Recreating on agricultural water reservoirs hampered this summer
Recreating on reservoirs or camping near a picturesque lake this summer in a time of extreme drought in Northwest Colorado may require more forethought than a glance at a map. Multiple agricultural use reservoirs in and near Routt County have already dropped to extremely low levels much earlier than in past years.
Local water officials say some key agricultural-use reservoirs, such as Stillwater Reservoir, which serves South Routt County ranchers, only filled to 34% of its acre-feet capacity this year. In other words, the reservoir started the summer as low as it normally is in the fall following the irrigation season, said Andi Schaffner, secretary for reservoir owner Bear River Reservoir Co. Schaffner, a Yampa resident, said 129-acre Stillwater has been used for agricultural irrigation since the 1940s and usually fills to at least 60% capacity.
Maximum storage capacity in Stillwater is 6,088 acre-feet of water, but this dry year, the maximum reached was 2,055 acre-feet. This week, the storage dropped to 700 acre-feet, or about 11% of capacity, Schaffner said. Normally, the reservoir ends the irrigation season at 30% to 40% capacity, Schaffner said, noting the reservoir has not experienced such low levels except in August 2002 and 1977, when it was drained for maintenance.
Hikers know Stillwater as the starting spot for the popular trail destination of the Devils Causeway in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, and the U.S. Forest Service maintains Cold Springs and Horseshoe campgrounds nearby. Yampa Ranger District officials say hiking and camping uses have not been impacted as much from drought conditions as fishing and boating.
Recreation Program Manager John Anarella at the ranger district said the concrete boat ramp at Yamcolo Reservoir, located 12 miles southwest of the town of Yampa, never officially opened this year due to low water levels. Some boaters put in at the 175-acre Yamcolo via a side access dirt road early in the summer.
“That works for a while until the water level gets so low that you are kind of backing up into muck,” Anarella said. “I’ve been here 30 years, and I can’t remember not having a boat ramp for at least a little while.”
Yamcolo Reservoir has a storage capacity of 9,621 acre-feet and currently is at 2,295 acre-feet, or approximately 24% capacity, according to Holly Kirkpatrick, public information manager at Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. With a majority agricultural use but some municipal contracts, Yamcolo is lower than normal for this time of year but has operated at low levels in prior drought years, Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick said Stagecoach Reservoir — which has a mix of agriculture, municipal, industrial and environmental uses plus an 800-kilowatt hydroelectric power plant — also is somewhat lower than normal for this time of year. The 819-acre reservoir has a capacity of 36,439 acre-feet and filled to 34,213 acre-feet earlier this year. Stagecoach dropped to the current 32,565 acre-feet, in part due to 1,500 acre-feet in releases earlier this year to assist Yampa River flows.
Schaffner also is one of eight agricultural irrigators that own the 78-acre Gardner Park Reservoir, located east of Yamcolo. Gardner Park, completed in 1908, has a normal capacity of 603 acre-feet but only filled to 400 acre-feet this dry year. The shallow reservoir may drain down to only a stream running through it by fall, something Schaffner has not seen in 30 years since the reservoir normally overwinters at 350 acre-feet.
Sheriff Reservoir located northwest of the town of Yampa, but in Rio Blanco County, is another favored spot for trout fishing, starting hikes, camping at six sites and columbine flower photography. Owned by the town of Oak Creek primarily for municipal supply, Sheriff currently is being gradually lowered at a rate of 5 cubic feet per second into Trout Creek in order to begin grant-funded repairs to the dam with timing depending on availability of contractors, said Tom Holliday, Oak Creek public works director. Sheriff Reservoir may be lowered to 40% capacity by Oct. 1.
Some public reservoirs in the region stay at more constant water levels, as they are maintained for recreational or mixed water uses. One recreational gem often busy with anglers and campers is Bear Lake, located between Stillwater and Yamcolo reservoirs. The 620-acre Bear Lake is maintained by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which also manages Pearl, Hahns Peak and Steamboat lakes in North Routt County.
Fortunately for water consumers in Steamboat Springs, Fish Creek Reservoir in the mountains east of the city traditionally stays at stable levels due to the snowy weather patterns around the reservoir, said Frank Alfone, general manager of Mount Werner Water that manages the reservoir. Alfone said the city of Steamboat Springs has a long-term land lease for the 136-acre reservoir from the U.S. Forest Service, similar to how a ski area establishes a lease for recreational skiing.
Fish Creek Reservoir is located at 9,900 feet up miles of extremely bumpy roads and thus attracts limited anglers, boaters and visitors at the small Granite Campground.
Alfone said the reservoir capacity is 4,167 acre-feet and currently is at 3,958 acre-feet, or at 95% of capacity. Water from the reservoir is released in steady, limited amounts to keep Fish Creek running at 7-9 cfs at minimum to protect the survival of fish in the creek and to ensure the intake for the Fish Creek Water Treatment Plant, Alfone said. On Tuesday, Fish Creek was running at 7.9 cfs.
“We are fortunate to fill our reservoir, but the water in the reservoir has to last us to next spring runoff. So, we encourage our customers to continue to conserve water going into the rest of the summer and into fall,” Alfone noted.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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