Call on the Yampa River delayed as flows fall critically low near Dinosaur National Monument
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Yampa River is in a critical state, especially in its lower stretch, which runs through Dinosaur National Monument.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division Engineer Erin Light delayed a call on the river, which would curtail users according to the doctrine of prior appropriation. The delay comes as water managers wait to see if increased flows in the upper Yampa reach Dinosaur.
The Yampa River has never been placed on call.
“The last pumps on the river were sweeping the river,” Light said of her Tuesday visit to the lower Yampa. “If you can imagine, literally, the Yampa River getting to the point that all the water has been taken out of it, is frightening and monumental. It never has happened.”
The Colorado Division of Water Resources places a call on a river when water rights owners do not receive the amount of water they have a legal right to. When a call is in place, some water users are forced to reduce or stop their use in order to send enough water downstream to fulfill the older water right.
Though reservoir releases have boosted flows in the upper Yampa near Steamboat Springs and Craig, it’s not clear if or when that water reaches the state line. Water managers aren’t positive that the gauge measuring flows at Deerlodge Park in Dinosaur National Monument has been providing an accurate reading.
On Tuesday, flows at Deerlodge Park fell to about 35 cubic feet per second. On Wednesday, it was up to about 70 cfs. Historically, the river flows at 351 cfs on the same date.
“It’s very extremely dynamic what we’ve got going on here,” Light said. “Obviously the rains affect everything. As much as we love the rain, it makes it difficult to see what’s going on in the system and what effects it’s going to have, but the reservoir water that was in the river before is now being reduced.”
The Colorado Water Trust has been releasing reservoir water to increase flows for aquatic habitat and recreational use. Tri-State Generation and Transmission added a significant boost in flows with released reservoir water to maintain power generation at Craig Station. As weekend rain has increased flows, the organizations have slowed their releases.
“They only have so much contract water, and they have to manage and budget that contract water for times when it’s critical for their purpose,” Light said.
Last week, total releases from Stagecoach Reservoir jumped from 65 cfs to 125 cfs, Light said. This fell back to 70 cfs Wednesday. Releases from Elkhead Reservoir between Hayden and Craig were also reduced, from 75 cfs to 25 cfs.
“The reservoir water and the rainwater has hit Craig, and it has hit Maybell, but it’s just not getting to Deerlodge,” Light said. “I’m hoping it will.”
The first to be curtailed are those that do not have a water right or do not have a measuring device on their water intake. Then, users with the newest water rights are curtailed, followed by those with older rights.
All water rights holders on the main stem of the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir have measuring devices, which are required to ensure that reservoir releases of water make it to the users that purchased the water. This is not the case on several tributaries and ditches that flow into the Yampa.
“On the tributaries, there’s going to be a much greater effect, initially,” Light said. She explained that many of these water rights holders do not have measuring devices on their intakes, which would automatically place them on call first.
Light said the fact that, if it occurs, this would be the first call on the Yampa, and that has made her and the water users on the river “very cautious.”
“We’re very hesitant about this scenario,” Light said. “Who wants to be the one that’s been tagged as being the first one to actually request administration by our office?”
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