Community Ag Alliance: Water, water — but not everywhere
December 6, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As we all know, this past year has been a drought. Here's a little of what happened and is happening.
Local hydrology is considered "snowmelt dominated." No surprise there. This is true here in the Yampa River Basin and the southwestern United States in general.
Water builds during the winter and runs off in the spring through early summer, providing water from Yampa to Los Angeles, California.
Locally, Snotel sites, which measure the water content of our snowpack, saw about 70 percent of normal last winter. It was much worse throughout most of the rest of the Colorado River Basin. These forecasts are watched from Hayden to Tucson, as both are considered users of the Colorado River to which the Yampa is a tributary.
What we actually see in our streams can differ considerably from the forecast. This year, a cascade of events left us with less than 70 percent of normal. We think lower elevations had way less snow.
Remember how your yard looked last spring? This lack of low-elevation snow led to ranchers’ hay meadows being dryer, needing more water just to begin the irrigation season.
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Irrigation is the biggest single user of water in Colorado, and we all like to eat. Events finished with very little rain this growing season — who could have predicted that? And it was hot.
In the water business, we talk about two ways a drought can limit water availability. Those are physical and legal water availability. Physical impacts are just what you think; no liquid. Legal water availability is what the state of Colorado's water laws and water rights are all about. These specific laws are only enforceable within the state of Colorado.
On a given river, the first person, historically, to use water and prove it in court has the first right to it. The "senior" water right must be satisfied for other "juniors" to use water. When juniors are shut off, that is referred to as a "call" on the river. This is the "prior appropriation doctrine.”
During this year's drought, the state of Colorado, through the State Division Engineer’s Office, placed such a call from the lowest part of the river for the first time. This call from Lily Park, below Maybell, impacted many users upstream.
To make drought matters more interesting, the entire Colorado River is in drought. You may have read about the concerns with lakes Powell and Mead. Remember the Yampa is a major tributary to the Colorado River, which flows through them. Outside of Colorado, the laws change.
Unlike prior appropriation, the Colorado River Compact and its related agreements control legal water between states. That's probably good for Yampa users since, otherwise, California might have claimed most of the upstream water through prior appropriation.
How these agreements will impact the Yampa River and its users is a work in progress. Stay tuned — we at the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District are. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District is committed to "responsibly conserving, protecting, developing, providing and enhancing the water resources of the Yampa River Basin.”
Kevin McBride is general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.