basins and the divide,” Newman said. “We’re trying to make things fair.”
If a compact call were to occur — a demand by lower basin states for more water to be sent downstream according to the Colorado River Compact — then it is widely expected that Colorado water officials will use the prior appropriation doctrine to curtail water use based on seniority.
“We want to be proactive and avoid a compact call instead of being reactive and responding to crisis if it came to pass,” Newman said.
“Big river” issues aside, Northwest Colorado water users are feeling the squeeze after record-breaking heat and drought in 2018 prompted the first-ever call on the Yampa River.
Furthermore, officials at the Colorado Division of Water Resources will examine this year whether the Yampa and the White rivers should be designated as “over-appropriated,” Division Engineer Erin Light told roundtable members at the Jan. 9 meeting.
The designation would signal that there is not enough water to meet demands during dry years, and new water rights would be conditional to available water supply.
But even as water users start to adjust to the new local reality, roundtable members are preparing for an uphill battle to argue their case regarding demand management.
“We’re already sending as much water as we can,” Monger said. “We’re paying the bill for Colorado.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story was also published by the Steamboat Pilot, the Craig Press, and Coyote Gulch.