City Council FYI: Yampa River management could face new norm

Sonja Macys/For Steamboat Pilot & Today

The recent and unprecedented call on the Yampa River has generated questions, concerns and even fear. But it is hard to say that this came as a surprise. If you have been tracking the status of the Yampa this summer, you likely saw this coming.

Sonja Macys

River closures are the most “public facing” signs of river distress that we see. And this summer, we saw one of the longest river closures in recent history. Triggers, such as high temperatures, low dissolved oxygen levels and flows lower than 85 cubic feet per second, provoke these river closures. The agencies charged with calling and enforcing closures have a difficult task. They must curtail people’s use and enjoyment of the Yampa to preserve river health, the foundation upon which all other activities rest.

Since 2012, the city has partnered with the Colorado Water Trust and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District to strategically release water from Stagecoach Reservoir into the Yampa River. In past years, this has led to shorter closures. But this year, it was simply not enough.   

Today is a new day. The call on the Yampa River has been described as “a day of reckoning,” and a “wake up call.” But what does that mean?

For different types of water users, it means different things. In the Yampa Valley, of the “big three” users — industrial, municipal and agricultural — the greatest potential impacts are on industrial and agricultural uses, with Tri-State Generation & Transmission being the largest industrial user.

As a municipality, the city of Steamboat Springs has been preparing for this moment for the past three decades. The city’s augmentation plans provide guidance on how to handle a call on the Yampa, allowing municipal operations to continue without service interruptions under Stage II Water Restrictions.

Soon the city will winterize parks and recreation properties. And as the leaves change and fall from the trees, natural vegetation will consume less water. Agricultural irrigation is winding down. Pressures on the Yampa will soon decrease, and we can reasonably expect that the call will be lifted in mid-October.

What are some takeaways from the call? The city is prepared for an annual call to become the new normal. And the community seems to be as well. River closures and water use restrictions are widely accepted.

But I was surprised to learn how common it is for water rights users to be without measuring devices. Talking to locals about this takes me back to a simpler time when local ranches were run by local ranchers. I am told that water management for agricultural purposes was easier in those times. If your neighbor needed a little more, maybe you took a little less. And there was nothing that couldn’t be worked out around the dinner table.

With the call on the Yampa River, these traditions slip ever further into the past. During the call, those without measuring devices have been shut down, regardless of priority. Given that, it is hard for me to understand why folks would be without a measuring device. This important tool protects private property, the water right, just as a fence might protect private land. In pondering this, I wondered if they may be viewed as an unnecessary layer — or bureaucracy — in a system that is otherwise working just fine.

In times of a call, having a measuring device makes the difference between being able to put a water right to beneficial use and not. How else can you prove that you have been putting that right to use and that therefore it has value. How else can you protect your investment?

Given the extended period of drought we are experiencing and the relative state of alarm we feel for our water resources, it is reasonable to expect that the Division of Water Resources will become ever more “hands-on” in monitoring these devices.

The times are changing, and the tools are changing. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that the Yampa is, and always has been, a shared treasure. Moving forward, we may work differently than we did in the past to protect it and to put our water rights to beneficial use. But let’s not fight that change. Let’s look at it as formalizing that good neighbor agreement of the past.

Sonja Macys is a member of Steamboat Springs City Council.

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