Adapting to dry periods key for Yampa River water users, regardless of larger Colorado River crisis |

Adapting to dry periods key for Yampa River water users, regardless of larger Colorado River crisis

Yampa Integrated Water Management plan offers recommendations to help users better manage water

The Yampa River is seen from an EcoFlight tour with Friends of the Yampa on Feb. 4. The Yampa River eventually feeds into the Colorado River, which is facing an unprecedented challenge due to rising temperatures and a decades-long drought.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Yampa Valley water officials participated in a bus tour of some Lower Colorado River Basin states last month, revealing a range of efforts to ease a water crisis on the river that supports 40 million people.

Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said that at the top of the lower basin near Lake Powell, much of the infrastructure, policy and decision-making is entrenched in a 1960s mindset, where users take their full allotment.

But farther down the system, where millions in southern California use the water, Rossi said, water managers are making significant investments in various reclamation projects.

“At the bottom end, you’ve really got the state-of-the art acceptance that there’s a problem, and we need to do something and we’re going to spend a ton of money because we have 19-20 million people at stake here,” Rossi said during a discussion with Routt County commissioners on Monday, Dec. 5. “Along the way there’s varying degrees of understanding or acceptance of what the problem is.”

Rossi emphasized that while the lower basin states have been taking more than the allotted 7.5 million-acre feet of water each year, the 100-year-old Colorado River Compact allows for that.

The other key takeaway for Rossi was that the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages many of the key reservoirs in the system, is “100% focused” on the lower basin and managing use. The bureau has said the use of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water needs to be cut from the system.

“It’s very clear that their mindset is ‘how do we optimize and prioritize efficient use for the lower basin,’” Rossi said.

For users in the Yampa River Basin, which lacks any reservoirs controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation, Rossi said the focus needs to be on how to exist with the water that is there, not what the compact theoretically allows.

A gauging station on the Yampa River at Maybell in Moffat County.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Yampa River does have an obligation in the 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact requiring 5 million acre-feet of water to pass by the Maybell gauge in any 10-year period. How a call to ensure compliance with that compact would be administered isn’t entirely clear, Rossi said. 

“I think we would be best not to get lost in the upper basin versus the lower basin and focus on what we can do here inside our basin,” Rossi said. “We’re a supply side driven basin here. That means no matter what, our water users need to learn how to survive during dry periods.”

Lindsey Marlow, executive director of Friends of the Yampa, said many strategies to help with drought issues, erosion and overall river health are outlined in the newly updated Yampa Integrated Water Management Plan. Completed in September, the update involved dozens of volunteers and stakeholder groups working together for nearly four years.

“The recommendations that came out of (the management plan) were to ensure we are managing a river in balance, so that all user groups can use it effectively while keeping it healthy and sustainable,” Marlow said.

Former Routt County Commissioner and the county’s designee on the Colorado River District board Doug Monger said that deciding how to define a river in balance was a large part of the discussion.

“Your vision of an imbalanced river might be a lot different than my vision of imbalance,” Monger said. “I appreciated that that is where our perspective ended up being.”

Marlow said the plan has 20 recommendations ranging from increased education for users to adding new infrastructure to the system. Recommendations include conducting a return flow study to understand the impact of water used for agriculture, securing funding to upgrade diversion structures in Routt and Moffat counties and creating a centrally located dashboard for a variety of data concerning river health, among other recommendations.

Rossi pointed to a number of initiatives the Upper Yampa district is leading in the management plan, such as exploring water diversions on Coal Creek and Morrison Creek that could add water to district-owned reservoirs and installing a network of soil moisture monitors in the basin.

“I’m not too concerned with what the Bureau of Reclamation asks us to do. I’m more concerned about how can our water users survive through drying times because they’re here to stay,” Rossi said. “When it goes dry, we just don’t have anything to use.”

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