Ag water lows in South Routt described as ‘worst in lifetime’

THEN AND NOW — The Yampa River as it winds through Phippsburg two years ago during better water conditions and how it looks today. (Photo by Scott Hummer)

State of Colorado Water Commissioner Scott Hummer, whose position administers water rights in south Routt County, said longtime ranching families fear this is the worst year for water availability in their lifetimes.

“No one living has experienced the extreme conditions we’re dealing with on the ground currently,” said Hummer, now in his fifth irrigation season as water commissioner for South Routt in his 31-year career in water administration in Colorado.

“It is definitely the worst since I have lived here for 45 years,” said South Routt rancher and hay producer Andi Schaffner, a former water commissioner for 26 years. “2002 was bad in terms of stream flow, but this year, we are also seeing the impacts much more on springs and stock water.”

Schaffner said a spring used to water livestock on her family’s rural property was running at 29 gallons per minute in mid-July 2020, while this week, the spring is running at only 2 gallons per minute.

Many agricultural water users in the Bear River drainage in South Routt have already had their headgates shut and water to ditches curtailed, which is sooner than in previous summers. Water officials say some agricultural water users are not going to be able to irrigate at all, or many may not be able to irrigate as they have in past years.

“The issue this season is simply the total lack of priority water available to those who have become accustomed to maintaining their operations with a reliance on junior water rights,” Hummer said. “We only have enough water available for the most senior rights to divert in priority.”

Local Water Division 6 Engineer Erin Light said the Yampa River below the town of Yampa has always relied on return flows of water, primarily from irrigated land up the Bear River.

“With limited reservoir water to put on this irrigated land and the extremely dry conditions, return flows to the Yampa River are reduced significantly or nonexistent.” Light said.

Officials note little return flows from upstream irrigation means little water returning to the river for concerns such as healthy fish habitat. Below Stagecoach Reservoir, Colorado Parks and Wildlife implemented a mandatory fishing closure May 25 on a 0.6-mile stretch of the river below the dam, where water releases are 20% of average.

Holly Kirkpatrick, external affairs manager for the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District that manages Yamcolo and Stagecoach reservoirs, said the district continues to work with the Colorado Water Trust, which will lease water later this summer and fall to release reservoir water into the Yampa River when the water drops below healthy levels and water temperatures spike.

Yampa River below Oakton Ditch in June 2021. (Photo by Scott Hummer)

One river drainage that had never been placed completely on call from senior water owners is the Hunt Creek drainage west of the town of Yampa in the Crosho Lake area. Usually, two of the five creeks in the drainage might go on call, but this year, already all five tributaries, or the entire Hunt Creek system, are on call, Hummer said. This means more than a dozen of those agricultural water users have no water flows in their ditches and diversions.

Hummer said many agricultural ditches are running at one-third normal capacity, which impacts livestock and hay production.

“The ditches, reservoirs and stream flows are between 25% to 30% of what would be normal this time of year,” Hummer said. “At least a half dozen creeks in my area have not produced any surface water flows at all.”

Any additional water for agricultural water users comes from a limited storage supply from higher reservoirs that are already suffering from lower water levels early this season, Light said. Yamcolo and Stillwater agricultural reservoirs southwest of the town of Yampa are popular with recreationists, yet Stillwater Reservoir currently is at about one-third full of normal capacity and Yamcolo Reservoir about 57% full, Hummer said.

Schaffner predicted Stillwater Reservoir later this summer “will likely be lower than it has been since 1977 when it was completely drained, with no pool of water except for a stream running through it.” She predicts Yamcolo Reservoir also will be critically low by the end of summer.

Water officials say gauges and records show the current inflow of upstream water into Stagecoach Reservoir is at about 6% of the historic average. The inflow to Stagecoach this week has ranged from 6 to 7 cubic feet per second, with the minimum inflow this year so far at 4.66 cfs June 12, Kirkpatrick said. The historic average inflow to Stagecoach for this week is usually 104 to 108 cfs.

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