Community Agriculture Alliance: Land conservation promotes water security in Northwest Colorado
Despite the recent surge of wet weather, Colorado is currently on track to have the fourth-driest year on record since the state began measuring water levels in the 1890s.
This news likely does not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the thirsty, cracked earth around Stagecoach Reservoir or the meager flows of the Yampa River that forced an early end to tubing and fishing season in Steamboat Springs over the summer.
The drought conditions became so severe in August that an unprecedented call was placed on the Yampa River, meaning senior water right holders downstream were not receiving their full allotments. At that time, our snowmelt-dependent river system had been reduced to little more than a trickle as it neared the state line. Gauging stations were measuring a paltry 20 cubic feet per second before the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers.
The recent administrative call on the Yampa should also serve as a wake-up call for all of Colorado. Facing the prospect of a drier climate and a rapidly growing population, there is a very real possibility that Colorado will struggle to provide enough water to meet the needs of its residents, agricultural operations and wildlife during future drought years.
While proactively addressing this issue before it comes to a head will require a massive coordinated effort among all stakeholders, land conservation provides one avenue to alleviate some of the strain on our state’s water resources by offering a market-based solution to the problems at hand.
Land conservation organizations like the Yampa Valley Land Trust contribute to Colorado’s water security through the use of conservation easements. These voluntary agreements between land trusts and private landowners contain deed restrictions limiting the commercial and residential development of certain lands, with the landowner receiving financial incentives as compensation for the decrease in property value. Many people don’t realize that these legal documents can also be used to safeguard water resources.
If there are important water rights associated with a property conserved by Yampa Valley Land Trust, those rights are typically tied to the land through the easement. This ensures that adjudicated water rights — especially invaluable senior water rights — can never be sold, transferred away from conserved lands or otherwise diverted out of the Yampa River watershed. They will instead be used to keep agricultural lands productive, provide return flows that help recharge the water table and supply important habitat for wildlife.
As our limited water resources become subject to new pressures over time, water security is an issue that we will need to grapple with both at the state level and in Routt County. Of course, land conservation is not a cure-all for addressing future water shortages in Colorado. But keeping adjudicated water rights tied to the Yampa River basin marks an important step in helping our community mitigate some of the impacts we will face in drought years to come.
Bryce Hinchman is a conservation associate at Yampa Valley Land Trust. To learn more about land and water conservation in Routt County, visit yvlt.org.
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