Community Agriculture Alliance: What is a ‘call on the river’?

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — While there still may be snow falling, it is always a good time to be thinking ahead to spring and summer water issues. Extreme soil moisture deficits and below average snowpack will result in low streamflows again this year, which tells us a call on the river is probably coming for the Yampa River for only the third time ever. So, what is a river call, and how does it work?

In the Yampa River, after the spring snowmelt peak, the reservoirs have filled as much as they can based on their allotment in the priority system, and streamflow’s start to drop. Some water rights may not have sufficient water to fulfill their court-decreed diversion amount. Water users may then start to call for their water based on the priority system of “first in time, first in right.” For example, in late July, irrigator Jane is not getting enough water to irrigate. She has decreed water rights with a 1940 priority date. Time to place a call.

1. Irrigator Jane contacts either her local ditch official or the Water Commissioner at the Colorado Division of Water Resources and says she needs to call for her water. She can only call for the amount of water provided in her water right decree and only for the amount that she can actually put to beneficial use.

2. After the Diversion of Water Resources verifies its legitimacy, he looks upstream to shut down all uses without a water right or a measuring device. Still not enough water?

3. DWR then limits all decreed upstream users to decreed amounts of diversion. If this is still not enough water to fulfill irrigator Jane’s 1940 water right, the process will continue.

4. DWR will use the priority system to look upstream from Jane’s diversion for decreed users with priority dates more recent (or “junior”) than 1940.

5. Each decreed junior water user, based on their order of priority, junior to senior, is curtailed until Jane gets enough water to fulfill her 1940 water right.

6. However, stream levels are still dropping, and now downstream municipal user Blue City does not have enough water to fulfill its 1927 water right. Blue City places a call.

7. DWR will go through the same process, reducing or shutting down all rights more recent than 1927 until Blue City’s rights are met. This may mean that irrigator Jane will have to let water flow past her headgate to fulfill Blue City’s senior downstream right.

8. If you do not comply, DWR has the legal capacity to lock your headgate, effectively shutting off your water and can impose fines.

The priority date of the river call may change each day depending on the streamflow available and the seniority of the diversions that need water on that day.

An additional consideration: Some water must be protected or “shepherded” as it flows downstream and cannot be diverted until it reaches its designated use. This could include reservoir water, transbasin diversion water, the state’s instream flow water rights or water that must be delivered under interstate compacts or U.S. Supreme Court equitable apportionment decrees. To say this is a complicated process is an understatement. But it is an important one, that all water users and the entire community understand and work together to protect water in the Yampa Valley.

Adapted from, “What Exactly is a River Call?” by Ken Beegles with the Colorado Division of Water Resources. Gena Hinkemeyer is with the Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable.

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