After call on the Yampa, ranchers now required to keep track of water |

After call on the Yampa, ranchers now required to keep track of water

The Yampa River flows through Dinosaur National Monument around Aug. 18, 2018, shortly before the river was placed on call. The call has inspired the enforcement of a requirement that all diversions have headgates and measuring devices.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS —  When the Yampa River went on call for the first time last year, 65% of water users on the river had to cut back or stop using their water because they didn’t have a measuring device or headgate on their diversion.

In light of that, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 6 Engineer Erin Light sent water users on the Yampa a notice earlier this year, requiring that they install these devices.


Water rights: A right to use, in accordance with its priority, a certain amount of water. Older, or senior, water rights have priority over younger, or junior, rights when a call is administered.
Diversion: Removal of water from its natural course or location by canal, pipe or another conduit.
Call: Also called an administration, a call occurs when a user with senior water rights is not receiving all the water they are entitled to by law. A call forces users with junior rights to cease or diminish their diversions and pass the requested amount of water downstream until the senior water right is fulfilled.
Compact call: The requirement that an upstream state cease or curtail water use from a river system, so that downstream states’ compact entitlements may be met.
Headgate: A floodgate that controls the flow of water
Measuring device: A structure that measures how much water is being diverted

Adapted from Colorado State University Extension.

Water users must install headgates

“We know we had a problem with measuring devices … but because of this call and this recognition of a problem of having so many structures without measuring devices, I made the decision to send out notices for the installation of headgates and measuring devices,” Light told the audience at the annual State of the River presentation in Steamboat Springs earlier this month.

Light is asking users to install devices by July 31 or ask for more time. If someone does not comply with the notice or receive an extension, they’ll receive an order to install these devices. Not complying with the order can result in a locked headgate, which means a user can’t use any of their water, or a $500 fine per day for every day a user continues to divert water without a headgate.

These structures are required by law, but the Yampa River is still the Wild West when it comes to water use. The Yampa was among the last, if not the last, large rivers in the state to go on call. The area also is among the last in the state to have so many diversions without headgates.

When the river went on call, even water users who had senior water rights and were using less water than they were legally entitled to were not allowed to use their water because their ditches didn’t have measuring devices that count how much water is used.

That’s means about 65% of the devices Light and her staff track in the Yampa River basin — about 850 — were shut off.

A similar notice and order was issued after the Elk River was placed on call in 2010.

Measuring for the future

These devices are important, Light said, because, in the state’s eyes, the value of a water right is based on the record of how much water that crops, livestock and people consume.

Without a way to measure the water, this record is an estimate, with water commissioners — the people charged with monitoring water rights on the ground — taking an educated guess at how much water is flowing based on how quickly a dandelion head floats downstream.

And how the state values a water right is becoming increasingly important as water managers start to plan for the possibility of an interstate call under the Colorado River Compact, which would require Colorado to cut back use as a state in order to send water downstream. Water managers are already working to balance increased demand for water with less available water.

“Demand management” is one program under development that could pay farmers who volunteer to temporarily fallow their fields and send more water downstream.

“If you wanted to participate in any of those things, your value of your water right is based on what record you have of your water right and its use,” Light said. “If it’s just based on the water commissioner guessing, it could be a complete underestimate of what your water is really worth.”

This record is also important in maintaining a water right. Every 10 years, the state evaluates whether water users have stopped using all or some of their water right in a process called abandonment. If a water user isn’t using the water they have a right to, they could lose some or all of that right.

These devices don’t have to be anything fancy, and Light said many ranchers make their own slide gates. A box with what’s essentially a ruler affixed to the side can measure flow.

The Upper Yampa Water Conservation District, which includes much of Routt County, offers mini-grants for up to half of the project cost or $500 to assist water users with the cost of installing water control and measuring devices. Each device can earn a grant, so if a producer is installing a headgate and measuring device, they can receive up to $1,000, Upper Yampa General Manager Kevin McBride said.

More information can be found online at

A wooden headgate and measuring device on a ditch at the Fetcher Ranch in North Routt.
Courtesy Jay Fetcher

Lessons learned from the call

Last year’s call proved water shortage can happen, even in the Yampa Valley.  

“We’re not immune to administration,” Light said.

Light wants users to understand the issues of administering a call, both locally and statewide in the instance of a Colorado River Compact call. 

“Sit down and talk with your water commissioner — make an appointment with them,” she said. “Stop them on the side of the road and have a conversation with them and attend these functions that various entities are putting on to educate the water users.”

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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