Community Agriculture Alliance: Water management planning in the Yampa Valley
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Earlier this summer, a crew of engineers spread out along the Bear, Elk and Yampa rivers to document the condition of structures used to divert water for municipal and agricultural users.
They interviewed the owners to understand the structures’ history and functionality, and identified impacts to fish passage, boater safety, stability of the river banks and more. This effort, supported by the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, will identify in-river infrastructure ripe for upgrades or replacement.
The history of irrigation in the Yampa basin dates back to the 1880s, continues today and is a necessary part of successful and profitable agriculture. But trends outside the control of local farmers and ranchers are turning attention to their efficient use of water.
Less snow, hotter and drier summers, water for endangered and native species, increasing municipal water needs for a growing population — all of these changes will turn a public eye to the private use of water.
The need to measure, report and upgrade structures for diversion of water isn’t just something that local farmers and ranchers should do someday. More than 500 local orders were issued by the state of Colorado to install headgates and measuring devices, and the penalty for not complying is loss of use of that water. Protecting the use of agricultural water and improving the ability of farmers and ranchers to use their water are goals of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.
At the same time, the Basin Roundtable is conducting an assessment of the ecological condition and recreational use of the Bear, Elk and Yampa rivers. Teams are exploring questions such as, “Where are flows too low to support healthy fish populations?” and “Where is the riverside vegetation meeting its potential?”
This data will be combined with information on the condition of in-river infrastructure to identify locations where upgrades, restoration or protection strategies will have significant positive impacts on both water users and the river’s health.
The results will be documented in an Integrated Water Management Plan for the river that will identify actions to protect existing and future water uses and support healthy river ecosystems. A committee of 20-plus local volunteers wants to make sure all of this work results in actual, on-the-ground progress. A coalition of government agencies, grant funders and nonprofits are committed to developing action and funding plans for implementation.
The Basin Roundtable is undertaking this work with guidance and financial support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. This is one of dozens of coalitions across the state developing stream or integrated water management plans as a result of goals laid out in Colorado’s water plan.
While locally lead and focused on local goals, the overarching statewide strategy is to document rivers’ ecological needs in the context of protecting current and future municipal and agricultural water use.
Nicole Seltzer is the science and policy manager for the River Network.
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This first year of the Yampa River Fund has been a whirlwind and one of great anticipation of the things to come.