A water conservancy district has put a call on the White River, an action that has the potential to alter the system for other water users.

On Dec. 1, the Rangely-based Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District placed a call for its water right of 620 cubic feet per second at the Taylor Draw Dam hydroelectric plant, which the district owns and operates. It is only the second-ever call on the White River. A call occurs when a water rights holder isn’t getting the full amount of water to which they are entitled and upstream water users are shut off or “curtailed” so that the downstream user can get their full amount.

“I think maybe it’s a little strong to say it’s going to be life-changing, but it’s going to be significant, especially if we start seeing a call year-round,” said Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 6 Engineer Erin Light. “I think it could really change the regime that everyone in that basin is accustomed to. I think there’s not much question that the basin would become overappropriated.”

DWR designated the nearby Yampa River basin as overappropriated earlier this year, which means that there’s more water on paper than real water in the system at certain times of year and new well users will have to get a water-replacement plan, known as an augmentation plan.

Under Colorado water law, older water rights get first use of the river. In this case, water users junior to the district’s 1966 water right are being shut off. This time of year, that mostly means some industrial users and those who pull water from the river to water their livestock but who don’t have a water right for that specific use, Light said.

Under Colorado water law, watering livestock from ditches during irrigation season is included under an irrigation water right. But in the winter, when fields are not being irrigated, ranchers need a separate decree specifically for livestock watering if they want to continue using their ditches to water the animals.

The Rangely-based Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has placed a call on the White River for its 620-cfs water right at the hydropower plant. Division of Water Resources staff have shut off water to some upstream users who water their livestock with ditches in the winter. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Reduced hydropower revenues

According to a news release from the district, the ongoing drought has significantly reduced seasonal inflows into Kenney Reservoir, which has reduced power production at the dam. According to the district, electricity production has been reduced by 35%, which has reduced the district’s revenues.

District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink said in an email that the district’s full water right was not being met several months out of the year and that the call will remain on until the full water right or capacity of the turbine is met. The district also has a 1982 water right for 125 cfs.

The news release said the district is sensitive to the hardships that the call may have on other water users and is working to create a White River augmentation plan, with a backup water supply for junior users.

Light said her office has curtailed about 10 ditches and two industrial water users since the call came Dec. 1, but assuming the call will be on whenever the river flows at less than 620 cfs, there will be more water rights and water usage curtailed in the summer and fall. During the irrigation season, there will be about 500 ditches and pumps that water commissioners will have to visit to see how much water they are using and whether they are using it legally, she said.

The U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge on the White River above Rangely is currently ice-affected and not giving a reading, but Light said she is certain that the 620-cfs water right at the dam is still not being met, even with curtailing upstream junior users. The river is probably running at about 300 cfs going into Kenney Reservoir, she said. Stream gauge data over the last half dozen years show that outside of seasonal peak flows, the White River near Rangely normally runs below 620 cfs.

Kenney Reservoir, five miles east of Rangely, in October 2020. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District owns and operates the reservoir. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Wake-up call

The White River flows from the Flat Tops west through Meeker and Rangely to its confluence with the Green River in Utah. This sparsely populated basin has seen little regulatory oversight from the state, and water users could generally take as much water as they needed. But that is changing. For the past few years, Division 6 staffers have been pushing water users to install measuring devices on their ditches and canals.

“In Division 6, our basin that has the most number of structures by far without measuring devices is the White River,” Light said. “Unfortunately, probably at the onset of this call in the summer, we will be shutting people off without measuring devices.”

Will Myers is an engineer and rancher on the Williams Fork, a tributary of the Yampa River, and he also serves as the agriculture representative on the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable. Getting a water court decree for stock watering is the best way for agricultural producers to protect their practices, he said, especially in an area not used to strict administration by state officials because there has historically been enough water to go around.

“Any time you have something like this happen, it’s kind of a wake-up call for those in the ag community,” Myers said. “Just because you’ve always done something doesn’t mean you’re not susceptible to an actual legit administrative call.”

Ongoing drought and the impacts of a warming climate are at least partially fueling a trend in never-before-seen calls in parts of western Colorado. In 2018, the Yampa River saw its first-ever call, and the Crystal River saw its first-ever senior irrigation call.

“If that’s indeed true — that we are going to continue to see a drying climate — we are going to continue to see senior water rights not being met,” Light said. “I think that’s become clearly evident in the last four years.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story ran in the Dec. 12 edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Craig Press.

Heather Sackett

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...