Despite potential over-appropriation, there is still available water in Yampa River Basin

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District has been storing water for decades, potentially dampening the effects of over-appropriation in Routt County

All of the water in Yamcolo Reservoir near the Flat Tops Wilderness Area is used in Routt County. Seen here on May 28, the reservoir is significantly lower now and has run out of water for agricultural users. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

In Colorado, much of the water is already spoken for, and it’s been that way for years. In these over-appropriated basins, water is put under administration to ensure senior water rights holders are getting the water they are owed.

In the Yampa River Basin, water management has generally been easier than in other parts of the state, said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, in a presentation to the Board of Routt County Commissioners on Monday.

While the Yampa River from the town of Yampa to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, known as the Bear River system, has been under administration for decades, and the Elk River also routinely is put under a call, Rossi said there is still water available for people to use.

“The use is not so high that traditional water users … run out of water traditionally — until the last couple of years,” Rossi said.

Yamcolo Reservoir, which is used for agricultural purposes across the county, is out of water, Rossi said. The district was unable to fill the reservoir this year, and on average, it hasn’t been able to fill it in one of every three years.

In March, Division Engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources Erin Light petitioned the state to designate the lower part of the Yampa River as over-appropriated, meaning there is not enough water in the system to satisfy all water rights holders.

If approved by the state engineer, the designation would mean the entire basin down to Lilly Park in Moffat County would be over-appropriated, Rossi said. He expects Light’s request will be approved by the state.

“It is not going to mean anything new for someone who has an absolute water right, and they have been diverting water,” Rossi said. “When you start to consider new water development, that is where that comes into play, especially with groundwater.”

Rossi said people would still be able to apply for junior water rights diverted from the river, though the legal hoops are greater under this designation.

Where the designation will have the most effect, Rossi said, is on permits to drill a well. Generally, for parcels more than 35 acres, a new well can be permitted for as many as three single-family dwellings and can be used to water a 1-acre lawn and for domestic animals.

For those less than 35 acres, the well could only be used in a house, meaning the water could not be used for tasks like watering a lawn or washing a car.

In Routt County, the implications of this are less drastic because the county generally does not allow homes on less than 35 acres. This will have a larger affect in Moffat County, where there are thousands of 5-acre plots.

To use the water outside of the home on these smaller plots, the owner would need to provide an additional supply of water to augment their use in the river. Rossi said residents could work with the district to provide this augmentation.

While it all depends on how residents use water, Rossi estimated there are sufficient augmentation capacities for the county’s near-term use. In Moffat County, where much of the river would be newly over-appropriated, Rossi said they are still contemplating where this augmentation would come from.

“Luckily in Routt County, back in the ’60s, the voters decided to tax themselves to do things like build reservoirs,” Rossi said. “The hard work is done. The expensive work is done. The water is in storage.”

The county would likely need to use augmented water when it addresses wastewater needs in Phippsburg. Augmentation also may come into play in the search for building more housing in the county, even if a future development is close to a municipality and could be annexed in.

In an effort to bolster water supplies, Rossi said the district is considering a project that would divert Coal Creek into Yamcolo Reservoir, which would mean they would be able to fill the reservoir in 90% of years. That is happening in just 66% of years now.

Rossi asked commissioners for a letter of support for the project, which has been talked about for decades. Now, there is a clear need for this diversion, Rossi said, which could also help regulate runoff downstream and make it easier to administer water rights.

“It is not going to get us to 100%. The full spectrum of hydrology just doesn’t allow for that on the Western Slope,” Rossi said. “There will still be dry years when there is not enough water for agricultural users.”

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