State again asking ranchers on the Yampa River to track their water use
575 Northwest Colorado water users were sent orders to install headgates and measuring devices
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The state is again asking water users on the Yampa River to install water infrastructure that controls and measures how much water they are using out of the river system.
Colorado uses a system of water rights that follows the doctrine of “first in time, first in right.” That means when water becomes scarce, the people who hold water rights that were claimed first have priority over people who have water rights that were claimed more recently. A call occurs when someone isn’t receiving all the water they have a right to, and when this happens, those with newer water rights must quit using water until those with older water rights are receiving all the water they are allowed.
But that rule only applies if a user is able to measure the water they use or shut off that water with a headgate — a structure that can limit how much water is being diverted. When the Yampa River went on call last year, some ranchers were required to stop using water though they had water rights that were within priority because they didn’t have measuring devices on their diversions.
Erin Light is the division engineer for the Yampa, White and North Platte River basins for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the state agency that manages water rights. Light said she’s sent orders requiring 575 water users to install headgates and measuring devices as required by Colorado law. Most of these orders went to users in the Yampa River basin, though Light estimated about 100 of them went to users in the North Platte River basin in North Park.
In March, water rights holders received notice that they would be required to install headgates and measuring devices. Light estimated fewer than 25% of the users who received notices actually installed the required infrastructure.
Now, those water rights owners have been sent an order to install these devices by Nov. 30. After that date, they’ll be required to either have devices in place or stop using their water.
“If you choose to not divert water and say ‘Fine, I only have a headgate, I’m shutting it. Again, I’m shutting it. I’m not going to put a measuring device in.’ That’s fine, as long as you don’t divert water,” Light said. “But if you have a headgate, no measuring device and choose to divert water contrary to that order after Nov. 30, next spring, May or whenever you turn on (your water), and we see that, we’re going to shut the headgate, and if necessary, we’ll lock the headgate.”
If users break the lock or open the gate, the division could pursue enforcement actions with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, Light said.
Without a headgate, users and engineers can’t shut off water. For users who divert water without a headgate, Light said the fine for diverting water contrary to the order is $500 each day water is flowing.
Colorado water rights are a “use-it or lose-it” commodity. If a person is not using all of their water right, they can lose part or all of their water right through the abandonment process. Every 10 years, division engineers are required to provide the water court with a list of water rights they believe are abandoned partially or entirely. Light’s office is working through this process now. A preliminary list will be published on July 1, 2020.
“We’re talking to people about the fact that their water right is being considered for abandonment, because we do have an initial list that we’ve developed,” Light said. “Our water commissioners are inspecting structures with water rights on the list and talking to water users, and there’s a lot of frustration (from users) about ‘How could my water right be on the abandonment list?’”
Light said some users don’t realize they can lose part of their water right, but statute says water rights can be abandoned “in whole or in part.”
Keeping accurate records can help. Light encourages water rights owners to track the water they’re using as her office works through the abandonment process. Light said water users should keep note when and at what flow they turn their diversions on or off, any time they adjust flows or anytime water levels in streams and ditches significantly fluctuate.
“Maybe they did divert their water right, but we never got a record of it,” she said. “We observe something less because we weren’t out there at peak flow, and if water users would provide us accurate records of their water use, it’s possible that some of these water rights wouldn’t be included on the list. … It’s really critical that people start taking on that responsibility to protect their water right and keep records. It’s critical in many instances, but one of them is abandonment.”
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